Heaven and Earth | Anselm Kiefer
Studies for The Seven Heavenly Palaces, Barjac, 1973-2001
October 5, 2004 | Barjac
Michael Auping: Titling an exhibition Heaven and Earth, as we have done here, requires a little explanation. Perhaps we should just begin with the very simple question, do you believe in heaven?
Anselm Kiefer: The title Heaven and Earth is a paradox because heaven and earth don’t exist anymore. The earth is round. The cosmos has no up and down. It is moving constantly. We can no longer fix the stars to create an ideal place. This is our dilemma.
MA: And yet we keep trying to find new ways to get to ‘the ideal place’, the place we assume we came from – to find the right direction.
AK: It is natural to search for our beginnings, but not to assume it has one direction. We live in a scientific future that early philosophers and alchemists could not foresee, but they understood very fundamental relationships between heaven and earth, that we have forgotten. In the Sefer Hechaloth, the ancient book that came before the kabbala, there is no worry of directions. It describes stages, metaphors, and symbols that float everywhere. Up and down were the same direction. The Hachaloth is the spiritual journey toward perfect cognition. North, south, east, and west, up and down are not issues. For me, this also relates to time. Past, present, and future are essentially the same direction. It is about finding symbols that move in all directions.
MA: You are not a ‘New Age’ spiritualist. I know that for sure, but some people who see your images may wonder just what your position is in regard to religion.
AK: My spirituality is not New Age. It has been with me since I was a child. I know that in the last few decades religion has been made shiny and new. It’s like a business creating a new product. They are selling salvation. I’m not interested in being saved. I’m interested in reconstructing symbols. It’s about connecting with an older knowledge and trying to discover continuities in why we search for heaven.
MA: I can see fragments of continuity in your works between symbols that are ancient and those that take a more modern form, and for me that suggests a kind of hope within your landscapes. But there are also some very dark shadows in your images, literally in terms of color , as well as in metaphor and content. It is as if in the same image we see a liberation of knowledge but the dark weight of history.
MA: Christian images are apparent in your work, but in many ways not as apparent as Jewish or Gnostic references.
AK: Later, I discovered that Christian mythology was less complex and less sophisticated than Jewish mythology because the Christians limited their story to make it simple so that they could engage more people and defend their ideas. They had to fight with the Jewish traditions, with the Gnostics. It was a war of the use of knowledge. However, it wasn’t just a defense against outside ideas. It was aggressive. Like politics, they wanted to win. You know, the first church in Rome was not defensive and not aggressive. It was quiet. It was spiritual in the sense of seeking a true discussion about God. It was exploring a new idea about humanity. But then there was ‘iglesias triumphant’, the Triumph of the Church. And then the stones were stacked up and the buildings came, and the construction of the Scholastics, Augustine, and so on. They were very successful in limiting the meaning of the mythology. There were discussions about the Trinity and its meaning. anyone who had ideas that complicated their specific picture was eliminated. This made Christianity very rigid and not very interesting. Whenever knowledge becomes ridgid it stops living.
MA: In 1966, you visited the Monastery at La Tourette. Was this before you made the decision to be an artist?
AK: I began studying law. I didn’t study law to be a lawyer, but for the philosophical aspects of law, constitutional law. I was interested in how people live together with out destroying each other.
I went to La Tourette while I was studying law. It may sound strange to go from the study of law to La Tourette, but it really wasn’t. I had always been interested in law from a spiritual aspect. A constitution is not unlike the idea of a church doctrine. People need a context or a content, something to bind them together. This could be stretched to mythologies. Law, mythology, religion – they are all structures for investigating human character.
MA: Why did you go to La Tourette in the first place? I don’t imagine that you went only to see a Le Corbusier building. You stayed there for three weeks.
AK: The Dominicans were there. I liked their teaching. They have an interesting history. I had read that they had many discussions with Le Corbusier about the shape of the building and the materials. It was a point in my life when I wanted to think quietly about the larger questions. Churches are the stages for transmitting knowledge, interpreting knowledge and ideas of transcendence. It’s a history of conflicts and contradictions. A church is an important source of knowledge and power. Le Corbusier knew that. I stayed there for three weeks in a cell. I thought about things. In a place like that you are not simply encouraged to think about God but to think about yourself, Erkenne dich selbst. Of course, you think about your relationship to god.
Also, for me it was an inspiring building in the sense that a very simple material, a modern material, could be used to create a spiritual space. Great religions and great buildings are part of the sediment of time; like pieces of sand. Le Corbusier used the sand to construct a spiritual space. I discovered the spirituality of concrete – using earth to mould a symbol, a symbol of the imaginative and spiritual world. He tried to make heaven on earth – the ancient paradox.
MA: Could we go back and talk a little bit more about your education as an artist? You went to the university in Freiburg.
AK: Yes. But first I had a nineteenth-century idea that the artists is a genius – that art comes out of him naturally and he doesn’t need any education. I had always thought this, even as a child. You could say that I had too much admiration for artists. I thought they all came from heaven. Later I found out than an artwork is only partly done by the artist, that the artist is part of a larger state of things – the public, history, memory, personal history – and he must just work to find a way through it all, to remain free but connected at the same time.
MA: And later on you went to see Joseph Beuys, although you didn’t officially study with him.
AK: No. I was living in the forrest in Hornbach and had made some canvases. I had heard of Beuys and so I took my canvases to Düsseldorf to show him. He was impressive. I liked him very much. His dialogue was broad and he could be very impressive. He had a world view, not just the view of an artist. I think I appreciated him more because I had studied law.
MA: How so?
AK: Art cannot live on itself. It has to draw on a broader knowledge. I think both of us understood that at the tim ewe knew each other.
MA: Although I never met him, you and Beuys seem very different to me. He was more extroverted and you are more introverted, or at least less public.
AK: We were different, and as a young artist I needed to question that difference. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from him, even though he was not my teacher. I could talk to him about larger issues.
MA: In his interviews and writings, Beuys often evoked the word ‘spiritual’. How do you think he meant that?
AK: That is complicated. We were both in Germany at a certain time – a time when a dialogue about history and spirituality needed to begin. It was difficult to separate the two subjects There was a sense of starting over. To evoke the spiritual not only looking at ourselves but into the history of our nation. It was not just a matter of a critique. It had to be deeper than that. So yes, Beuys was a spiritual man. The artist is naturally spiritual because he is always searching for new beginnings.
MA: Here on the grounds of your home in Barjac, France, you are creating a monumental installation of stacked concrete rooms or ‘palaces’ that go up hundreds of feet into the air, asa well as a sprawling series of connected underground tunnels and spaces containing palettes, books, and lead rooms. Are you working your way through the palaces of heaven?
AK: I follow the ancient tradition of going up and going down. The palaces of heaven are still a mystery. The procedures and formulae surrounding this journey will always be debated. I am making my own investigation.
Heaven and Earth
(The catalogue is published on the occasion of the exhibition Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth organized by Michael Auping for the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth)