As many current children’s films, immersed as they are in digital culture, fetishise an old book in an attic or a fairytale tome whose old illustrations come strangely to life, books as objects have begun to take on cultural freight as fossil traces of the human, even as we are still here, coining terms like the “Anthropocene” to signal “[o]ur melancholic exultation in having become geological”.[1] That so many artists’ books made in this time of climate dread involve the natural world is not surprising. That they also emphasise their own materiality shows growing consciousness that human-fashioned art is part of nature too, and that we, like our fellow creatures, may not last long. What we leave behind to burn, dissolve, or blow away becomes a fossil document as carefully crafted as its fate may be brutally random. Recent work by artists Anselm Kiefer and Vivan Sundaram shed unsettling light on humankind’s “storied” legacy on Earth, folding images of war and poverty into textures that seem part of nature, too.

Well known for his giant leaden books and for his equally heavy Angel of History, a sculpted plane that bears dead poppies on its wings in a nod to Walter Benjamin and Paul Klee, German artist Anselm Kiefer could very well be called an “artifactist”, making ruins to remember humans by. Near his studio in Barjac, France, he and his team have assembled crooked towers in the woods, evoking Lilith cast out from the Eden story, “living and working in ruins”.[2] He also continues to craft artist books referring to history, literature, and place. Thinking of the world itself as a book of “mythological image-landscapes”,[3] Kiefer lets pottery shards pile up against book pages in his studio, as he crafts scrapbook-style collections of faded, damaged photographs, interspersed with dark, blank, textured pages. In the book about these artist’s books, from Kiefer’s 2016 exhibit in Leipzig showcasing current and past work, some second-hand images drag their sources’ texture with them. These reprints are just rough enough to make one wonder if such reproductions, for example of the 1974 art book Ausbrennen des Landkreises Buchen, are artefacts in their own right.[4] The slant association of “Buchen” with both “book” and “beech-wood”, also linked to the Buchenwald concentration camp, brings Kiefer’s project into the ambiguous territory between naturally occurring wood pulp and the multisensory scene it offers: burning grass meant to be “cauterised” in a rural area of Germany, where human lives were turned to ash as well.

“Für Martin Heidegger – Todtnauberg 2010-2014” © Anselm Kiefer

Throughout the Kiefer exhibition book, cracked clay, dried flowers, and packed ash invite readers to touch humankind’s damaged and damaging story. Ghostly, textured pages of the art book Für Martin Heidegger – Todtnauberg 2010-2014 show trees around the philosopher’s Black Forest cabin whitened with what might be paint, snow, blossoms, or perhaps a deadly powder. These images recall Heidegger’s fraught relation to the poet Paul Celan, whose words haunt much of Kiefer’s work. Particularly in his use of real human hair on large canvases referring to the “golden” Margarethe and the “dark” Shulamith in Celan’s Holocaust poem “Todesfuge”, Kiefer has long enacted witness by touch, not just by sight. In this artist’s book within a book, also subtly tactile, his obsession continues: Celan visited Heidegger in Todtnauberg in the late 1960s, hoping that the older man would take responsibility for his Nazi complicity, which he did not. Kiefer has preserved a negative of a troubling historical moment, the kind of trace-in-absence Heidegger himself described, in a mountain village whose name signals death. History is folded into nature, even as its poisoned stories start to vanish from the page of human memory. Kiefer takes the process further than the artist’s book as well. As Siri Hustvedt has noted in a recent essay on Kiefer, referring to his use of treated lead, “[t]he black-and-white photograph, a token of memory, has been transformed from fragile paper document to massive object, literally leaden with the burdens of the past, as heavy as a huge gravestone”.[5]

A recent exhibit in New York City’s Sepia Gallery shows artefact-like work by the Indian artist Vivan Sundaram in wall frames, video, and books left on a table for viewers to see up close and touch. Sundaram has called his earlier work Re-take of Amrita “an archival family album” that uses digital photography to combine and layer older images. This project, called Terraoptics, transposes fibre-optic light-wires over pieces of an actual urban ruin (the port town of Muziris, 100 B.C.–100 A.D.) used in an earlier, site-specific installation by Sundaram and arranged here in tableaux.[6] The exhibit as a whole, using the artist’s own recycled material, reifies its terracotta terrain “flooded with peppercorns and performatively shot”[7] so that viewers experience it at a double remove, and then again in an even more objectified format, that of books on a table in the centre of the gallery. Not only does the artist make new, artificial landscapes out of what was once a human village, now emptied of people, but he shows that constructs of the cast-off can take on their own, anything-but-human lives. Sundaram is well known for recycling artefacts of crowded, impoverished human communities; his use of ancient scraps and shards links past to present, current urban suffering to that of humans already extinct. Folding the evidence into books makes it seem all the more distant, and at the same time, close enough to touch.

“Terraoptics Burnt Mound” © Vivan Sundaram

Because the Terraoptics images look like aerial shots of actual landscapes, “the viewer is caught a little off-balance by what they are actually seeing and what the photographs are said to depict”.[8] The material itself, roving among media from wall print to video to book, becomes elusive, too. A pigment print, on several paper layers, shows Sundaram’s “Terraoptics Burnt Mound”, which looks like smoke or blossom bloom and could be made of paper, tissue, or even a wasp’s nest. Like Kiefer’s cauterised ground, this evidence of burning hints at a troubled human history, revealed in layers like the rings in a tree trunk. The material keeps its mystery. Human-made or not? This question seems beyond the point. As gallery viewers leaf through the art books on the table, they may feel belated and even superfluous, seeing a world unfold from what has long been lost and knowing their small worlds will pass, too. Sundaram’s unsettling perspective, even within the comforting framework of a book, may work as what Rosi Braidotti has called “[t]he experiment of de-familiarization” as a way to “think to infinity, against the horror of the void, in the wilderness of non-human mental landscapes, with the shadow of death dangling in front of our eyes”.[9] If we are close to the last chapter of the human age, work like Kiefer’s and Sundaram’s prepares the way for mourning and eventual release.

— Utah State University, July 2017




[1] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Posthuman Environs’, in Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, ed. by Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), p. 26.

[2] Sophie Fiennes, Klaus Dermutz and Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Sciapode, Kasander Film Company, Amoeba Films, 2010), DVD.

[3] See Hans Werner Schmidt, ‘Mythologische Bildlandschaften’, in Anselm Kiefer: Die Welt – Ein Buch (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 2016), pp. 5-8.

[4] Fiennes, Dermutz and Kiefer, pp. 50-51.

[5] Siri Hustvedt, ‘Anselm Kiefer: The Truth Is Always Gray’, in A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind (London: Hodder & Stroughton, 2016), p. 35.

[6] sepiaEYE, ‘Vivan Sundaram: TERRAOPTICS’, press release, Sepia Gallery, New York City, May 2017.

[7] Hustvedt, p. 35.

[8] Melissa Stern, ‘Miniature Universes Constructed from Archaeological Fragments’, Hyperallergic, Web. 13 June 2017.

[9] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), p. 134.