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I heard about the sperm book from an artist friend, and I had to see it. "It's at Moe's," he told me, referring to the used bookstore in Berkeley with the amazing collection of rare volumes. He was talking about a project by the famous German artist Anselm Kiefer called 20 Years of Solitude, an installation of blank books and accountants' ledgers coated with the author's semen or, as the New York Times delicately put it, "spattered with small yellowish stains." Alas, Ken Eastman at Moe's, though he knew what I was talking about, told me the store doesn't have any Solitudevolumes on hand.
Well, if I can't see the sperm book, I could at least see some of Kiefer's other bizarre and compelling volumes at "Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth," a show up at SFMOMA through January. Kiefer, who lives in the South of France, started making books in the 1960s out of the usual stuff you know, like paper but later moved on to sand, clay, burlap, lead, and other delicate and hard-to-transport materials. And he doesn't just make nice little pieces covered with natural elements, either: Like most of his art, Kiefer's books are enormous, huge almost beyond comprehension. The current show features paintings that are the size of entire walls, but also several book sculptures that you can walk around, that you have to crane your neck to see to the top of, that defy and transcend our idea of what a book does and why.
You've probably seen one of these items without even realizing it. The streetlight posters for the exhibit feature Buch mit Flügeln (Book with Wings), a giant lead volume on an oddly spindly looking stand, its apparently feathered lead-and-tin wings stretching more than 17 feet. And that's not the only superlative piece: The heaviest item in "Heaven and Earth" is called Meteoriten (Meteorites), a 9-foot-tall steel bookcase filled with lead books, their pages tattered and warped as if left outside. Janet Bishop, SFMOMA's Curator of Painting and Sculpture and the local overseer of the show (which originated in Fort Worth, Texas), tells me that Meteorites was the installation's most challenging piece to set up: It weighs more than 15,000 lbs. and has a relatively small footprint (that is, it's pretty vertical, not spread wide over a large area) and here we are "in earthquake country." Needless to say, the museum had to do "significant reinforcing ... to keep the piece safe and the visitors safe," Bishop explains. Meteorites is braced securely to the wall, and though the floor below it bows somewhat, the piece is unlikely to fall on your head.
The most amazing thing about these books, though, isn't their size; it's that they're real books. They have spines. They have stories to tell. They demand to be read (though not from start to finish, like a novel; you pick up the narrative through context and imagery). The piece called The Secret Life of Plants, for example a single enormous volume sitting in a corner, its pages (each almost 5 feet by more than 6 1/2 feet) spread in a circle to support it upright reveals intricate paintings and words about astronomy and the interconnectedness of life. Bishop says this piece had to be stood up and fanned out by crew members, which is to say that each showing of Plants is a little different from the next. At SFMOMA, when I squeezed behind it to see the pages closest to the corner, I expected a guard to clear his throat and crook an irritated finger at me, but no one blinked.
Books have always played an outsized part in Kiefer's art. In the '60s, his were like a lot of the artist's books coming out at the time which is to say, experimental, odd, and personal. Kiefer was born in Germany in 1945, at, as one description puts it, "the end of the darkest period in his country's history." These early books dealt with the difficulties of being an artist when the Nazis had used art and its creators as propaganda. As in his paintings, Kiefer's early books offered subtle narratives about corrosion, abrasion, and decay, but also enlightenment and revelation. Those themes are still in place in the later books, but Kiefer now looks outside Germany for inspiration: to Egyptian mythology, alchemy, the Bible, Chernobyl, and the kabala.
Kiefer's books aren't some little sideline he does to pass the time, studies for future work, or doodles about current obsessions. They constitute "a sub-oeuvre within the whole," as Daniel Arasse puts it in Anselm Kiefer, playing on old themes and developing new ones. "The books are Kiefer's private labyrinth," Arasse writes, "nestled at the heart of the greater labyrinth that is the totality of his work."
In fact, his books have become a new kind of art; they're real books, but also "objects with a material presence that is significant in its own right." That presence is largely due to Kiefer's use of unusual materials, especially lead. He started using lead to make books in 1987, which was a huge change. The results were no longer fragile, like most artists' books; they were colossal. Now, lead is not an easy material to work with. Aside from the fact that it's just damned heavy, it's also dangerous: Repeated exposure to it can cause damage to every major system in the body, including the brain and nervous system. That's why SFMOMA posted a warning in the entrance to the galleries with a stringent "no touch" rebuke. (Bishop assures me: "As far as I know, the works don't present any health hazards unless handled or ingested." Mmm, tasty!)
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