Kiefer’s work in its mythopoetic metaphors for transmutation, or transformation resonates clearly here and now, no small thing in the depths of the anthropocene. Much of his art constitutes the most epic mea culpa in art ever created, with alchemy, that great metaphor of inner transformation which has recently in some ways, through nanotechnology been proven in science on the material plane. This transformation in alchemy is referred to as “The Great Work” or chryopoeia.
Born 3 months before the end of WW2, in germany, this is an artist on a mission of historical redemption utilizing alchemy as a poetic metaphor of transformation.
The first 3 massive glass enclosures encountered to the right upon entering the Hall Foundation’s Installation of Kiefer’s work, contain remnants of life in the form of empty worn garments, evocative of loss and the remnants of those lost in the holocaust. The first case contains a plaster white dress with the Kabbalah tree ascending as the etherial chakras do, to the tree of life in jewish mysticism. The shards of glass at the hem of the white dress and violating it throughout are reminder's of kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
The forest has long been a subject and container of content for Kiefer. Here the forest is made of trees consisting of black chalk, the ground scattered with skeins of pale dried twigs curving into themselves on long tendrils holding snake skins and pulled teeth.
The leftover product of the phoenix rising in alchemy is black ash. These trees are columns of that substance vertically ascended.
The next installation is a group of 30 beds with lead covers.
Lead makes its appearance abundant in Kiefer’s work. This most dense and most heavy of elements, associated with Saturn and Chronos, which signifies the limitations of time or perhaps even history, is transformed in alchemy to gold which parallels how manure makes plants grow on the material plane. So, rather than rest in these beds, there is heaviness, or are these sites of transformation made more labor intensive by the sheer quantities of this heaviness. In science it is actually possible to shrink these elements, including rust with nanotechnology to transform lead into gold, with very small quantities resulting. (2)
In recent years Kiefer’s studios have been mostly in France, and it is this location that features in the installation “The Women of the Revolution,” which looks very much like a morgue during wartime, or this is what I was told by one who is a war veteran who was in a combat hospital. The initial sensation of death and hopelessness is mitigated by the beauty of the materials and how they interact on each bed surface. On each surface is an oval, many of them ringed by remnants of their evaporation. Is this the cosmic egg of Indian mythology? Or the egg of the Phoenix? (1)
When I first saw the installation I thought of connections with WW2 Germany, until I noticed names of women associated with French culture and history during times of the French revolution. Are the ovals embedded here a still birth of the principles of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” which were the main principles of France’s First Republic?
The bright orange, ringed with yellow surrounded by ringed remnants of gold, also makes an appearance in the painting vault.
In an interior sense gold speaks of the ascension to the top chakra, in realms that have been experienced as that color, 3 chakras above the top skull chakra of (lavender) which merges with divine wholeness.
Rust also, through nano technology, can be transformed to gold. (2a) In metaphoric alchemy it is a corrosive part of the necessary process, allowing old values and concepts to transform into deeper truths. Some of the more golden shade shown here evoke the sun, used as a symbol of opposition to the moon in metaphoric alchemy.
In the painting vault, the first sensation is an overwhelming aroma of oil paint. The palette is golden rust, rich black chalk and white, corresponding to the 3 principals in alchemy of sulphur mercury and salt. These are oceans burnt almost beyond recognition and yet the surface lives. The boats of war are all that is left that is recognizable, held up by wires over the surfaces, which roil and churn in infinite variety.
A side note to this is a comparison of metaphors, the connection in spirit and matter, in Teutonic mythology as yggdrasil in African mythology as the ocean.
Kiefer works with his materials poetically in that they are multifaceted in meaning, and so I presume to interpret all this broken concrete as a metaphor for the over dense materiality of our age, when spiritual matters are treated with disdain when they are in fact of primary importance, which results in brokenness. My immediate response to the concrete waves of “Narrow Are the Vessels” is as a warning of a spiritual process made overly material. What a mess. In medieval times, stone, sometimes said to be lapus lazuli, which is the color of Heaven, or immortality, named the Philosopher’s Stone is the goal of alchemy. These are useful as metaphors and harmful taken too literally.
Kiefer’s prominence of materials in his practice in the multifaceted poetics of his work are seen here as a warning shot about taking metaphors too literally. In the world of the spirit, this seldom works.
These works are all inspired by poetry which is detailed in the materials that come with the exhibition. I did not read these until after taking in the show without the notes, which is generally how I like to encounter art. My take is intuitive and poetic. The poetry of this work has transcended it’s sources to create its own poetry. This artist’s great gift is the forming of materials that emphasize what they are, at the same time speaking poetically on their own terms. This mythopoetic articulation provides contemplation of the lack of love, losses and failed transformations of our age.
(1- a &b) Science News University of Georgia, Jessica Luton, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160915132444.htm
(2) Mary Jo Magar https://www.boutique-of-arts.com/the-alchemical-phoenix/