An immense book obscures the wintry landscape. The words from Paul Celan’s Schwarze Flocken [Black Flakes] retreat into the distance, giving the painting not only its title but its generating force. ‘Snow has fallen’, begins Celan’s poem, ‘with no light’ (15). In Schwarze Flocken twigs like runic symbols run parallel with the furrows containing the text itself. The most painful aspects of European history could be said to be coterminous with the pain of Celan. Each shadowing the other into the distance with no sense of resolution. If it is pain we are after then there is surely no rival to Celan himself. In Schwarze Flocken he recalls the loss of his mother, a mother who was butchered by the Nazis along with the rest of his family and friends. The poem – like much of Celan’s work – is one of mourning. Mourning for a history that denied him justice. Mourning for the tortured consciousness that saw him take his own life. It is common, therefore, to treat these aspects of Kiefer’s paintings as inseparable from the Nazis and their insidious grasp on historical memory. The ‘runes’ just identified become remnants of concentration camp fences. Auchwitz, and Germania, are everywhere as we look for traces of Hitler in the same way we might search for ‘Waldo’. Jackie Wullschlager, writing for the Financial Times, typifies such perspectives. Speaking of Auchwitz, Wullschlager claims that Kiefer has ‘rarely made art about anything else’. This is not only a ridiculous statement – given the vast scope of Kiefer’s project – but it seeks to reduce the most radical aspects of his work within the terms of a narrative that has operated in the background since the Venice biennale In 1980. This necessary reaction to historical amnesia in Germany of the time bears little relation to a painting where there is otherwise so much going on. Furthermore, a simplistic understanding of this period (especially when seen through the purview of historical ‘losers’ and ‘victors’) means it is possible to view Kiefer’s work within a context that strips it of its most radical associations. ‘Nazism, the society it created, the world of the Third Reich and the people who lived through it all appear as a kind of moral drama’, explains the historian Richard J Evans, ‘where the issues are laid out starkly before us with a clarity we are no longer able to achieve in the morally complex, confusing and compromised world we live in today’. In work like Kiefer’s ‘we cannot single out’, according to Daniel Arasse, ‘one hypothesis… one clue, and follow it through the oeuvre to reveal the unity of the whole’ (21). Such approaches deny the ‘overdetermined’ character of aesthetic practice such as this, which is both limiting and dangerous. Rather than position Kiefer within the terms of a static diorama, what follows attempts to situate the artists work within associative constellations of meaning that resist the pull of these dominant signifiers. Put more simply, my intention is to ‘open out’ the vast body of Kiefer’s work, whilst placing it in a much wider socio-political context.
In a painting like Schwarze Flocken Auchwitz is certainly present, but only in the same way that massacres in Srebrenica or Armenia are. German ideology does not remain some touchstone for the interpretation of Kiefer’s paintings, as much as a point of origin which has itself become silted up over time. Historical tragedies are a global phenomenon, in other words, and something for which not only Germany is culpable. As Evans notes:
Historians have come to see the Nazi extermination of the Jews not as a unique historical event but as a genocide with parallels in other other countries and at other times, not only the German extermination of the Hereo tribe in the Kaiser’s colony of Nambia before the First world war, but the action of the Turks in 1915, of Stalin in Ukraine in the early 1930s, and of the Hutus in Rwanda, to name only three of the mass murders of the 20th century (3).
Contemporary happenings must, of necessity, be placed in the context of a wider series of events. To examine history today is to understand a series of reoccurring tragedies rather than something singular in orientation. This is no more evident than in Celan’s own home town of Chernivsti (formerly in the kingdom of Romania, but now located slap bang in the middle of Ukraine). Caught between the Russian speaking East, and the Ukrainian West, this territory is once again subject to violence and division. Cultural memory seems cyclical in Chernivsti, re-emerging at significant points of conflict and stress. The Nazi atrocities are not something that must be mourned in the context of a final victory, but engaged with in the light of their real historical conditions and motivations.
This is where Kiefer becomes truly relevant in the current socio-political context. ‘Kiefer has shifted the praxis of mourning elaborated through an attention to local history in the wake of the holocaust’, writes Allen Fisher in a recent piece for the Glasfryn Project, ‘into a new attention, but no less daunting attention, to the discontinuous and multiplicity of spacetimes we now search within and beyond’ (11). More than anything it seems that what obsesses Kiefer is ‘everything’, or the nature of complexity itself. If Nazism is prevalent in his work – or a consistent point of return – it is maybe because it reflects an example of the ‘purity’ he is aesthetically opposed to. This is reminiscent of some rough notes Joan Retallack made on the same German tradition. As Retallack mused at the time:
“I wonder if all of those traditions in German culture that seemed not to have touched ground – philosophical idealism, mythology, fairy tales, and transcendental idealism – helped leave the ground open for holocaust. Ideals of purity, all transcendental idealisms, the noumenal telos, magical thinking of the sort that informs the logics of myths and fairy tales are fantasy systems with built in protections from an ethos of responsibility to a real world. Fantasy is of course a real phenomenon, but the mechanism of its style is arranged precisely to deny the reality of its consequences. I wonder if this comes out of despair. I wonder whether there is a dystopian assumption among those who produce fantasy literatures that this world is too irredeemable to merit attention’ (32)
Kiefer has always positioned his own work between both chaos and order. ‘Although he ha[s] to’, as noted in conversation with Alan Yentob, ‘guard against order’, its jack-booted manifestations are simply the most explicit and recognizable form. Having said this, however, they do not define his entire output. ‘Art is an attempt to get to the very centre of truth’, he explains to Nicolas Wroe, ‘it never can, but it can get quite close’ (6). Kiefer’s art is a different way of ‘doing’: an art that refuses to give up on the complexity of life. Anything else is surely what Retallack has called ‘unnatural realism’. Kiefer’s paintings – as their molecules visibly change in the air of the gallery after electrolysis – are more concerned with honesty, or real realism. ‘It’s the rasion d’etre for that whole category of endeavours we call “work” isn’t it”, writes Retallack, without the action of time, without change, without thermodynamics and entropy and chaos, work wouldn’t be necessary. We’d be smiling serenely in homeostasis’ (29). Readings of Kiefer’s work that refuse to acknowledge this potential trap him within the bounds of a reductive interpretation. ‘It is the dogmatism of the church, the idea that words can express a single truth over hundreds of years’, as Kiefer puts it, ‘that is complete nonsense’ (6)
 Ghosts weigh heavy on the Ukrainian present in ways that would certainly have been familiar to Celan. The rise of fascism is of particular note: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/13/ukraine-far-right-fascism-mps