Anselm Kiefer is probably the most Benjaminian of contemporary artists, so it's fitting that he would have an exhibit at the Grand Palais in Paris. The Grand Palais was built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, the third in a series of world's fairs in Paris. (The second one, in 1889, left the Eiffel Tower behind.) The nineteenth-century world exhibitions are important subjects in Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project, his unfinished study of the Paris arcades as the origin of capitalist culture. The world exhibitions were Gesamtkunstwerke, total works of art, phantasmagoric admixtures of technology and art, armaments and fashions, business and pleasure. According to Benjamin, the world exhibitions were the origins of the pleasure industry. The fantastic displays at the exhibitions "refined and multiplied the varieties of reactive behavior of the masses. [They] thereby prepared the masses for adapting to advertisements."
Benjamin would have appreciated using the Grand Palais, a monument to humankind's dreams of progress, to exhibit art works of profound melancholia and despair. Kiefer's imagination is allegorical of a particular kind: the trauerspiel, mourning plays from the German baroque period. The trauerspiel was the subject of Benjamin's first book, and the Arcades Project was an attempt to apply its allegorical methods to the study of consumer culture.
Here are some notes on Kiefer's Monumenta exhibit. The images were taken, without asking, from Alan Riding's New York Times article. The photos were taken by Vincent Nguyen and Samson Thomas. Click on the thumbnail to see a larger version of the image.
A detail from "Palmsonntag" (Palm Sunday). Human progress at a standstill: history as petrified nature.
"Sonnenschiff" (Sun Ship). The Baudelairean fascination with decay and ruin, a melancholic reaction to urban phantasmagoria with its promise of change as progress. Kiefer says, “What you see is despair. I am completely desperate because I cannot explain why I am here. It’s more than mourning, it’s despair.”
Another detail from "Palmsonntag" (Palm Sunday). Within the biblical story of rebirth, a sterile earth, the god-forsaken landscape of the German baroque allegorists.
"House number IV" (Aperiatur Terra). The paintings are landscapes sculpted by half-finished beings laboring under a permanent dusk. In Benjamin's reading, the half-finished beings of Kafka's stories are messengers not from the world to come, but from the archaic world of myth, a world that always threatens to return.
"Journey to the End of Night," a tribute to the novel by Louis Ferdinand Celine. The leaden ship: the surrealism of Thanatos. The sea as an infinite nightmare, the floating ship of lead signifies life as mere resistance to death, the null point of an ethics derived from guilt.