My quest for algae in fine art took an unexpected turn at the weekend when I visited the Anselm Kiefer show at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle. I have already written about Kiefer following my visit to the major retrospective at the Royal Academy last year (see “The fine art of asking big questions”). The Tullie House show is much smaller but amongst the exhibits was one vitrine (display cabinet) that immediately caught my eye.
The vitrine contained six clay casts of internal body parts (including heart, spleen and kidney) each covered in gold leaf, along with a frond of dried seaweed. All the objects are arranged on a lead-covered board; lead is a recurring theme in Kiefer’s work, as he regards it as the only material heavy enough to carry the weight of human history.
Clay casts of internal body parts invokes Biblical metaphors of creation (Isaiah 64: 8: “… We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”), reflecting Kiefer’s long standing interest in identity. Covering rough clay casts with gold leaf echoes mankind’s own exalted view of its place in the world.
But what of the alga? It is a brown alga (Phaeophyta), possibly Undaria pinnatifida (Juliet Brodie of the Natural History Museum suggested this, based on the photograph below). Placed alongside casts of human organs, it evokes a spine and rib cage. More symbolically, perhaps, we see a juxtaposition of a very early form of life with the highest (in our anthropocentric view). Kiefer has a long-standing interest in alchemical symbolism, imagery that suggests change and progress. He has chosen objects here whose symbolism resonates with one another to create a larger story. I could be pedantic and point out that brown algae and humans represent two distinct branches of the tree of life but perhaps I should just accept this as a visual metaphor for a deeper truth and move on. Stand in front of any of Kiefer’s art and you find yourself asking questions that go far beyond the nature of the materials that he uses.
Anselm Kiefer’s Untitled (1988): a vitrine containing six gold-plated clay objects along with a frond of dried seaweed, on display at Tullie House, Carlisle, March 2015.
Royal Academy of Arts (2014) Anselm Kiefer. Exhibition Catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London.