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Anselm Kiefer : Ironic Sacrality                     




Saculacrum Metalepticum




Metalepsis’: taking ‘past cause for present effect’. And so an ‘absence’ is evoked… a journey in time, back in time, as what is present is a ruin or remainder or reminder of the past… but what past? A non-existent past (going back to ‘the past’ to look again at the present… but the objects in question have no past… are made to suggest their being as a trace of ‘the past’… but not of the past… and what then of the present)? What now of the present? ‘What now’?


‘The present’. As that of the objects in question? As matter perhaps; but certainly as art… So ‘not present’ (either): an illusion. Not only the object in question: as archeology (for example) unreal; as anthropology (to take another case) that of the present. Part of a ‘critical anthropology’ perhaps. Artifacts without authentic origin. Offering the illusion of a past; from which we see the future (the objects are the ‘past’s’ ‘ future’). Our present. Present as illusion. Precisely so; as art. Present only as a gift. Ritual offering. Sacred. And like all gifts, all intimations of the sacred, calling forth an obligation. An imperative. To understand and act accordingly… To understand and live accordingly. For, unlike logic, the ‘is’ of art always implies an ‘ought’… ‘What now?’.


‘The present’. As the present… Not present. Suggesting the rest (of the present) is also un-present… Not quite as it should be. Unvalued. Without enchantment nor magic nor aura. Without value…


So suggesting that it should be valued before it too becomes a ruin, or a relic.



The art of Anslem Kiefer: From 1960 and 1970s, through the means of neo-expressionism (large paintings, on occasion with text) a look at history… and guilt - a past indeed, in need, to be dealt with. From the late 1980s to the 1990s, the picture plane is added to, accreted matter, objects, semiotic textuality,, semantic texture; a concrete visualisation of a sedimented history and its relation to, and through, Nature… (aka Rauschenberg, but natural materials are employed, not the cut-up fragments of a popular culture, again it is a certain past that is being evoked, and put to the question) we are… looking at our relationship with nature, with the past, and with a growing sense of the sacred as a key proposition in the ‘argument’ of the artwork. And so to the late 1990s and 2000s: most particularly to what is to be found at La Ribaute, in the South of France: ‘sculpture’, ‘architecture’ ; ‘sacred sites’, ‘remains’ and ‘relics’. All in question: the after-glow of what once was ‘All’. The interrogative with the scent of ambrosia not quite forgotten. Enchanted antiphrasis. Ironic sacrality.


A long tradition: the artist as shaman, as prophet. Prophesying?



Elements : ‘Paintings’… forests or cathedrals or catacombs… Shrine like remains, ; totems or sacrificial remains; objects; fetishes (in the best anthropological sense of the term (not its negative colonialist, smug rationalistic, misuse); and ruins above ground, the tottering towers, and below, catacombs, a forest of pillars, of earth, as if an excavation, a discovery of the past… not one made yesterday, evoking the distant past as if discovering an ancient civilisation or wandering around the burial sites of saints in the caves or spaces, the crypts under cathedrals, with a concomitant sense of the sacred, of discovery or ancientness… (all value bestowing, accreting)… aesthetic value, and historical, an ability to learn from the past: for what end, a critique of the present, as in the aesthetics of ruins… With its three steps: representing three points of view, Heaven (the according of the rhetorical ‘last word’ to religion), Nature (ecology and time as inimical to human culture), Human (our valuing of the lesson: the lesson of valuing) - and so an affirmation of the role of the sacred in human (post-religious) life.


Figure/ground: the ruin and the enchanted wood (the sacred grove).


Things made now to look as if, to conjure up the past (the trope of prosopopoeia), the conjuring up of the past, the present of the past, the present in a future, our gaze as if from the future onto our remaining archeology, the ruins of the past, the ruins of the present in the future. What survives, as at once archeology and fake…, so an aesthetics of ruins, so both folly and prediction… warning and prophecy…


The ruin of a civilization, its surviving fragments and tottering towers. Its totems, its altars constructed (as if) by time, its ritual fragments, remaining, and their force…


Figure/ground: the ruin and the enchanted wood (the sacred grove).


Tradition: draws on the aesthetics of ruins (East and West); but as a ‘constructed’ ruin or remains. So a folly. Evoking a past lost… (but that past is today…).


So in effect a latter day ‘folly’: Modern or postmodern folly? A folly for our times, of our time, the folly of our times… mocking the present… with the achievements of the past, or appropriating the past as the past of the narrative of the present, and so justifying it? The smugness of the survivor. None of these traditional ideas of the folly apply here. Rather it is the fake, simulacrum, or other copy of ruins, that stands before us as folly; so throwing the present onto the past, so making our present looking on, looking at, as (if) from the vantage point of the future…. Looking back, on what remains… of what one day may remain… of our civilisation, and of the presence of the sacred in the world… (present in its negative aspect as in a sense of loss, melancholia, mourning – and the merciless joy of destruction).


As Anselm Kiefer also evokes the sacred in his works… asking where to find it, and what we should do with it when we find it…? Of what use if the sacred to us?


So the creation of objects and images and scenes, landscapes, suffused with force, accreted through the material, and its historical (pseudo) references… because it represents a historical past that is, or may be, (or once may have been) today. We are in mourning for the present; as we look so we prophesy our forthcoming doom…


All would be melancholy (as in Adorno) but for the question of the sacred. Once evoked, what to do with it, to be left to adorn the past (adorn, no)? Or to the criticize elements of the future, what may be forthcoming, so suggesting we look for the elements of the present that lead to disaster. Or to be used for some other purpose, guiding us to other solutions. To a redemption that involves a re-sacralisation, a re-sacralisation as the means of our salvation, involving, evoking a sacred vision, as do all redemptions, but one beyond religion, beyond belief… (after religion only the gift of making sacred remains…). And if humanity and the world were sacred perhaps we might be moved to save them.


If humanity and the world are sacred then we will be moved to save them.




‘Everything profound loves a mask’ (Nietzsche). What kind of mask? A genre mask.



Genre Masks.


Of Kiefer’s collections and follies we may well ask the question so often asked of art: ‘if it does not have a use, what use does it have?’ What is its ‘other’ use? What is ‘the other use’ that all things have?


Genre Mask; ‘Assemblage’; ‘Still Life’; ‘Sculpture’. Shrines; ‘fetishes’ – in the proper ‘objective’ non-judgmental, (so not a superior -or ‘colonialist’- posturing, deploying the rationalist negative) sense of the term, as accreted sacrality, or as focus of symbolic sacrality (ideals, holy feelings, the best of the past, its claim to memorialization, moral guide to the present, hopes for the future, the ‘good life’). As Still Lives make the collection of objects depicted into something special (read ‘sacred’) through their rendition and framing -their mis-en-scene, their means of expression and their enclosure- so the construction of such enigmatic assemblages also suggests strongly, even irresistibly (such is the force of their aesthetic charge) a locus of sacred energy or meaning (here the same thing) also framed by their space, or placing… or means of expression. If their first meaning is that of an ensemble of objects, or, as here in Kiefer, as materials, objects reduced to brute, yet transfigured materiality, if this is their first effect, then the second effect, the affect they draw from us is that of a sacred collection, of the sacred in the everyday, a first meaning that commands a second, a manifestation of the desire for the sacred. The centre, or locus, final resting place of sacred feeling. Construction of the sacred.


As in the case of the hanging work we might well call ‘The Golden Fleece’, it is a case of something made from one thing (or things) but looking (or suggesting) something else… Exactly like the stones, used in Chinese traditional gardens – and with some similarities in effect. Again, as in other examples, other art works, this technique is the most effective, in the effects of the contrast of the materials - and in the control (or creation) of meaning. A contrast that may be read as A^~A, A and not-A, together, a contradiction usually avoided as a logical necessity (although one with limits regarding its use in natural, as opposed to artificial, language) but one which in literature and meaning gives us irony, ‘antiphrasis’, a clash of meanings productive of complexity or able to represent the complexity of the real world and real feelings, of human perceptions, conflicts and loyalties. A world of emotions and contradictions. A world held in partial aesthetic resolve in art (and perhaps in art only). As irony appears to govern history (a human understanding of human life), so its balanced tension appears to inspire the apprehension of sacred feeling in, or through art.


Genre Masks: ‘Landscapes’ (Paintings) on canvases: as two dimensional art, painting, and the accretion of matter. A continuation of the art of the ‘80s and ‘90s. On a vast scale; the sublime as the bringing down of the sky and the stars, the capture of the forest, on a ‘life-size’ canvas…


Genre Masks: ‘Landscapes’ (Actual I). ‘Land Art’. Underground landscapes. Tunnels: Dromos, the pathway to the dead, to the place of the dead, to the after-life… the passage to the crypt, to the place of storage of the bones of the saint beneath the altar, the grave beneath the alter, the place of the funeral feast, ritual of remembrance… to the underground place of ritual (ritual marriage as in the myth of Persephone and Demeter, and Pluto… or, older still, the myth of Isis and Osiris, the Earth Mother and her Lover, the ritual as renewal and identity, communion, as link to the Otherworld and its deities, and renewal of life as of self and community…). Myth of renewal. Caves of early mankind’s ritual and their art, born of ritual (as our theatre, tragedy and comedy is born of ritual). Caverns and catacombs (the underground cities of Turkey) place of hiding and survival, or things living on after the surface life or environment has moved on, or vanished, or been destroyed… what survives here? Tunneling to find the sacred…


The pillars of the underground cathedral, the underground petrified forest (the sacred grove).


Genre Mask: Landscapes (Actual II). Monumental Sculpture (‘landscaping’). Towers. Ruins built as such: Follies. The fake ruin as barely disguised alarm call, as a wake-up call we have set ourselves. A small corner of our aesthetic consciousness we have set aside for prophecy, for foreboding. Set in a real background (a ‘Real Landscape’). Figure/ground.


Figure/ground: the ruin and the enchanted wood (the sacred grove).


Exterior landscapes are also always interior landscapes. Landscape as objective matter, object of vision, is always apprehended as subjective feeling… the vision inspired by, or incarnated in, an object. So interior landscapes of … the aesthetics of ruins… a critique of the arrogance of Will and Achievement by Heaven and by Nature (allied as one, or opposed, with Nature as radical entropy) destroyed by Good, with the remainder (ourselves) spared as an act of heavenly Mercy, or by Evil, by Nature as inimical to all human effort, to all Culture (that would be, would mistake itself for, Nature).


Figure/ground: the ruin and the enchanted wood (the sacred grove).


So it is that even in ruins we search for the sacred, our desire for the sacred manifests itself even in the vision of our fall, but exceeding the usual answers; an excess that is the desire for value, the desire to make value, to give value… to give value our world and ourselves… to value our world and ourselves.



And by which signs and portents will we know when we have touched this blessed state?


…when the smoke we smell is that of the scented wood of symbolic sacrifice, the burnt offerings of the hearth - and not the acrid smoke of burning cities…


And when the tears that fall, fall not in the exultation of destruction, nor in the terror of death, nor in the tears of mourning for the lost, but in the relief and joy that comes when we realize that we too can live in the sacred grove that we have tended ourselves.






Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2014