Katie Tobin

Joyce’s Ouroboros

Anslem Kiefer – Finnegans Wake at White Cube, Bermondsey, 7th June – 20th August 2023.


Rightfully, James Joyce’s masterpiece Finnegans Wake has earned a reputation as one of the most difficult works of fiction in the Western literary canon. Upon its initial release in serialised form, critical reception of the novel was notoriously damning of Joyce’s reworking of the English language and abandonment of literary convention. Infusing idiosyncratic prose with neologisms, Irish folklore and free dream associations, Wake’s winding narrative alienated wider audiences and failed to replicate the popularity of Joyce’s earlier novels. It wasn’t until the 1960s – over twenty years after Wake’s publication in novel form – that French post-structuralists à la Derrida influenced a new reading of the text, turning their towards the broader philosophical implications of Joyce’s linguistic experiments. Despite Wake’s revived theoretical appeal, however, the text still resists a general consensus where plot is concerned and largely remains a mystery to most readers. 

German artist Anselm Kiefer, like most of us who have tried to make sense of the novel’s effervescent complexity, readily admits his lifelong effort to make sense of Wake. Born into the apocalyptic landscape of postwar Germany, the artist stumbled across Joyce’s novel at an early age in the ruins of his childhood home, which was bombed the night he was born. For Kiefer, Wake’s profound impact lay in the text’s ability to oscillate through time, offering a historical trajectory which moves beyond linearity, much like the artist’s own work. It’s precisely this ephemerality and mythic spirit that the artist injects into his latest exhibition at White Cube in Bermondsey, aptly titled ‘Finnegans Wake’, which offers a haunting reimagining of Joyce’s final novel. 

Entering the exhibition, visitors are guided through the dimly-lit central corridor of the gallery, each wall lined with a cacophonous assortment of glass cages, skeletons, demolished concrete slabs, bronze-dipped sunflowers, and more. This sprawling mass of rusted objects and visual poetry is Kiefer’s ever-evolving ‘Arsenal’, suffused with the plaintive echoes of the Nazi rule of his childhood. A testament to the sensory overwhelm of Wake’s narrative, the narrow corridor flings together strangers to briefly view Kiefer’s artefacts for  a fleeting moment, only to be ushered into the flow of pedestrian traffic, his audience swept back into the proverbial ‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from a swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs’. 

It’s with this subversive gaiety that Kiefer is so easily able to execute a stark tonal shift throughout his tribute to Wake, moving between humour and dread, drollness and horror. In the artist’s embodied ouroboros, the idea of humanity’s regency permeates throughout, explicated by the scrawled imperative: ‘Phall if you but will, rise you must’ in South Gallery 2. To an outlier, there is nothing hopeful about Kiefer’s display of wreckage and rust, but the artist tells us that these ruins are just the beginning, the place where his life began. Like Joyce, who also ascribed to Giambattista Vico’s philosophy of humanity’s innate cyclicality, Kiefer’s Wake identifies the typologies of the human experience within his sculptural medium: birth, guilt, judgement, sexuality, family, social ritual and death. What rises must fall, and what falls must rise again. 

In Kiefer’s most direct engagement with Wake’s cast, a group portrait hangs on the right of the gallery entrance, depicting three hooded figures. One of these is two-headed – brothers Shaun and Shem – stood alongside mother Anna Livia Plurabelle and daughter Issy. The painting is one of many occurrences where Kiefer draws links between his own heritage and that of Wake, at once an eerie portrait of a postwar Germany, yet also a homage to HCE’s fall from grace. In another piece, its title also lifted from the pages of Wake, ‘Meednight Sunflower’ brandishes blackened sunflowers thickly painted onto canvas. Kiefer insists that, despite their macabre appearance, they evoke the regenerative power of nature. ‘First the sunflower is connected with the stars, because it moves its head against the sun,’ Kiefer says to the Guardian. ‘And in the night it’s closed. The moment they explode they are yellow and fantastic: that’s already the declining point. So sunflowers are a symbol for our condition d’etre.

In White Cube’s final room, the North Gallery, Kiefer adorns the space with twelve paintings of the River Liffey, each one golden and shimmering. As Anna Livia’s final monologue sees her dying and flowing into the Liffey, Kiefer’s paintings depicted the river merging and interweaving itself, subordinating the paint ‘to the rhythm of the water’, to quote Joyce. These pieces offer a stark contrast to the bronze-cast weathered books, strewn across the floor. Some are crawling with snakes, a manifestation of those in Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ – another literary work that Kiefer has continually returned to in his art – and the serpents that fester throughout Wake. While the walls pay homage to one of the world’s most intriguing novels, the pages themselves are surprisingly blank. Kiefer’s books conjure up imagery of the Nazi’s book burning campaign of the 1930s, a strategy also exacted by Russian soldiers in Ukraine last year. 

Here lies the exhibition’s greatest achievement. Throughout his wider oeuvre, Kiefer has continually used nuanced deconstructions of his culture’s dark past to address issues of the present, and no work of his better demonstrates this than ‘Wake’. United by their obsession with regeneration, Kiefer offers a radical revival of Joyce’s impossible novel via the labyrinthian architecture of White Cube. ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,’ declares Stephen Dedalus of Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in a sentiment all too reminiscent of  Kiefer’s lurid exhibition. But, as the artist himself suggests, it’s only by embracing the liminal place between life and death, waking and dreaming that we can truly embrace our own transformative potential. And for Kiefer, this is only the beginning.


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