Anselm Kiefer is mounting a show at the White Cube gallery in London titled Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen (The Waves of Sea and Love). With a nod to a 19th century Austrian writer, the theme of the show references the mythological Greek priestess Hero and her lover Leander who drowns in the Hellespont while swimming to be with her. The works feature large photographs of seascapes that have been “Kieferized”—altered by way of any variety of techniques, from coating them with chemicals to running them over with a truck. In addition to the seascape backdrop, Kiefer has added additional images such as obstetric implements, Euclidian drawings, a model of a U-boat and the presence of Kiefer himself.
Nicholas Wroe quotes Kiefer in a piece that appeared in the Guardian:
“It is a show about impossibilities,” he explains. “Putting a Euclidian diagram on a seascape is about the impossibility of capturing the sea. The sea is always fluid. The geometrical figure gives the impression of fixing it at a certain moment. It’s the same as us imposing constellations on the sky which, of course, are completely crazy and nothing to do with the stars. It is just for us to feel more comfortable. To construct an illusion for ourselves that we have brought order to chaos. We haven’t. I might have been born into a very literal sense of chaos, but in fact that state is true of all of us.”
Throughout the 1970s Kiefer devoted himself to Germanic myths. He explored the forests where early German tribes had defeated Roman legions and which were an “infinite vessel of mystery, of fairytales, of childhood memories”. He absorbed the romantic sturm und drang of Caspar David Friedrich’s landscapes and skyscapes, and delved deep into Wagner’s music and his place in German culture. “My mother once made me listen to Lohengrin on the radio from Bayreuth and it made a big impression. I was attracted to the idea of the holy grail as something far away and enigmatic and a sort of destination where you desperately want to get to, but you know you will never arrive. That sense of longing came to me very early in my life. And art is longing. You never arrive, but you keep going in the hope that you will.”
Longing. That is the best word to describe a theme that carries through Kiefer’s massive body of work. But what is it actually? How is it different from other terms like nostalgia, sentimental, maudlin, bathic?
In an essay by Isabella Willinger, The Politics of Sentiment vs. a Poetics of Sentiment, a helpful distinction is offered. She references two types of nostalgia–restorative and reflective. “The practices of restorative nostalgia try to conceal cracks, ambivalences, imperfections – the signs of historical time – in order to simulate oneness.” On the other hand, reflective nostalgia “’thrives in the longing itself’ – it dwells on the ambivalence of human longing and belonging. Instead of recovering a fragment of the past for the present, this second type of nostalgia is more an experimentation with time and space.”
Reflective nostalgia could either be seen as a mere sub-item in the discourse of a dangerous nationalist nostalgia or – in other scenarios – it can come to represent the emotion ‘longing’ that is not necessarily reliant on its troublesome nostalgic sibling. Longing, I argue, is an extremely reflective mode, the self-distancing aspect of which is at the core of imagination itself. Longing, then, could possibly be seen as a search for the utmost range of experience. The disposition or emotion ‘longing’ seen in such a light becomes an incredibly important experimental ground of our culture, and in fact culture in general. It reverberates in Walter Benjamin’s idea of the aura of the work of art before the age of technical reproduction. According to Benjamin, the aura consisted precisely in the unattainability – works of art were appearances of a distance, no matter how close they may be…From this perspective, longing becomes an oscillation between what is and what could be. Longing is about savouring different possibilities, about swaying back and forth in reflection, yet never quite arriving. In that way, it stands for the refusal of objectivity which postmodernism has discovered for itself. The rich semantics of longing, I am suggesting, stands exemplarily for the polysemy* of emotions in general.
I loved this circumambulation of thought.
*Polysemy is the capacity for a sign or signs to have multiple meanings, i.e., a large semantic field.