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Kiefer’s Other Land

The German artist’s new show, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem,’ tackles the Bible, Kabbalah, and the Passover Seder

Jeannie Rosenfeld
November 24, 2010
Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba, 2010. Airplane fuselage, photographs, lead, and oil, emulsion, acryclic, shellac, clay on canvas in inscribed glass and steel vitrine. 126 x 220 1/2 x 90 5/8 inches.(Copyright Anselm Kiefer. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Charles Duprat.)
Anselm Kiefer, Merkaba, 2010. Airplane fuselage, photographs, lead, and oil, emulsion, acryclic, shellac, clay on canvas in inscribed glass and steel vitrine. 126 x 220 1/2 x 90 5/8 inches.(Copyright Anselm Kiefer. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Photography by Charles Duprat.)

If geography is indeed destiny, then the German Neo-Expressionist Anselm Kiefer could be deemed the saying’s poster child. Many accounts of his work begin with the simple facts of his birth: Donauschingen, Germany; March 1945. And it’s perhaps only fitting: Over the past four decades, Kiefer has quite possibly done more than any other artist to confront his native country’s troubled history—and its implications for humanity in the post-Holocaust world.

This unwavering concern, expressed in vigorous, heavily textured mixed-media paintings, sculptures, and installations, comes to a head in a monumental exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea through December 18th—Kiefer’s first in New York since 2002. It is a stunning presentation on many levels, not least sheer scale. As the gallery’s Georges Armaos notes, “It’s very rare that we break down the walls,” referring to the 12,000-square foot space cleared to accommodate a 100-ton installation, 15 massive landscapes, and 25 glass-and-steel vitrines, some more than 20 feet high, encasing sculptures that allude to the Bible, Kabbalah, alchemy, literature, and Greek mythology.

Also unusual is the sight of the concluding words from the Passover Seder—“Next Year in Jerusalem”/“Le-shanah ha-ba-a b’yerushalayim”— Kiefer’s title for the show—scrawled at the entrance to one of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries. Despite a longstanding fascination with Jewish mysticism and an interest in the Hebrew Bible that dates back to a 1984 trip to Israel for a solo exhibition there, Kiefer’s thoroughgoing and direct treatment of Jewish themes (expounded in an eight-page glossary the gallery created to help visitors navigate the labyrinth) commands attention in this setting. It seems that his non-Jewish status and approach—hardly subtle yet never literal and always a touch ironic—enables him to bypass claims of sensationalism and kitsch that often afflict religious and Holocaust art.

Yet Kiefer’s engagement with history is highly personal and hardly without controversy, as becomes clear in the exhibition’s imposing centerpiece, Occupations, which reconstitutes the series of photographs from 1969 in which he performed the Nazi salute in front of significant European sites. Here, 76 new prints are blown up, mounted on lead and then burlap and hung in crammed rows within a partially enclosed steel container that the New York Times’s Roberta Smith astutely compared with “box cars, crematoria, barracks or meat lockers.”

But it isn’t so straightforward. It’s more like an enormous time capsule that the mature artist has unearthed, one that suggests a fragile book or archive of blurred images, only glimpses of which are revealed through slightly open doors. Greeting visitors as they enter, the only head-on image of Kiefer in his provocative pose is framed by heavy doors that seem to be closing. The artist is boldly inviting us to visit, drawing us in to examine these faded pages, while obstructing our view and in fact denying entry, reminding us that, 40 years later, we can barely make things out, though we cannot escape or ignore the past.

The brooding paintings that hang on the walls may, by comparison, initially appear to be alluring landscapes, but they too embroil viewers in a complex dialectic. Caked with paint and incorporating collaged photographs as well as organic elements like ash, lead, and thorn bushes, these overgrown vistas bring their tangled imagery—like the history and memory they represent—to the surface, revealing a tension between nature and art, devastation and regeneration. “Ruins for me are the beginning,” Kiefer said during an event at the Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y earlier this month.

Particularly dense and encased in steel-and-glass frames that bring them even more into the third dimension are a set of six multipanel canvases depicting the forest—a central motif in Kiefer’s oeuvre that captures both the milieu of his childhood and its iconic, often ominous, status in German nationalism, Romanticism, and folklore, not to mention the woods where Nazi victims hid, revolted, and were massacred. Along with somewhat more traditional canvases depicting biblical and mythological sites and spirits, these landscapes—reflected in the glass boxes of the fully three-dimensional sculptures scattered throughout the gallery—create a sort of forest, enveloping visitors in the philosopher-artist’s maze of ideas. The vitrines share the paintings’ intense materiality—manifest in cracked floors, shards of glass and clay, weathered metals, and heaps of ink-stained sackcloth—and continue Kiefer’s exploration of the cyclical nature of destruction and renewal.

Some do this by taking on inherently dichotomous subjects. For example, Ararat, featuring nine lead boats suspended on wire, refers to the mountain on the Turkish-Armenian border where Noah’s ark is thought to have docked following the flood meant to obliterate humanity. Similarly Das rote Meer (The Red Sea), a small zinc basin filled with rusty water, at once alludes to the Israelites who miraculously crossed to freedom and the Egyptians who were swallowed by the water.

Other works approach the central theme from a metaphysical standpoint, incorporating kabbalistic principles like the 10 sefirot, or attributes of God, represented by numbered glass discs intricately arranged on wire upon a base of three burnt books, and Merkaba, in which airplane fuselage assumes the role of the godly chariot that operates between heaven and earth. Mortal encounters with God are also prevalent, as in two versions of Jacob’s dream, visualizing the ladder angels ascended as the patriarch rested upon a stone for the night, and a depiction of the burning bush that wasn’t consumed, named for the words God spoke when he summoned Moses there, “I am that I am.”

To some critics, it is all a bit manipulative and heavy-handed, the esoteric nature of the works undermined by the artist’s inscription of his titles on the glass cases and the gallery’s detailed glossary. There is some truth to this, and a few works come across as simplistic, but the overall effect is quite powerful. Where appropriation of almost sacred imagery might be of questionable taste—for example the stained, battered clothing in Lilith and Liliths Tochter (Lilith’s Daughter) reminiscent of garments stripped from and worn by concentration camp victims—Kiefer’s treatment of these symbols is more mournful than exploitative.

If anything, Kiefer challenges Germany’s response to the atrocities, though his refusal to negate national heritage in the name of collective guilt has also brought him detractors. As he said in a 2008 speech reprinted in the exhibition catalog, “The wounds were not bandaged; they were shamefully hidden instead.” Contrasting that with the Hasidic legend that every child in its mother’s womb is taught the entire Torah only to be tapped by an angel before it is born so that it forgets everything and enters the world “as what appears to be an empty vessel able to fill itself anew,” Kiefer concludes that Germany’s Stunde Null (the so-called Zero Hour when the Nazi government capitulated) was an infinitely inferior state of renewal.

In both cases, he suggests with his words and work, “the lower layers of the palimpsest become visible once again,” the difference being human agency in filling that space, building upon the debris. Indeed, however hopeful, the title of Kiefer’s latest show reflects an ongoing struggle; the very utterance of this prayer acknowledges that while our ancestors experienced the exodus, we find ourselves in exile again, yearning once more for redemption.

Jeannie Rosenfeld, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes about fine and decorative art.

Jeannie Rosenfeld, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes about fine and decorative art.

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