Works exhibited: Velimir Chlebnikov: Seeschlachten Zeit, Mass der Welt, Fur Chlebnikov, Anythe, Erinna, Moiro, Myrtis, Telesilla.
Anselm Kiefer is a builder of systems: a painter and sculptor whose work has shown a fascination with traditions of thought, with litanies of divine and heroic figures, supernatural genealogies, star charts, the names and agencies of classical and Germanic mythology, the stratified levels being dreamed of in the Kabbala — all reflecting the limits of human understanding and intimating a knowledge of the world that must always remain ambiguous, cryptic, oracular.
Given these preoccupations, Kiefer’s fascination with the figure of Velimir Khlebnikov seems inevitable. The Russian ‘Futurian’ is best known as an experimental poet, but his work includes various writings that elaborate several theories about the structure of the universe and the laws of time.
Of all the texts that comprise Khlebnikov’s strange oeuvre, the ‘Tables of Destiny’ have held the strongest appeal for Kiefer. They represent Khlebnikov’s attempt to understand history as a system of correspondences, as a series of mutually defining events that echo one another across different measures of time.
The periodicity may vary enormously but, according to Khlebnikov, it always reveals the operation of the same mathematical proportions: "opposed events — victory and defeat, beginning and end — are united in terms of powers of three (3n)." This precision was, of course, absurd — Kiefer himself has referred to it as Dadaist.
The central paradox of the entire system, and of the obsessive rigour with which the theory was applied, lies in the non scientific basis of its inspiration, in the form of an overwhelming desire to control the movement of history. Khlebnikov’s initial motivation was a highly personal response to Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War: "I wanted to discover the reason for all those deaths."
Kiefer’s fascination with the rational arises naturally from the chronic responsiveness of his work to the pressures of history. Kiefer goes much further than most contemporary artists in his use of a spatial medium to capture the experience of time. He is less interested in the simple effectiveness of attempts to freeze the movement of time, or to accentuate its passing, than in the less immediate, but more far reaching drama involved in trying to evoke the relations of past, present, and future in a two dimensional plane.
Thematically, his oeuvre has branched out constantly to incorporate speculations about the mythologies and traditions of thought of various separate cultures, but the different series of paintings and sculptures that have been generated in this process all coalesce in mood and in conceptual structure, in their common anxiety about the origins of specific historical episodes and the ends that they seem to imply.
If Kiefer is haunted by the past, he is equally haunted by the future, by the subterranean continuities of thought and feeling that transform a decisive military defeat — or victory — into a means of discomposing the balance of power, in a way that projects a desire for closure into the future simultaneously with a fear that closure will never occur.
All of the works in the Fur Chlebnikow series are dominated by the iconography of the sea battle, and this decision to concentrate on the history of naval conflicts has decisive repercussions for the viewer’s understanding of Kiefer’s engagement with Khlebnikov’s ideas. From Homer onwards, literate culture in Europe has recognised the sea as the most appropriate emblem for everything that is most difficult to control in the human sphere. The sea’s capacity for sudden and complete transformation, its very fluidity, is what renders it a particularly apt symbol for history as lacking any order or pattern, as unmanageable, as something that always eludes the grasp.
Kiefer’s ironic use of Khlebnikov’s predictive models reflects his conviction that history can never be programmed or given a fixed form. Only a few of Kiefer’s ships are overturned or foundering on shoals, but there is an almost uniform sense of futility in the isolation of these vessels amid worsening weather conditions.
The method of display at the original Khlebnikov show at White Cube in 2005 joined together individual canvases in a single rectangular tableau, giving the impression of multidirectional passages, of ships wandering aimlessly, of voyaging without navigation; in a post Ilium world of suspended destinations, of open seas crowded with echoes of the Flying Dutchman, or the ocean of Solaris filling up with the contents of a nightmare. This post diluvian projection is the reverse of a history that can be sounded, mapped, and steered through.
The more recent works by Kiefer shown in public as a group for the first time during Sculpture in the Close relate closely to the Women of Antiquity series begun in 2000. Kiefer is less concerned here with cryptic theories of history than with history’s elisions. Four of the five figures represented by the group of resin sculptures are female poets of antiquity whose work has either been lost entirely or survives only in a few meagre fragments.
The most well known is Anyte, an Arcadian poetess of the 3rd century BC, whose work, notable for its celebration of wild nature, is preserved in the Greek Anthology. Erinna, a 4th century BC poet from Telos, now represented only in a few quotations, died at the age of 19, famously lamenting the death of her beloved Baucis. Myrtis, a Boeotian poet of the late 6th century BC, was condemned for competing with Pindar, although she is credited with being his teacher. None of her work survives. Telesilla was an Argive poet of the 5th century BC. Although a lyric metre was named after her, very little of her work has outlived her; she is best known for arming the women of Argos after their men had been defeated by the Spartans. Kiefer gives her the attribute of razor wire in commemoration of this aspect of her reputation, while Anythe and Erinna are converted into lecterns for books with pages of lead.
Lead is one of the most frequently used materials in Kiefer’s practice as an artist, uniting with his abiding interest in the history of alchemy, with its aim of turning lead into gold: the transformation and refinement of base materials that epitomises the ambition of the artistic process itself.
The final figure, Moiro, represents the Goddess of Fate, on this occasion associated with the same geometrical form of a cube with its corners removed that can be seen in Durer’s mysterious etching Melencolia. Melancholy was associated with scholarship in the Renaissance, while the incomplete cube is an epitome of the limits to human understanding. Kiefer’s scholarly allusion to humanity’s ignorance is a suitably ironic reminder in a place of learning.