In 1990, only three years after the execution of the Johannis Nacht, Anselm Kiefer was awarded the Kaiserring of the city Goslar. To mark the occasion, he created a site specific installation on the medieval Mönchenhausen Museum complex with the eponymous title “Johannis Nacht”. In a former stable and three dark cellar vaults – still on view today - arose an impressive installation: the first of its kind outside of Kiefer’s studio. The four rooms deal with separate themes from Greek mythology, the Jewish Kabbalah, and vernacular Christianity. In spite of their different motifs, the works are mutually related on many levels, combining a number of themes typical of Kiefer’s oeuvre of the time.
The title Johannis Nacht, also known as St. John’s Eve or Midsummer Night, refers to the evening before and is celebrated in Germany with a ritual of both pagan and Christian significance. Bonfires and raucous festivities are part of the holiday, which was celebrated by the Druids as the marriage of heaven and earth. This particular night is known in Christianity as the birth of Saint John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ’s arrival. In the present work, Kiefer has replaced St John with a dried fern, a symbolically laden precursor for the artist. As Kiefer explained “the first trees were ferns. They are primal. Charcoal and oil are made out of ferns that existed at the beginning of life. There are many stories and folktales about plants having memories. If this is true, ferns could tell us a great deal about our beginnings. Like forests, ferns may contain secret knowledge. But they are complex in relation to Christian symbols of light. They grow in the shade. On the evening of Johannisnacht, the devil goes out into the fields and spreads fern seeds. This created a certain chaos. Ferns mind us that we also need the darkness” (Anselm Kiefer cited in: Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum, Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth, 2005, p. 90). Only certain ferns are said to flower at midnight and unfold their magic. It is said, that when gathered that same night, they will have healing powers, which can also enhance the fertility of the soil. The fern’s flower is believed to make the lucky finder omniscient, allowing him or her to read the thoughts of others, understand the language of animals, and to predict the death of a person. It was this pagan belief that lead to a ban of the collection of ferns and their seeds during Midsummer’s Night by the Synod of Ferrara in 1612.
At the time that Johannis Nacht was executed, Kiefer was beginning to come to terms with German history and his work focused increasingly on mythical and mythological themes and the present work should be seen in context with Kiefer’s alchemical or physically oriented interests, namely reuniting the fern with the material lead. Lead is among the creative materials; it is, as Kiefer coined himself, a versatile ‘spiritual substance’ that belongs to the melancholy temperament and the sphere of Saturn. By placing the fern in an astral space where it would burn forever, Kiefer reveals it as a symbol or emanation of the Divinity. Kiefer’s work is always metaphorical and seeks to be understood in its manifold references and ambivalences. His mythological explorations in the depths of the cultural memory of mankind never remain in the past, but touch us also in the present.
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