In ‘Anselm Kiefer – Finnegans Wake’, the artist’s new paintings, sculptures and installations respond to (that is, struggle with and transform) James Joyce’s novel of 1939.

Kiefer first read the Irish writer as a young man, devouring Ulysses (1920) and embarking on a slow and spiralling relationship with the later, more exacting, Finnegans Wake. It is a book of circles and echoes, more or less overt or secret; its riverine movement begins in the midst of things, and turns back on itself on the final page. The novel seems to contain all words, all thoughts, all histories. Likewise, the works Kiefer assembles here, bristle with motifs and materials seen elsewhere in his art. There are fields of rubble and wire, skeletal sunflowers, the DNA helix, the ouroboros snake that eats its own tail.

Concrete, copper, glass vitrines, unreadable books made of lead, Joycean inscriptions everywhere. It is as if language itself has become a material, a sculptural medium. Finnegans Wake is sometimes spoken of as though it were a literary monument or ruin – radical but unread. But gaze at, or read aloud, a single page (perhaps even a single sentence, or word) and you will find it contains a profusion of puns, references and invocations. Up to 70 languages are present, and numerous cultures: among them Egyptian, Irish, Norse, Islamic. All intermingled: ‘Jewgreek is greekjew’, as Joyce puts it in Ulysses.

Kiefer’s work has always been nourished by a multitude of written sources: poetic, philosophical, religious, scientific. ‘They are like buoys in the sea. I swim to them, from one to the other.’ Norse mythology, German metaphysics, the poetry of Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann: such disparate writings cohabit in the space or time of the work. With Joyce, Kiefer invokes a writer who weaves the past and future of language into a single work. As if time itself does not exist, as if Joyce had been influenced by Kiefer.‘Anselm Kiefer – Finnegans Wake’ completes a trilogy of exhibitions at White Cube Bermondsey, London. In 2016, ‘Walhalla’ presented sculpture and paintings that summon the heavenly hall of Norse myth and its complex afterlife in art, music and literature. In ‘Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot’ (2019), Kiefer’s sculpture and paintings, with their darkly sinuous forms and writhing materials, brought together Greek mythology, ancient forms of writing and the speculations of string theory.

The new exhibition, whose literary source only seems to be singular and contained, is the most ambitious of the three. Here, as in Kiefer’s studio complex where works from several decades remain ready to be finished, we may encounter many turns of thought and phrase, many painterly or sculptural adventures, that have exercised Kiefer in the past. ‘Anselm Kiefer – Finnegans Wake’ is a passage in which his work rushes past us into the future – where we can say, with Joyce, ‘Here comes everybody’.

(Text by Brian Dillon)

Anselm Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen, Germany in 1945 and has lived and worked in France since 1993. He has exhibited widely, including solo shows at Franz Marc Museum, Kochel, Germany (2020); Couvent de la Tourette, Lyon, France (2019); Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo (2019); The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (2017); Albertina Museum, Vienna (2016); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2015); Royal Academy of Arts, London (2014); Tel Aviv Museum of Art (2011); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2011); Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark (2010); Grand Palais, Paris (2007); Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain (2007); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2006); Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2005); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1998); Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1991) and The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1987).

In 2019 Kiefer was awarded the prestigious Prize for Understanding and Tolerance by the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and in 2017 he was awarded the J. Paul Getty Medal. In 2007 Kiefer became the first artist since Georges Braque 50 years earlier to be commissioned to install a permanent work at the Louvre, Paris. In 2009 he created an opera, Am Anfang, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Opéra National de Paris. In November 2020, Anselm Kiefer unveiled a permanent installation comprised of six vitrines at the Panthéon in Paris. Together with a composition by the French contemporary composer Pascal Dusapin, it forms an ensemble of new works commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron. This marks the first time since 1924 that such a commission has been effectuated for the Panthéon.