:: Article

Wanderer within the wastes: On Anselm Kiefer’s Walhalla

By Daniel Fraser.


“Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”
– William Blake, Proverbs of Hell

At the far end of the central corridor which acts as the spine for the exhibition, a corridor lined with beds (de)composed of oxidised lead, is a photograph of a lone figure walking away into a harsh landscape. The earth beneath the figure is damp and stained. In the distance, a foreboding fence recalls the border of a concentration camp. The image bears a striking resemblance to Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic masterpiece Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (often translated as Wanderer above the Sea of Fog). Friedrich’s painting has become emblematic of the Enlightenment, suffused with the idea of triumph and exploration, of the conscious subject amid the fog of the material world, of history’s unassailable progress. Needless to say, Kiefer’s image stands in stark contrast. An unholy negative of the earlier painting, it shows not an unexplored continent but an enclosed one, not a mind surveying the world below but a body submerged in a landscape, not progress but withdrawal. In the puddle below we see the figure inverted in a foggy pool, Friedrich’s wanderer turned on his head. At once striking and revealing, the picture acts as a focal point for the dark energy which buzzes through every alcove of the exhibition and opens up the complex of mythic, historical and linguistic concerns that pervade Kiefer’s work as a whole. Here are the corroded remains of the Enlightenment. To enter Anselm Kiefer’s Walhalla is to walk into a ruined myth.

Leading off from this central trunk are several rooms. Some contain enormous canvasses set with concrete towers and the by now unmistakable signs of erosion, destruction and collapse. Others contain strange sculptures – an iron spiral staircase hung with the leaden garbs of female heroes, a winged bed occupied by an enormous meteoric sphere – and vitrines of straw, lead and wood that seem to expose nature to the terror of the light. One room, referred to as “the archive room”, displays the boxes and draws, furnaces and books of lead that perform such a vital role in Kiefer’s enormous studios. Titled Arsenal it offers a repository of objects and materials that form a key component of Kiefer’s process, from lead books and ash to unspooled reels of film. The draws and boxes on the shelves are arranged so they lean down on the viewer as they enter the room. The feeling is of the weight of history, its documents and drawers, collapsing inwards, threatening to destroy what stands beneath it. Like the task faced by Norman Branch in Delillo’s Libra, this mass of documentation evokes the doubling that history always presents: the vital importance of the record, the testimony, and its simultaneous impossibility – its futility.

The literary is a continually recurring presence in Kiefer’s work. The motif of lead books, often suspended with their pages open and exposed, the textual fragments daubed across pictorial canvasses, and the words of white chalk smudged across the surfaces of his sculptures, result in an oeuvre whose four corners are contaminated with language. Central to this linguistic taint is the figure of Celan whose own ruined poetics haunts a similar space to the one occupied by Kiefer’s artworks. A focal point for the art of both is the Second World War and, more particularly, the Shoah. The problem which the genocidal acts perpetrated by the Nazis have for art, for philosophy, and for the understanding of what it means to be human, continue to reverberate through history to the present. Agamben in Remains of Auschwitz describes the concentration camps as central to the very aporia of historical knowledge itself: the non-coincidence of the facts and the truth. The idea of witness is a problem of language and a problem of silence: the true witnesses to this atrocity are those who cannot speak, yet for those who remain to stay silent themselves risks a kind of theological reverence of negation. To express, however, to give testimony, is to admit that one cannot be a true witness while also trying to comprehend that which cannot be understood.

This aporia is the remnant of the destruction not only of human life but of modes of expression. The myth of Enlightenment progress, German Idealism and the paradigm of Greek tragedy which courses through it are undone. As Agamben asserts, the problem of the defence Nazis such as Eichmann used during trial that they were “guilty before God but not the law” tries to fit these horrific acts into the defunct mode of tragedy, of guilt and recognition, instead of a more basic ontological shame. Celan’s poems, after the war, became increasingly unravelled. A body of work which opens up the wound of language like no other, his loops of disintegration expose the weakness – worse, the complicity – of language in expressing anything in the face of such horror. Written in the language of the perpetrators, Celan’s poetry is cut through with ash and flowers, fog and soil, stone and silence. The continued formation of neologisms in his poems pushes the German language to its limits and the introjection of the holy tongue of Hebrew into the German mother tongue goes beyond these limits, showing the words that stand where the people who spoke them cannot. What other response can there be to Adorno’s oft-misquoted remark? To continue to write poetry is barbaric and yet continue it must. As Celan remarked in his Bremen address, despite everything it was “language that remained”.


Let us return to Walhalla. The exhibition’s title references the place which is a feature of both Norse mythology and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In the former, Walhalla is the resting place in the afterlife for half of those who died in battle, in the latter it is the home of the gods themselves. The ground of Walhalla is set amid the dual context of war and myth. Walhalla also has a connection to a more human past, to real conflict. It is the name given to the memorial King Ludwig I of Bavaria had built to immortalise heroic figures of German history. The titles of works are used, recycled and reformed. Several works in the exhibition are titled Walhalla. Others are rendered in Hebrew, German, French and Latin. The diversity of language mirrors that of materials where the industrial and the artistic continue to overlay and dismantle one another: lead, copper, shellac, glass, ash, clay, oil paint, wood, paper acid, cement and cloth. The canvasses are almost exclusively landscapes. Pathways like the bare winter of Van Gogh’s cornfields, stone staircases and patches of flat earth are set with leaning towers of concrete shipping containers: smoking, collapsing, eroding. They are works marked by their absence of figures. Only their traces, their garments of lead, let us know that any feet walked its halls. The arsenal too is deserted. The tools at hand lack hands to use them. The weapons rot in storage. In exhibiting the tools of his trade Kiefer exhibits their weakness, their ineffectuality. As Walter Benjamin writes in ‘On the Concept of History’: “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Kiefer’s Arsenal shows these opposites to be two bulbs of the same hourglass, whose contents may be poured from one to the other. This attack on painting’s materials is extended further by the towers of shipping containers which pervade the canvasses, mimicking the enormous sculptures which Kiefer has made in several of his studios. These destroyed spaces speak not only to a ruined present, but to a ruined art. Kiefer’s work is ruined because the language of painting itself is ruined.

In trying to address how this powerful collapse of history and myth – this poetry and ruination – manages to feel so vitally present, one might be tempted to draw this destruction into relation with the ongoing ‘crisis’ of neoliberalism, or the prospect of looming environmental catastrophe, the passing of one epoch into another entirely different, the time of the gods and giants is at an end and the mortals are left in the ruins to “watch the fire grow in the sky”. However, such reductive politicisation would be a mistake. A ruin is not a complete annihilation but a failure of destruction. In ‘A World in Ruins’, Blanchot, referring to two novels whose protagonists have survived the horror of war, writes: “Through the desolation of what happened they came into contact with something more profound that they can no longer either endure, reject or avoid. It is thus that the world in ruins – the truth of the world – appears to them, and henceforth they must live without purpose, without hope, as they await an outcome that will itself be a ridiculous misunderstanding.” This is not some form of ruin lust, or a “ruin with an outline”, but a real ruin, one which is not only a failed act of erasure but a failure of what remains: the fragmented debris is not a preserved foundation nor an historic monument but a space without purpose. If life is devitalised by history, the destruction of history does nothing to revive it. It is in this space which we find Kiefer’s painting. The grey which predominates in so much of Kiefer’s works, the grey of lead, of ash, of impure snow, is not only Adorno’s but Levi’s: an inter-zone where the question over continuing or ending, right and wrong, is powerfully questioned. Kiefer’s sunflowers, the heliotropes of the past, turn towards the sun rising in the sky of history and are, once more, reduced to ash. The winged bed bears the meteor to its rest, a new unformed angel of stone and sleep.

In one of the stanzas of Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill refers to Kiefer explicitly:

What is a vitrine – how does it connect 
with the world of ANSELM KIEFER? This 
is what we have come to: ash and shivered 
glass. Memorialised dead-centres without 
focus. Atrocious glamour | grime-plastered, 
Corrosive, corroded; road salts, metals. 
Single abrupt frame of violent 
disassembly: identical frame pulled 
back into being. In the obscure 
soteriologies of these things, the lines 
created are destructive and vital. 
Auction. Autopsy. Scrap-avatar.

The duality of the mytho-archaic, its plastic tension between re-formation and disintegration echoes throughout: that which is violently torn asunder is pulled back into being. In the final line, scrap-avatar recalls not only the potential of salvation through fragments, an angel composed of what remains, the bearer of a weak messianic power, but also “an instruction to scrap avatars”. Kiefer does away with otherworldliness only to have it re-formed from the fragments of the past. This is what it means to walk into the ruin of a myth. The myth may be ruined but we remain within those ruins. The mistake we make is to think that the ruined myth is no longer with us, that we have surpassed it. This is the question Kiefer’s work asks most forcefully – how can this space of remains and destruction be inhabited? How can expression exist in this landscape?

The ideas of the transformation of the world, spiritual, intellectual, political must be radically questioned. The dialectic of past and future has been mutilated. The strategic memory of projected futures has passed. The dead must bury their dead.  We are not to identify with the vanquished of history but we cannot build a new memory entirely without their fragmentary traces. The ruins produced by the self-destruction of reason cannot merely be contemplated and there is no simple messianic path to redemption. If, as Traverso claims in Left-Wing Melancholia, the twenty-first century is one “born as a time shaped by a general eclipse of utopias” it is because of a reconfiguration of utopia as eclipse. In a time when the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism; the two have become conflated.


© White Cube

The perpetual present of mythic time itself has passed. The mythic present in which theology occupies the same space as life, as historic time, has become part of the mythic past: the origin from which we are now irrevocably separated. What we are given is the material of this decay. The corrosive acid Kiefer uses, affixes time to the canvas, at once erasing and recreating in perpetuity, its action mirrors the work of art’s continual re-presentation in the present. To misquote Blanchot, to paint is to expose oneself to the disenchantment of time’s presence. The only utopia left open is the “not today”, a trauma which renders the self unrecognisable to itself. The “schizophrenic” unchained present overcomes the paranoia of time only through self-violence. The burning towers of concrete and de-commissioned arsenal show just what is at stake: in order to get beyond the horizon of the now the self must be destroyed. However, from what remains, the past, like the Valkyries, can return with a vengeance. The materials refuse to decompose entirely. The weight of refuse threatens to suffocate us once more. The future cannot be conquered by abolishing history. The reason for distancing Walhalla from the “end of an epoch”, “end of history” rhetoric becomes clear: in doing so it draws itself into the same neoliberal paradigm which it supposedly seeks to destroy. All flight from history contains a neoliberal echo.1 The present is always haunted.

Our dreams have faced cutbacks. Shrinking from the howls of the dogs of austerity they have replaced futurity with contemporaneity. The angel of history, disorientated, can only look beneath her feet at the dizzying flicker of the present. Kiefer’s own Angel is a plane weighted down by books and straw, a plane that has never flown. One piece of debris follows another. We do not anticipate the not-yet-known but the ‘not’ of what is known. The utopia we seek is born in a graveyard, the empty space left after a ‘real movement to abolish the present state of things’. Revolutionary-utopian messianic figures are illusions. The ‘completed nihilism’ of our age reveals itself. We sacrifice the present for an unknown future. Not now or never but now, never. This is not without risk: the destructive force opens itself up to a purity of destruction. Walhalla shows us this. Within the ruin of myth there lurks the myth of ruin. The death of all gods, absolute atheology, the silence of total destruction, too often betrays a negative theology. The destruction of all grand narratives may be the grandest narrative of all.

The idea of a beginning again, amid the burnt out concrete and ashen fields, is a problem as well as a solution. This indeterminate greyness, this space of possibility, can itself become mythologised, calling us to wallow in an accelerated flow of extinction. But this destruction can never be total. The purity of absence is the myth we use to displace our own oblivion: a theological nothingness that denies our decomposing flesh, our family photographs rotting on landfill sites, our childhood toys in wet plastic bags outside the second-hand shop. We fetishise what we are unable to see. There is nothing clean about life or death. This space cannot be romantic. It is not an absence but an interruption, what Kiefer describes in his Notebooks as a place of disconnection. The destruction of the present leaves the residue of myth because the beings of myth lurk not in the present but in the metakosmia: the spaces between worlds. And, if we write ourselves between worlds we turn away from the present’s materiality, we cannot, as Celan reminds us, “trust the trail of tears and learn to live”. The Epicureans know better than anyone that the space between the walls leads to a flaming tomb. The shades that dwell in these fiery sepulchres can only see the past and the future, to the present they are blind. Michelet’s aphorism, adopted by Benjamin, is no longer sufficient. Each epoch no longer “dreams the one to follow”, it can only dream the passing of the one it is unable to escape, one at the same time haunted by fragments of a theology it can no longer fully recognise.

1 For this observation and several other elements of analysis I am much indebted to S.D. Chrostowska’s ‘Angelus Novus, Angst of History’, Diacritics, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, Spring 2012), Vol.40, No.1, pp.42-68


Daniel Fraser

Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic from West Yorkshire. His work has featured in the LA Review of BooksGorsethe QuietusMusic and Literature, and 3AM Magazine among others. He is an editor at Readysteadybook.com and lives in London. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 28th, 2017.