‘Black milk’. Corrupted goodness, an oxymoron and the famous first words of the death fughe by Paul Celan, the inspiration behind a number of works by Anselm Keifer showing at the Tullie House Museum and Gallery in Carlisle.
It’s the paradoxical nature of Keifer’s work that lingers as I think back on my visit. At the far end of the gallery the glowing Urd Werdande Skuld beckoned like a looming gateway to the underworld. The subdued lighting surrounding the exhibits gives the visitor the impression they’ve walked right beneath the vaulted ceiling depicted in this monumental work. And the themes of Keifer’s works are no less shadowy. Notions of ritual, identity and transience combine with mythology, religion and a persistent desire to confront Germany’s fascist past.
Four photographs from the Occupations series, 1969, depict a bohemian Keifer in a range of European locations. Standing alone he performs the official Nazi Seig Heil salute for the camera. It might be difficult to imagine the offence these pictures caused when first published but to an older German population this gesture amounted to picking the scab off a festering wound. Put into context, a new wave of avant-garde students were politically and artistically protesting against the widespread silence. Sometimes wearing a crocheted dress or shift, Keifer’s message was clearly one of provocation.
No ‘thing’ involved in Keifer’s art is accidental. Every material used contains a clue to the possible meaning of the work. Dust, ash, straw and clay suggest notions of impermanence, transformation, purification. Having studied briefly under Joseph Beuys, his influence can be seen in their shared fascination in ritual and alchemy. Lead, the base metal that alchemists attempted to turn to gold, is also employed ironically in the form of boats that cannot float or ‘melted’ leaden clouds.
The expressive gestures and sculptural use of materials remind us that Keifer is a postmodern artist and while his themes seem pre-occupied with events from the past they seem equally relevant to contemporary issues. Images are torn, pasted over and scribbled over producing multiple layers of metaphor and meaning. He excavates a rich seam of German mythology, philosophy and poetry to provide often ambiguous titles to his works. Frequently using the same recurring motifs, shifting from theme to disparate theme, an artist’s palette, towers, ferns, ships, fire, vaults, railway tracks, and dying sunflowers appear and re-appear. And always, within this exhibition, there is the opportunity for the viewer to see references to the last world war – in the shape of a ceiling, in the disappearing tracks, in a ploughed field, in the absence of mankind.
Tullie House is particularly proud to be exhibiting two vitrines produced in 2014, having arrived directly from the artist’s studio and showing for the first time. Constructed of steel and glass, these sealed cases contain a melancholic visual poetry that represents contrasting themes of hopelessness and resurrection. As if Keifer had finally managed to distil the message, inside The Game is Over a single iron sunflower is depicted at the point of death, its beauty long since gone. The scattered pieces of asphalt suggest conditions do not bode well. But where there is a seed there is hope for the future, and where there is a history too difficult to go unnoticed there’s an Anselm Keifer.
Sam Pickett is an artist based in Preston.
Image courtesy and © of Tullie House Museum and Gallery Trust.
ARTIST ROOMS: Anselm Kiefer, Tullie House Museum and Gallery, Carlisle.
7 February – 7 June 2015.