Anselm Kiefer in Conversation with Klaus Dermutz

Anselm Kiefer. Nordkap (North Cape), 1975.

Anselm Kiefer. Nordkap (North Cape), 1975.

KLAUS DERMUTZ: In your acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, you spoke about France being the Promised Land in your childhood. Was Germany an exile for you?

ANSELM KIEFER: France was the Promised Land from a childish perspective. I grew up on the Rhine; that was the border. And beyond the Rhine was the country I wasn’t allowed to enter. It was a country onto which I could project everything. It was a Promised Land insofar as it was an unexpressed land, an empty land, and so a Promised Land.

KD: If you think about it from a biblical perspective, before one enters the Promised Land, one is . . .

AK: . . . in a state of diaspora. I’ve always felt myself to be part of a diaspora. Always in the wrong place, in the wrong family. I was never where I wanted to be. I never wanted to be in Barjac either.

KD: So how did you end up living and working in Barjac for fourteen years?

AK: It happened the way things always happen in life—it just did. You make a mistake. You move to a place and it’s the wrong place, but that doesn’t mean something good can’t come of it. Barjac “was the wrong place. The place I was born was also the wrong place. And the family I grew up in was also the wrong family.

KD: In Japanese philosophy, there’s the idea that blossoms come from chaos. Do you see your life that way?

AK: Yes. Rudolf Steiner believed that you seek out your own parents. You find yourself up there in some kind of intermediate place and you seek out your parents.

KD: I once discussed this assumption with a French girlfriend and her response was: Can anyone really be so tasteless?

AK: Perhaps one has the bad taste to dream of something better. There’s always a discrepancy between where one is and where one wants to be, between what one wishes for oneself and what really happens when your wishes are, so to speak, fulfilled.

KD: Was the move from Barjac to Paris difficult for you?

AK: No, not at all. On the contrary, it was a great pleasure. I now have a new studio: a large building outside Paris. Funnily enough, it’s right on the motorway to Germany (laughs). I’m on the motorway and in front of me there’s an airport, which is, of course, a marvellous constellation: motorway and airport I’m now completely mobile.

KD: Your engagement with National-Socialism, your attic series, the paintings, the rooms that cite National Socialist architecture, were always associated with the question of central perspective. I have the sense that your years in Barjac brought another perspective into your work.

AK: Perhaps that’s because for me the landscape here, although it’s very beautiful, is without perspective. I’ve never painted a picture with the landscape of Barjac as subject. Not as subject—that’s not accurate in any case, but I’ve never used the landscape of Barjac as material. I’ve always felt elendi here, that is ‘in another land’. Elendi is Middle High German, elendi comes from being in another country.

KD: According to Kantor, the artist’s place is on a border. In his last production, Today is my Birthday (1991), Kantor established his place on the border: behind him, his theatre, before him, life. Do you see it similarly, that the artist takes up a place on the border, a border, to be sure, that is always shifting, always becoming another border?

AK: As an artist you’re on the border in all sorts of ways. You’re always trying to push the boundaries of art. You try to do what’s barely still art. That’s a limit situation, but it’s also on the border of the unknown. Because you want to do something that will surprise, not always the same thing. So you could also say: it’s overstepping a border, or an attempt to see over a border or the wish to overleap a border. Or to walk along a border, once this way, once that way, always changing borders.

KD: Empty space plays an important role in your work.

AK: Especially the dialectic with empty space. I basically think that through my work, I fill a space that had been emptied out in my childhood, a space, that is, that was not only empty of external things. We didn’t have the Internet or a television. There was only a radio. In that village deep in the provinces, there was no theatre either. Everything you see as a child falls as if onto a wax tablet, onto something blank. It falls on it and has an effect. It’s initially something still unfilled. It’s taken in as it is. There’s no explanation, no context. It’s simply a collection of initially meaningless things. What you experience is not important at first. It’s just there. I see empty space dialectically. I’m always deeply fascinated by abandoned factories because so much is present in them. In Germany, I worked in an abandoned tile factory. I was extremely fascinated by the traces, by the mass of the space, which in and of itself was empty and deserted but still filled with traces of thousands of workers.

KD: The concept of the expansion of time is connected to empty space.

AK: To the extent that you experience everything completely differently as a child. With age, time speeds up because you work much more. As a child, you experience boredom very powerfully: boredom in childhood—that’s what is most valuable later. In boredom, you are at the foundation of existence. You don’t experience yourself when you’re not bored. Heidegger wrote an entire lecture on boredom. I remember how he presented his reflections in that lecture on the boredom he has experienced. He’d been invited into company that wasn’t entirely unpleasant but also wasn’t anything special, so a feeling of boredom set in. He wondered why he had accepted the invitation and that’s when the consciousness of existence began. And today it’s such that everything we do, all our busyness, our activity on the Internet, it all destroys empty space, it clogs everything. There’s no boredom any more. We work less than before—there’s the 35-hour work week—but, at the same time, there’s an industry that’s leapt into the breach, offering activity-filled vacations. Everything is done to make boredom and the experience of emptiness impossible.

KD: Your work could be understood as a means of making possible for the viewer a consciousness of existence and, with it, the fundamental motion of the world.

AK: I hope so (laughs). The experience of a painting lasts for a certain period when you look at the picture properly. Objectively speaking, nothing happens in that time. The painting does not change in that moment. In that time, in which nothing happens, the awareness arises of empty space that can be filled.

KD: Destruction is very present in your work. I wondered how you withstand the ‘processing’ of destruction, the atrocities of war and the unspeakable extent of human misery. As you create representations of destruction, do ‘thoughts of life’ caress your forehead, giving you energy for your work?

AK: Ruins are for me the most beautiful things of all. I knew this before, but when I visited the German Historical Museum in Berlin recently, I saw photographs of bombed-out cities. These are the most beautiful pictures I can imagine, they’re wonderful. Naturally, I asked myself why. Why do I find these pictures so beautiful? I expressed my answer in At the Beginning in the Opéra Bastille: because something new always arises, because the old connections are disrupted, because something is in an intermediate state. It makes everything secretive again.

KD: For Savinio, ruins evoke thoughts of a city that will be stronger, richer, more beautiful.

AK: I’d say the city is already more beautiful. Savinio is saying the same thing, he means that something doesn’t yet exist. The bad movies you see on television are bad because they tell you absolutely everything, they always give the audience everything. The more something is left “indefinite, imprecise, the more beautiful it is. We can work on it ourselves, we can come up with our own ideas. That’s why it’s wonderful, because a ruined city offers an extremely high number of possibilities. There’s material galore and nothing is predetermined. A city in ruins is a city brought back to the state of an idea, the expansion of a city to an idea.

KD: In his movie, Germany, Year Zero, Roberto Rossellini shows the terrible nadir of Berlin.

AK: But it’s not a complete nadir. There’s already something there. There’s great richness, a wealth of material, a wealth of possibilities, so full and so profligate. Ruins are profligate like nature. Ruins are themselves real luxury. When you consider how many seeds nature produces, how much fruit it bears, and only a very small portion is used. That also what’s fantastic about nature: very little hits the mark. It’s the same with sperm—only one in a million hit the target, the rest is sheer extravagance.

KD: The unborn.

AK: That is extravagance. These cities, these ruins: there’s also the openness. Openness on the one hand and things buried on the other. Open, so you can enter bombed-out cities. There are no fences, there’s no longer a structure of ownership. All of a sudden, it’s all one.”

KD: Entering and mobility, both gain a new meaning after the disaster of utter destruction.

AK: You don’t need to knock, you don’t need to ring. You can enter houses the way you enter the streets of a city. That’s what’s fantastic. You can walk around as you’d walk around a brain. In a ruined landscape, it’s not just that you “see what’s happening in the moment, roots spreading among stones, say, you also see a time spread out before you. You almost have the quintessence of time in front of you. You know that the buildings looked like this or like that before, that there was an open square on which the Aztecs played ball games and performed their rites. Now everything is overgrown. You see a time from more than five centuries ago. It exerts a strong pull, putting yourself back so far in time. An immense fascination that overcame Schliemann and other discoverers. People wonder why they do this—to know for certain if you were, in fact, in Troy or not is a foolish answer. They do it because they like to be set back into that time. Consciousness extends very far back and suddenly you feel stretched very far. It’s an expansion of the self, not just of the mind but also of the entire person. The hunt for ruins is just a pretext to experience this expansion. At the same time, it’s the means to experience it. The result of the hunt is not so important. The place where Muhammad ascended to heaven is the most extreme example of time and trace. People say: Ah, he was there, that’s where he ascended. In Jericho there’s a tree in which the tax collector sat, whom Jesus told to come down. Apparently this old tree still exists in Jericho today. These are all ideas about the expansion of the self and the dissolution of the self. When your self expands so far, when it extends to such distant times, your self dissolves in a very fascinating way.

KD: I’d like to ask about an observation you’ve made: For you, ‘Art just barely survives.’ How did you come to this conclusion that sees art as under constant threat?

AK: A while ago, I painted a watercolour while travelling in Norway. I’d spent some time that summer on North Cape and there you have that phenomenon in which the sun barely sets. It grazes the horizon and then rises again. This made a deep impression on me, the way the sun at first appears to set but then doesn’t. On the watercolour Nordkap [North Cape, 1975], I wrote ‘die Kunst geht knapp nicht unter’ [art just barely avoids going under or just barely survives]. “It’s very difficult to define art, impossible, in fact. It can’t really be grasped. Art is like a fish you pull out of the water that then slips away from you. Art is always very endangered, constantly under threat. First, art presents a threat to itself. It’s always taking subjects and topics from outside and transforming them. These are unartistic, uninteresting, banal and very unaesthetic subjects that become art. Over the course of history this, in turn, has an effect on these very subjects. They ennoble and crown themselves by becoming art. You can observe this process, for example, in design or in the art movement that developed out of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1950s in reaction to the School of Paris, in which very simple geometric patterns suddenly became art. Today it’s clear that some of these works of art have become design. Donald Judd’s boxes have actually lost the qualities that make them art and are now design.

KD: Is the transformation of art into design primarily a result of changing times?

AK: That too, but above all this transformation is a result of art’s own strategy: art takes objects from the worlds of fashion and design as subjects. Design then declares itself art in a counter-reaction. With this you have the decline of art into design, because art can no longer be distinguished from design.

KD: How can this levelling process be held back?

AK: There’s no longer any question of holding it back, because the process is already complete. The only possible thing to do is to find a different subject and simply leave aside all those objects that have become design.

KD: To look for an object that is free of this usurpation?

AK: To choose an object that has not yet been ennobled by art. This phenomenon is comparable to Olbers’ paradox about stars: in principle, no stars should be visible in the sky. There are so many stars, the sheer quantity should illuminate the sky to such an extent that individual stars are no longer discernable. And that’s what happens with art or, rather, that’s what could happen with art: because there are so many objects in the world that have become art, art has almost perished. Nevertheless, I claim that art just barely survives because it is still discernable to those who have a practiced eye. You have to seek it out like a prospector looking for gold or like someone who works in a quarry, searching for those pieces of stone that gleam.

KD: It’s easier to establish what’s gold and what isn’t. But in art, the possibilities for making clear-cut determinations diminish.

AK: There’s a consensus about gold. The Aztecs didn’t consider it a precious metal. For them, it was simply a useful material. Gold became valuable for us through the circulation of money.

KD: It’s the same process with art: art obtains value through the circulation of money.

AK: When it’s a question of economic value, it’s not hard to make determinations. Economic value is very perishable, thank God, some things don’t keep their value. At some point, speculations collapse. Economic value is, in itself, not an indicator of art.

KD: And aesthetic value?

AK: Art differs from mundane objects, above all it differs from normal life. Art does not equal life. In the Fluxus movement, objects from daily life were taken and made into art. This process rejuvenated art, made it interesting. But it also brought on a kind of autoimmune reaction. Art suddenly became full of life. Art has irradiated life and thus runs the risk of becoming mute after a certain half-life period.

KD: This muteness probably has to do with the fact that art took on so much life through the Fluxus movement just as the theatre did through Happenings, so much that there was an evaporation of contents. Susan Sontag once said that in Happenings, the audience is the fool.

AK: It reached a state of extreme expansion and dilution we can still observe today since there are still offshoots of Happenings and Fluxus. What used to be avant-garde and transformed art is now standard. If someone employed yesterday’s radicalisms, the result would naturally be very stale. Certain manifestations of the avant-garde cannot be repeated. You can put a urinal in a museum once, maybe even twice, but it won’t work a third time.

KD: In this respect, would the artist’s role be to submit to continuous transformation, perhaps even to bring it about?

AK: The artist is always transforming himself in any case. He is constantly looking and seeking out what can be transformed. Something that has already been crowned as art can no longer be transformed.

KD: What are the implications of this for your own work?

AK: To avoid the autoimmune reaction, I always try to find a point outside of art. The circuits within the art world always produce the same thing: the avant-garde and so on. You have to find an independent standpoint, an Archimedean point, so to speak. You could put it this way: the Archimedean point is found in one’s own confrontation with the world.

KD: Is the sense of shock inherent in this confrontation for you?

AK: Yes.

KD: Does this sense of shock cause a trembling in your soul?

AK: There are such moments: when a breeze rises and branches and leaves begin to move. There are such moments, as the lovely expression has it, when there’s something in the air. I don’t look for what is still possible in art. I look for a standpoint outside art. One day, I discovered a lead pipe in the house in Germany I used to work in. There was still lead plumbing at the time. This lead fascinated me and it has never lost its grip on me. Through this physical experience of lead, I accessed a spiritual level. I was able to determine that my fascination with lead is not an aesthetic fascination but a mythological, historical one. Over time, I’ve learnt a great deal through lead. In the beginning, it was an immediate confrontation—it spoke to me directly. Lead wasn’t associated with any artistic context. There was no leaden bas-relief that called to me, since there’s never been such thing in the history of art. It was the fact of a lead pipe that released a spiritual movement within me. Another instance was the sandbox I had as a child. My sandbox was small, 1 metre by 1 metre. Later, in my work, sand was a provocation. That’s what led me to the idea of Märkischer Sand [March Sand, 1980–82]. I took two experiences—the little sandbox and the sand fields of the Brandenburg March—and overlaid one on the other. The result was that I threw sand directly onto the painting and the sand stuck because of the glue. Because of my encounter with sand, not an encounter with a work of art, I was able to charge the sand in such a way that it could become a picture, a work of art. The charge comes from the superimposition in my consciousness of an historical dimension onto the sand of my childhood.

Conversations conducted in Barjac, 2008 and Croissy-Beaubourg, 2009.


Excerpt from Anselm Kiefer in Conversation with Klaus Dermutz. Seagull Books, 2019

Originally published as Anselm Kiefer, Die Kunst knapp nicht unter, Anselm Kiefer im gesprach mit Klaus Dermutz. Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin, 2010