In 1969 the German artist Anselm Kiefer compiled a book, Unfruchtbare Landschaften that brought together two disparate elements: landscapes and the pages of a medical textbook dealing with contraception. Placing the IUDs out of context on top of the landscapes seemed to imply sterility. Wrenched from their purpose and context these now alien objects brought with them not only traces of their own history but took on new metaphorical meanings. The beauty of the gesture of these juxtapositions lay in the attempt to say something beyond language.
Kiefer is one of the most significant and serious artists of the post war generation. Born in Donaueschinger in South Germany in 1945, in 1966 he left his law studies at the University of Freiburg to study art. A student of Joseph Beuys in the early 1970s he began to explore the fraught territory of German history and identity in a muscular visual language. His paintings, oversized books and performance art draw from literature, art and music, philosophy and folklore. Borrowing from Teutonic myth he has conducted investigations into the recent past, particularly the era of the Third Reich, exploring a post Nietzschian desire to establish meaning in a brutal Godless world. His painted landscapes of the ploughed and rutted German countryside, incorporating straw, ash, clay, lead and shellac, have become metaphors for the tragedy of recent European history. Engaged in an endless interrogation of the devastation and horror that his country wrought, he implies that the tragedy was a product of Germany's intellectual and cultural heritage, a view endorsed in Michael Haneke's superb yet disturbing film, The White Ribbon, based on life in pre-first world war Germany.
Kiefer has been accused of being that which he criticises: monumental, aggrandising, grand, even bombastic but to read his work in this way is to fail completely to understand that to enter the heart of darkness is not to embrace its legacy. As a student in the late 1960s he travelled round France, Switzerland and Italy where he was photographed giving the Nazi salute outside prominent buildings. His degree show, Bezetzung (Occupations), provoked both incomprehension and anger for daring to confront the taboos that had disfigured Europe.
Characterised by a monochromatic palette, stressed, depressive surfaces and monumental formats Kiefer's explorations can be interpreted as a form of archaeological excavation. He digs deep into the collective unconscious of a nation, into the sub strata of fears that have all too often been concealed, as in his great painting Margarethe (oil and straw on canvas) inspired by Paul Celan's extraordinary poem Todesfuge (Death Fugue), which highlights the fate of the blonde Aryan Margarethe and the dark-haired Semitic Shulamith. Poetry, along with the language of alchemy, the Hebrew Kabbalah and Egyptian history, has been a central catalyst.
Now Kiefer has a new show at White Cube, London and there is an uncanny synchronicity about the images. The turbulent waves and apocalyptic mass of water seem horribly familiar to those who recently watched the unfolding horror of the Japanese tsunami on their TV screens. The title Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love), taken from a play by the nineteenth-century Austrian writer and poet Franz Grilparzer, re-tells the Greek myth of Hero and her lover, Leander, who swam the Hellespont for nightly trysts, before eventually drowning. It is a tale that has inspired writers and artists from Marlowe and Keats to Rubens and Turner, but for Kiefer the meaning is somewhat elusive. The vastness and ubiquity of the ocean seems to suggest not only timelessness but an inchoate element in which man is searching for meaning.
Twenty-four panoramic seascapes have been hung three deep like an ancient frieze on the walls of the main gallery. The huge scale evokes the sublimity of the ocean; the subject of many paintings such as Théodore Géricault's Raft of Medusa, where human life is shown abandoned to its fate on a sea that is both terrifying, as well as a thing of great beauty. For Kiefer the ocean suggests a primal, amniotic, pre-linguistic space, something without beginning or end, where time and space take on cosmological and existential meanings familiar from quantum physics. Based on photographs - which have been subjected to various forms of transformation, including electrolysis - each work is an attempt at a moment of fixity in the continuous flux of the ocean. Gynaecological instruments superimposed on the surface of the works disrupt traditional Romantic readings and imply a desire for human intervention in the timeless cycles of birth and death.
Many of the works include hand written texts, often the title of the poem scrawled like a repeated mantra across the surface. Kiefer has said that poems are "like buoys on the high seas. I swim from one to another, and with them I would be lost in the middle of the ocean. Poems are moorings in the infinite void where something emerges from the accumulation of interstellar dust: a bit of matter in an abyss of anti-matter." His oceans are infinite spaces where numerous meanings intersect. Elsewhere sketchbooks have been laid out in glass vitrines. Covered in Euclidean geometrical forms, like the workings of some desperate alchemist, they seem to be attempting to impose meaning on what is random and chaotic.
Upstairs is a separate but connected series of small scale works that takes its title I hold all the Indias in my hand from the seventeenth-century poet Spanish poet Fransisco de Quevedo, in which the poet writes of a man holding a ring that contains the portrait of his lover. Here Kiefer places himself centre stage and can be seen a lone bobbing figure cast adrift in a vast expanse of ocean as if liberated from any moral or spiritual limits. It is as if he is literally 'at sea', the centre of his own perceived universe, but of little more importance than a single atom or a grain of sand. Borders have been swept away leaving only an eternal void. In the most poignant work we see his arm disappearing below the surface of the waves as if in a final supplication.
In The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin explored how artistic reproduction simulates industrial production. The fabricated work of art does not merely mimic the mass-produced object but actually becomes a commercial product whose worth resides in its exchange value as in Warhol's silk-screened photographs or Damien Hirst's multi-editions of spot paintings. Here all is surface and no depth. There are no shadows, no darkness; meaning is contained in commercial power rather than in metaphorical depth.
Kiefer has said that: "in all the pictures in my mind, not even the most expert analyst could discover anything like a general idea or the God of living things. And without that, there is nothing." He has been criticised for being theatrical - and it is a dangerous line that he walks - for there is always the possibility of falling into bombast and bathos. Yet in this increasingly frightening and unfettered world we need artists like Kiefer; artists with a seriousness of intent and vision who dare to look at the dark undercurrents of the human psyche, who are prepared to face what is tragic rather than endlessly celebrating what is glib, slick and ephemeral. In his essay Reframing Postmodernisms (1) Mark C. Taylor argues that abstraction in art, following Greenberg's dictates on painterly purity, gradually became empty formalism, which through Pop art and other commercialised movements lead to 'the death of God', or to put it in a more secular way, the erasure of the Sublime from art. It is this territory that Kiefer investigates. Yet it is as if, in this postmodern, ironic world, we are all too often embarrassed by his earnestness.
Anselm Kiefer Des Meeres Und Der Liebe Wellen at White Cube from 11 March to 8 April 2011