Depicting a seemingly monumental tower of books and/or canvases interlaced with wilted sunflowers and set into a dense and ashen grey background spotted with tar and straw, this large and evocative painting is a haunting, almost apocalyptic work, that formed the centerpiece of Kiefer's 2006 exhibition Dein und Mein Alter und das Alter der Welt held at the Lorcan O'Neill Gallery in Rome.
Consisting of a range of paintings, drawings and books, this exhibition took its title from a line in a poem by the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann that Kiefer has used often over the last twenty years as the title of several of his works and exhibitions. Referring to the futility of counting, measuring and codifying time and experience on either a human or a cosmic scale, the title also invokes the magnificent but also probably futile nature of culture. The poem from which it derives is the 1954 work entitled 'Der Spiel ist aus' ('The Game is Over') - a moving song of love, hope and courage amidst a fairytale netherland of sadness and memory. The relevant lines read: 'On guard in the gypsy camp, on guard in the desert camp, the sand streams from our hair, your age and my age and the age of the world cannot be measured in years.'
Different fragments of these lines have been appended to Kiefer's books and paintings repeatedly over the years, to form both their titles and an entire network of references that seemingly connect a wide range of his images and motifs extending from vast paintings of monumental ruins in the desert to sunflower/seed/star paintings linking earthly and cosmic experience. With their reference to sand streaming through the hair and the passing of time, they have even been equated in Kiefer's mind and his work with another of his favourite poets, Paul Celan, and specifically with a book of Celan's poems entitled Der Sand aus den Urnen (The Sand from the Urns), which the artist has also repeatedly referenced and cross-referenced in his work, with lines of Bachmann's.
At the heart of all this literary referencing of Bachmann and Celan's writing in Kiefer's paintings of the 1990s and the twenty-first century, is a profound sense of artistic longing, intertwined destiny and of lost culture. Bachmann and Celan, who were lovers, were also to share tragic fates. Celan, who had lost both his parents in the Holocaust, threw himself into the Seine and drowned in 1970, while Bachmann, after also living through years of depression, burnt to death in her apartment in Vienna in 1973. In Kiefer's hands, their work, their memory and the glory and ultimate futility of literary or artistic aspiration and endeavour all become intertwined and memorialized. Like the faux grandeur of his great paintings of historic monuments, from the Nazi architecture of the Third Reich to the cosmic aspirations of the Pyramids in Giza or the Yucatan, the imposing tower of books and canvases rendered in this painting asserts itself in one respect as little more than a petrified tower of vanity. Time, after all, as the title Dein und Mein Alter und das Alter der Welt, with its combing of human and cosmic time, suggests, ultimately withers and destroys all and the desert wilderness is, in the end, the true existential condition and destiny of mankind. Interlaced with wilted sunflowers from his former Barjac home in the South of France where he himself has built monument after monument to his own art, towering both above and deeply below the surface of the land there, these mournful floral symbols of interconnection between 'above and below', land and sky, earth and cosmos, assert themselves also as anthropomorphic icons of personal loneliness and existential melancholy.
Indeed, the tower rendered in this painting is one that Kiefer himself has actually built at Barjac using lead-leafed books and both real and bronze sunflowers, to create a series of sculptural book and canvas towers that often bear the dedication 'For Paul Celan'. In this sense, these works also stand as a memorial to both the poet and to the enduring inspirational power of literature and art to give meaning to the world and form to the void. They are a tribute to the invincible Romantic longing of the artist and, more personally, to the post-war poet who famously said 'there is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German. ' (Paul Celan quoted in John Felstiner Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, New Haven, 1995, p. 56)
A vertical standing edifice symbolizing the Romantic aspirations of art, the tower, like so many of Kiefer's works articulates a kind of poetry of ruins. Seeming to belong to both a foreign land and a distant time, like some lonely ancient edifice discovered in the desert, this stratified tower visibly echoes the sentiments expressed in many of Kiefer's desert paintings and of the life of Lilith - the first wife of Adam, condemned to live among the ruins of civilization. A similar invocation of the relationship between the individual human life and the deep time of the cosmos, this noble but visibly decaying monument to art, literature, knowledge and culture stands alone against the ashen emptiness of the painting's background. Part totem, part funeral pyre, it becomes a powerful existential metaphor for the indomitable spirit of humanity - lost in the wilderness, standing melancholic and alone within the void, weathering the passing of time but, all the while, conscious of its own inevitable demise. RB