A dazzling panorama spanning three metres in width, Walfisch is a rare combination of two of Kiefer’s most striking leitmotifs: the gunboat and celestial constellations. The work encapsulates the artist’s unyielding examination of the human condition through the lens of German national history, and sees the artist elevate his scope of enquiry onto the celestial stage, under the limelight of glimmering stars.
Kiefer began experimenting with star-charts from the 1990s, drawing inspiration from seventeenth-century philosopher and alchemist Robert Fludd, who argued that every plant was connected to a star in the universe. The artist’s ensuing series, Secret Life of Plants, which he began in 2001, juxtaposed specimens of flora against canvases depicting constellations. As the vegetation’s branches stretched over the canvases, they traced the lines linking different stars, highlighting the inseparable link between terrestrial nature and heavenly order.
In Walfisch, the map of constellations morphs into a metaphysical representation of the inner human mind. “Heaven is an idea… not a physical construction,” Kiefer declared (Anselm Kiefer in conversation with Michael Auping, in: Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Fort Worth Museum of Art, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, 2005, p. 168). The warship is a recurrent symbol in Kiefer’s work of destruction, warfare and loss of human lives, and is often used to evoke Germany’s tortured history. In the present work, the ship takes on a new cosmic significance as it sails the sea of stars, recalling the famous space-faring vessels of science fiction. This allusion to extraterrestrial exploration is, however, tinged with irony. Not only does the ship’s militaristic history recall the Nazi regime’s visions of world conquest, its visible cracks and signs of decay further imply its impotence and utter unsuitability to the task.
For the post-Auschwitz world where, according to Adorno, even writing poetry is considered a barbarous act, Kiefer postulates how we might habour hope without neglecting the darkness of the past, arguing “there is always hope, but that must be combined with irony and, more important, skepticism" (Ibid., p. 27). Like the artist, the ship in Walfisch navigates the universe with a reserved optimism, the scars on its hull being visible reminders of Germany’s traumatic history. The sea of stars keeps the battered ship afloat and guides it along its course, a poetic metaphor for how we must also carry in our minds the weight of history, and draw on it to guide us as we journey through the present and the future.
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