Monday, February 1, 2016

Anselm Kiefer. L'Alchimie du Livre

Anselm Kiefer, Der Verlorene Buchstabe, 2012

Books are everything. In this small exhibition organized to coincide with the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, Kiefer is given carte blanche to show us his books, and to show us what books mean to him. Books are not always made to be read in Kiefer’s world. Books in this exhibition are notebooks, sketchbooks, the painter’s tomb, objects of contemplation, attached to paintings as celestial revelations, they are objects and images.

Anselm Kiefer, Praxilla, 2004, Sappho, 2008, Erinna, 2006
Kiefer’s books come in all the wrong sizes - they are usually massive, and if they are not, they are often burnt, rusted, decayed or degenerate. They are placed in vitrines, as heads of women, upright, supine, open, closed, with and without tales to tell. Their stories unfold the narratives of German memory, German violence, the Kabbalistic rituals of Germany’s Jews, philosophical discourses on German history. The also function as archives for Kiefer’s thoughts, his dreams and his regrets. They are archived, burnt, rusted, and caked in plaster, dirt, strewn with hair, leaves, watercolours and photographs. Books are made of lead, mercury, sprinkled with salt, gold and silver. They lend their letters to a typewriter before it plummets into disuse, or is put in a vitrine for contemplation by a middle-class audience. None of these books can be read. A least not in the way that we usually think of reading. In fact, we are warned not to touch them, to stay away, their pages opened at a page that we have not decided.
Anselm Kiefer, Nigredo (détail), 1998 – Plomb, acier, fil métallique, huile, sel, plâtre, résine, acrylique et pastel 320 x 160 x 100 cm © Anselm Kiefer – Photo © Ben Westoby – Courtesy White Cube
Anselm Kiefer, Nigredo, 1998. (detail)
Books are at one with nature, they are the supports for catastrophe and purification, and in their most glorious turn, Kiefer;’s books are the fuel and evidence of alchemical transformation. Gold is their equivalent, even or especially when they are made of lead, mercury, salt and sulphur. They are as rarely written in as they are read. But we see inside Kiefer’s mind, his complex thinking through of impossible equations, his guilt, his exploration of a past that he re-enacts because he was not there.

Anselm Kiefer, Das Buch, 2007 (detail)

The books capture all of the concerns that we saw elaborated on in the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. The pages in the books in this small, but rich exhibition, tell of the artist’s lifelong search to make sense of German history, through legends and memories, the cosmology, the earth, the Kabbalah, poetry and philosophy. Still, for me, the most powerful of the works her exhibited--here as well as at the Pompidou--is that which integrates the book into an immense sea, as a landscape of infinite reach. The book is in lead, of course, Kiefer’s signature material, and it both floats on the sea and is the ultimate prize of the superhuman who can walk across the sea as a landscape. The book is the symbol of knowledge and spiritual elevation, the prize for the lifelong pursuit of understanding, carried across the oceans by the enthral of their waves, never losing its preciousness to their power. Because the book is made of lead, it will sink, probably, before we can get to it. As humans we try for a lifetime to cross the dense, turbulent seas to which the book is attached and on which it floats. I imagine, it is always out of reach, even as it is the inspiration to keep moving.

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