"It is made of dead men's nails; wherefore a warning is desirable, that if a man die with unshorn nails, that man adds much material to the ship Naglfar, which gods and men were fain to have finished late" (S. Sturluson and A. Brodeur, The Prose Edda, New York, 1916, p. 78).
Naglfar from Nordic mythology, a ship constructed entirely from the nails of dead men, sails with an army of giants during Ragnark to battle the gods in a war at the end of time; an apocalyptic battle before a new world is to originate from the sea. Naglfar balances in the center of Anselm Kiefer's enormous canvas, hidden among the sea of treated, textured lead. Depicted as a World War II gunboat, Naglfar references the tainted German history Kiefer finds himself unable to escape creating a parallel of war, struggle, and freedom between the two eras. By conflating contemporary German history and Nordic myths, Kiefer insinuates the mythology predicted currents events. Naglfar transported giants to end the reign of gods as gunboats transported armies to end the reign of the Third Reich, creating a new Germany.
Kiefer began his interest in German history with his thesis show entitled Occupcations (1969) where he photographed himself giving the Nazi salute in various locations around Europe. With this piece Kiefer confronted head-on the past Germany strives to erase from memory. However, "memory doesn't first form when we're born, but rather it comes from further back. It has stored fundamental experiences, fundamental, existential orientations that have been gathered over thousands of years." (A. Kiefer interviewed by C. Kmmerling, "Nachts fahre ich mit dem Fahrrad von Bild zu Bild," Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, Munich, 1990.) Thus the memory of the past is indented within; no catastrophic event will ever be forgotten. This tension Kiefer exploits is ever present in his work.
The weight and texture of Naglfar visually represents the tension Kiefer consistently creates. The sea and sky constructed by layers of folded lead encapsulate the viewer forcing them to confront the issues and ideas put forth. This transubstiantive power inherent to materials are equally essential to Joseph Beuys. In the present example, the properties of lead reiterate the tension of past and present while continuing the spirituality introduced by the Nordic myth, transcending the work into a higher realm; a realm where the voyage of the Naglfar signifies the human condition.