On August 29th 2016, a recommendation was presented to the International Geological Congress that a new epoch of geological time should be officially recognised. This epoch is called the Anthropocene, and it dates from the period in which human activities began to have a significant impact of the geology and ecosystems of our planet. That period is largely agreed by scientists as being some time around the 1950s, and its recognition would signify the end of the previous epoch, the Holocene, which began 11,700 years ago towards the end of the last ice age and encompasses almost the entire history of the human race. It would signify the end of an age that has seen the birth of every major civilisation, the beginning of all written and recorded history, and the rapid evolution of a species from primal hunters to self-appointed masters of the world.

It is a humbling and unsteadying thought, then, to realise that we stand now as humans not at the tip of the wave of history, bubbling up the beach onto warm sand with the memory of the roaring crest now distant even in the minds of our forebears, but at the beginning. We are far out again, dragged by the tides of time, and treading water in a cold and unfathomable ocean. Already the next swell is beginning, and the slow but inevitable surge of human action and consequence is lifting us up onto a new wave, vast and unfamiliar. The question now is whether we have the social, cultural and political poise to ride it with our heads above water – for ride it we must.

In 2014, Anselm Kiefer created an installation piece for his retrospective at the Royal Academy, entitled Ages of the World. Looming high above the head of the viewer, its upper reaches un-viewable, a precarious tower of old canvases and wooden frames is festooned with fragments of rock, soil, plant material and general detritus left over from his artistic process. On the wall adjacent, an image of the structure has been printed and labelled with names of all the many ages of planet Earth – Triassic, Mesozoic, etc. Here is an explicit expression of Kiefer’s fascination with geological time, and humanity’s narrative within it. In an interview with Jackie Wullschlager, he exclaims: “Archaikum, Mesozoikum, … I like these words! How many million years are we old? … We go back much before our birthday … German history? It starts with Archaikum.”[1] There is a clear sense here that Kiefer – a child of post-WWII Germany and a prolific figure in the late 20th-Century avant-garde – sees history not as a line, with marks drawn along the way, but as a structure with many layers, each one supporting the weight above it and relying on the foundations below.

Kiefer, Ages of the World

In the late 1960s, when Kiefer’s career began, German society was suffering from what could only be described as cultural amnesia. A devastating chasm had been left in the image-space of German culture, with huge swathes of romantic expressionist art having been re-appropriated by Hitler’s regime to stand as symbols of his fascist Blut und Boden (Blood and Soil) ideology. Here was a country whose identity has long been bound up in the historical and mythical origins of the “romantic pastoral tradition”[2], a tradition that is now inexorably linked with the most vilified political movement of modern times. Following the war, Germany experienced a crisis of national identity, and there was a great reluctance on the part of German artists to return to expressionist modes of visual representation. The global avant-garde, along with an increasingly international art market, steered itself towards conceptualism, minimalism and the written word. Painting was driven to abstraction, and there was a general refusal or inability to create anything that openly embraced, engaged with, or even acknowledged the events of the 1940s. A new layer in the great sedimentation of history was being built, yet its architects could not, or would not see what it was that they were building on.

Kiefer resented this, and made an impassioned artistic attempt to force his countrymen to address the spectre of Nazism directly. In 1969 he created a book of photographs, entitled Occupations, that mockingly depicts himself dressed as a lone Nazi officer; saluting and presuming occupation of various landmarks throughout Europe. Some accused him of fascist sympathies, and others dismissed his satire as insensitive when considering the severity of what his salutes symbolised. Few at the time recognised the true purpose of his work: to initiate a conversation. He incited debate by remaining ambiguous, and welcomed any criticism that engaged even remotely with the subject at hand.

These ambivalent discussions continued to grow in scope and implication as his creative process shifted to painting, and as his subject matter broadened to encompass a host of mythical, religious and ancient historical symbols and motifs. He has never limited himself to one process or material, and throughout the 1970s he began to incorporate straw, ash, flowers, gold leaf and other substances into his work to give more symbolic weight to his representations. He also used the written word, collaged photography, and woodcuts to reference certain figures or events from history and myth in his paintings. The temporal plane of his painted spaces was stretched, and ancient legends became allegories for modern culture. Nothing was ignored or forgotten, omnipresent was the conversation between past and present, and woven in every brush stroke was a troubling implication for the future.

Kiefer, Palette Flying

There is a reading – a painfully idealistic reading – of Kiefer’s work that suggests he is searching for transcendence: that somehow this fissure in German culture can be simply stepped over, and a genuinely new identity can be moulded from some collective acceptance and understanding. American critic Donald Kuspit suggested that painting could “lay to rest the ghosts – profound as only the monstrous can be – of German style, culture, and history, so that the people can be authentically new…They can be freed of a past identity by artistically reliving it.”[3] This suggestion, however, relies on a critical misreading or simplification of the ambiguous nature of Kiefer’s use of certain metaphors. One symbol that exemplifies this ambiguity is the palette, which can be seen to represent either the painter, or painting as a whole. In some of his works, such as Nero Paints, 1974, the palette destroys the natural landscape, burning and scarring it irreversibly. Kuspit might see this as an attempt by the painter to burn away this tainted tradition to make room for a new future, but a more ambivalent interpretation would be to say that while Kiefer may not directly blame painting for the pollution of the pastoral myth in modern German society, he is at least acknowledging the implications of its re-appropriation, and its now irrevocable connection with that tainted myth. The landscape in these paintings is claustrophobic, the horizon is overbearingly high, and the sky is reduced to a tiny sliver at the top of the canvas. There is nowhere for the palette to go: its fate is tied to the landscape.

The discussion becomes even more ambiguous when Kiefer combines the symbol of the palette with the metaphor of flight, for it is impossible to examine this metaphor without making connections with escape; with literal transcendence from the mundane world. In works such as the mixed-media book Kyffhäuser, 1981, and Palette With Wings, 1982, Kiefer’s palettes do as the latter title suggests, and become truly personified entities. Surely this is the painter’s attempt to fly out of the cultural prison in which he has found himself, and achieve a new identity for his nation?

The name of the book is a reference to the mountains under which the mythical sleeping chamber of Frederick Barbarossa is said to lie, and the legend tells that when Germany is in a time of dire need, the 12th Century emperor will emerge and restore his nation to greatness. Is the palette not this sleeping emperor, hearing now his people’s call? Towards the end of Kyffhäuser, after the palette has escaped its dank, modern, industrial confines, passed through scenes of war and chaos, and come out alive into an open scene of forest and nature, the transcendent gift of the painter seems all but granted. However, on the final page, the illusion is cruelly stripped away. The backdrop of nature is replaced by the earlier scene of war and billowing smoke, and the wings are now no more than a feeble thread. The thread is burning. Soon the palette will fall, and the naïve dream of national myth will not stand against the weight and unshakable reality of history.

Kiefer, Palette Burning

Kiefer understands that to try and unshackle humanity from the many layers of human history on which it stands, or to try and burn one of those layers away for the sake of some ideal cultural freedom, is impossible. As an artist he creates postmodern painted or sculpted spaces of intertextuality, and he creates discursive links between modern times, ancient historical times, and even mythic and biblical times. All is part of the same whole, and all must be considered as one. His subject matter has evolved as his career has progressed to explore more expansive ideas regarding the much larger narrative of geological and cosmological time – an exploration made very evident in Ages of the World – yet the presence of layers is still a crucial constant, and humanity is always present within the narrative. Whether it be layers of physical material or layers of meaning, there is a pervasive feeling of human weight and burden when looking at any piece by Kiefer. For in the towering pile of canvases, rocks, and dead sunflowers we see not just a representation of the geological ages of our planet, but also a solemn autobiography: the many ages of an artist, of a human. All of his debris, everything he is made of, is not left behind; it is piled up together and put on display.

So, as we float amongst our own debris, moving with colliding currents and waiting for the next wave in this turbulent sea of time, how are we to proceed? It would be remiss of me not to present two possible readings, as Kiefer would surely do. First, he might remind us that whilst each wave crashes with its own measure of ferocity, and each makes it own mark on the shore, each is nevertheless part of the same ocean. Passing time is documented by every ebb and flood, but a grain of sand stirred up by a wave eighty years ago might be thrust back onto the beach tomorrow morning. Indeed, there are countless discussions in the Western world surrounding the emergence of populist rhetoric and xenophobic Nationalism that closely resembles the political developments of the early 1930s, and there are those who say we are in danger of a repeat of that history. Such a grain of sand is not to be ignored. However, Kiefer might also suggest that whilst it may be the same grain of sand as eighty years ago, or even a billion years ago, it is certainly a different beach, and care must be taken to treat it as such. It is an ambiguous conclusion, certainly, but ambiguity is necessary when considering all the many significances of our history. No single interpretation can ever account for the vastness of human experience, so as we usher in this new epoch defined entirely by humanity and its actions, perhaps the most important thing to remember is Kiefer’s most human lesson: not to leave our debris behind. After all, it’s what we’re made of.

 

Footnotes

[1] Kiefer, Anselm. Interview with Anselm Kiefer, ahead of his Royal Academy Show

[2] Rampley, Matthew. In Search of Cultural History: Anselm Kiefer and the Ambivalence of Modernism

[3] Wallis, Brian. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation