December 3, 2006

Anselm Kiefer's Inhabitable Earth

Anselm Kiefer left his home country in 1993. His showing of new work closed out its stay in Paris yesterday. Titled "Fur Paul Celan," and thus devoted to another artist who carried a German "language" to exile in Paris, Kiefer's new collection is described as drawing from the cosmological and the kabbalistic, weaving the mythological with his signature textures.

The centerpiece is an installation. A leaden boat, piled with concrete tablets, or slabs without writing. Where can this boat travel carrying such weight? It belongs to the waters' bottom, calcified, a petrified remainder of an idea, hope, or gesture. Is its descent doomed further by its cargo, or the inability to bear the burden of what it tries to ferry into meaning?

Celan's drowning in the Seine, surely.

"Dysposition, I know
your knives swarming like

closer to the wind than I
nobody sailed,

nobody more than I
was cut by the hail squall
to the seaclear knived

--Paul Celan, "Dysposition"
(trans. Pierre Joris)

Born in Germany, 1945, what kind of cultural wreckage has Kiefer come to recognize as a condition through which he continually passes? "I am not only German," he said when leaving for France. To turn to Celan again, however, surely this is an admission that one never escapes into exile. Something is written into us. Put another way: the nightmare of history is not something from which one escapes, or wakes. How is the nightmare read, though, in the lucidity of creation? The risk of seeing clearly the sea-clarity of an always retreating horizon?

Kiefer's cosmological focus, with its associations of fire and heat and stars distant and figures lost, brings an initial comfort. It is, nevertheless, only a signal of retreat. The same sensation takes on a different quality when the distance is not cosmological but historical--and so he builds books that look like books burnt and unearthed, tokens of some unimaginable before. They are remote and alluring at once. Still and inscrutable they show in their density and weight what remains to be read.

Adjacent to the wrecked-ship for Celan is one of those recognizable figures of a book, this one ashen and blooming. Something wrought and weighty sprouts out of the disaster. The pages decompose into the earth and the soil is "enriched by all this," as Celan once said of the German language and its long, dark passage into "deathbringing speech."

The current "Heaven and Earth" show at San Francisco's MOMA gathers some of those vast wintry landscapes that carry forward Celan's words and places them within a long, representative collection of Kiefer's creations. They are tied thematically and insistently to his current work. He is still underway to some memorial understanding. Describing those older paintings are easy enough since they have all but written their description themselves: furrowed, broken, caked and crackled. Death frozen there. No regeneration in the embedded stalks, cut off at the neck. It is not the case that Kiefer is in any way locked there, retracing the same landscapes, even as Celan returns to over-write his work. Nor is it that he escaped the need to unearth what the earth has absorbed, "enriched by all this." It is an impossible, possibly crushing and sinking burden of reading what cannot be read. One must get closer and closer to it and still it retreats.

The layering of the text onto the earthen images brings the sense of distance and travel back to us. Instead of the celestial and the textual, the quick of ideas that claim the infinite, that think infinity, the distance traversed comes to feel much more like bare feet beating down on frozen ground. That connection with distance and history and the return of what we strain to read into completion and mourning may be ephemeral and receding, but for an instant, like a single line from a broken poem, scrawled in haste, it is there.

"Imagine: your
own hand
has held once
more this
into life re-
piece of
inhabitable earth.

that came toward me,
awake to the name, awake to the hand,
from what cannot be buried."

--Paul Celan, "Denk dir"
(trans. Pierre Joris)