b. Donaueschingen, Germany, 1945
Sternenfall [Falling Stars], 1998
Mixed media on canvas
I’ve always found it rather difficult to talk about art at length, or to explain why anything aesthetically pleases me. The aesthete, Kierkegaard would say, lives in immediacy, and as such the power of aesthetic pleasure precedes the mediation of reflection, and is therefore somewhat difficult to talk about. Maybe that mysterious force which, as Kant sees it, selects who will be geniuses works also on the beholders of those geniuses’ art, making its appeal equally ineffable. All that notwithstanding o the best of my ability, I’ll try to explain what it is about Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall that stirs me so deeply.
To begin with, the sheer size of Sternenfall, which means “falling stars,” is overwhelming. The massive installation takes up the whole height of the wall in the gallery, and stretches out on either side with equal proportions. It is also uniquely three-dimensional which, though common in sculpture and so-called ‘public art’ is more rare in art that is presented on canvas. The bumpy surface looks to be made with mud, tree bark, sunflower seeds, and other unusual media, imbued with a rich tension of deep, majestic blues and purples, and bland beiges and whites which combine to give the effect of swaths of stardust in the sky, like you might see in the open country by night. The “Little Dipper” and “Draco” constellations are easily apparent, and each star is labeled by a sort of barcode-esque sequence of numbers and letters. On the ground, just beneath the installation, are many plastic strips with similar sequences, which I believe represent fallen stars.
Anselm Kiefer, who studied language, literature and law before becoming an artist , describes the piece as a “representation of intangible, philosophical ideals.” If it is indeed a representation of the intangible, no wonder I have such difficulty talking about it! Yet I wonder what he means, or is trying to evoke. The tremendous size and unorthodox media inspire a sense of awe, breaking artistic traditions of two-dimensionality than can easily go stale. The content, a depiction of the night sky in its utmost grandeur, excites a kind of passion and wonder that has always existed in mankind, who gazes at the stars in search for understanding of himself and of the world around him. Detached from the wall and sharing the same space as the viewers are the sequences of numbers and letters that represent the fallen stars on the floor, and I think this is profound. Perhaps Kiefer was trying to convey the primordial truth that we are the children of stars, and that our world is made up of celestial dust. We are, in a Heidegerrian sense, fallen stars, like the ones on the ground, thrown into the world and looking for a sense of meaning. That humanity has always looked toward the stars is appropriate, for that is where we come from, and Kiefer’s Sternenfall, with its grandiosity and masterful depiction of the bedazzled night sky, encapsulates the great sense of awe and the terrible consternation of ‘fallenness’ quintessential to human existence. That’s what makes Sternenfall beautiful.