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Sitting with Anselm Kiefer’s Angel of History and ZimZum (1989)


At the National Gallery of Art, April 2009


There is the airborne escape mechanism which is the airplane, or the effective instrument of destruction which is the war plane. Anselm Kiefer’s The Angel of History is a poetic antithesis of both forms, fabricated of lead, its wings laden with books of beaten lead sheets. The lack of utility makes it not only about art, but a sublime object with which to contemplate the idea of the plane, one of the great icons of the war years of the 20th century. Like all icons its pragmatic uselessness makes it sacred in an areligious way. Its payload of leaden manuscripts piled on the wings, pages stuffed with dried poppies, the better to fuel an auto-da-fé, is a righteous Dada juxtaposition. The nose cone of the plane is round, phallic, wrinkled and sagging. The plane’s contours inveigh against aerodynamism. They are angular, not sleek; crumpled and corrugated, edges torn and drooping, tailfin battered. This is an earthbound, organic form, a sad cousin to its perky commercial brethren.

The color is ashen gray, as in the ashes of burned buildings and bodies, alluding to the apocalypse of a society, or an individual; the darkest, most destructive chaos that preceeds a new year’s renewal. (see Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, Ch 2) Mr. K’s airplane speaks to what is left of the idea of the technological wonder once it has acted upon the world, borne its heavy payload, wrecked its havoc, and fallen to the ground again in shades of ash, the apogee of a once hysterically optimistic trajectory.

There is something left, some fuel for a fire. The end of this “angel’s” flight is the beginning of the thought of no flight, the bittersweet memory of flight, the tragedy of war, the failure of war: a stark history. Poppies–emblematic plant of forgetfulness–are dried and stuffed into the leaden books. The manuscripts burned to the color of ash, are the journals and the records of that history. There is a mystical dimension here as well, for People of the Book–whose extermination and whose mystical heritage (in the Kabbalah) is of deep concern to this artist. Who do they become, what do they become, once the Book has been incinerated, the stuff of ash? The Word is obliterated, one cannot know what has been wiped from memory, one can only contemplate the spectacle of its result.

a0000f9bThe painting, partner to the plane, says Zim Zum, as in the sound of roaring engines reproduced by a happy child at play. Actually, there was no official onomatopoeic reference according to the art historians at the National Gallery. Ahem. ZimZum is a term from the Kabbalah which refers to the contraction, as in the drawing in of breath, of the Divine, which must contract Itself to produce the place for the creation. Here we have a suitable landing strip for the plane on display, a cosmic field of utter desolation and contraction. Of course, a painting/poem must inhabit an entirely other world, inaccessible to the literality of this sculpture/plane…the juxtaposition of painting and sculpture is wryly comical. The sky is leaden (and also made of lead–Kiefer is arch-practitioner of German humor) but as reflected in the large pool on the field, it is gray and white and smooth like glass. These are winter fields that surround waters, and though yes the perspective is like a landing strip, it would in fact be a horrific place to land any plane other than the Angel of History. The one point perspective of this landscape alludes to a metaphysical ultimatum which is handed all of us at birth. Ash and ice have covered this field in perpetual winter, but the rows of crop stubble suggest a latent fertility. The Divine contraction, the icey harrowed ground, are necessary for regeneration. Look twice and you could be far above, perhaps carried by an Angel of History, so far in the sky that you are seeing a planet whose ocean is bounded by lands that have gone from green to ash and ice. Look again and you may see at the single perspective point (a place that does not really exist) the face of the Divine one, a powerful organizing principle, sucking the ice-shocked fallen feathers of an angel into its tiny white maw. 


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