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European & American Art
Sculpture Gallery gallery

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Germany born 1945

The secret life of plants [La Vie secrète des plantes] 2002 sculptures, lead, oil, chalk, pigment
Technique: lead, oil, chalk, pigment
195.0 h 300.0 diameter cm
; weight 700 kg
Purchased 2003
Accession No: NGA 2003.242
Subject: Art style: Neo-expressionism

  • the artist;
  • from whom bought through Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, the artist's dealer,
  • by the National Gallery of Australia, August 2003
  • Paper is normally soft and subtle to the touch, but Anselm Kiefer’s commanding book has twelve harsh lead pages, each bigger than a person, with sharp ragged edges. As the basest metal, lead does not decay, and its use in tombs and bullets associates it with death. We know that it also accumulates in bones and soft tissues, killing nerve cells and causing paralysis.

    Flowers painted over the book’s leaves refer to Flanders poppies with their connotations of war and loss. Stars labelled with astronomical numbers and drawings of constellations indicate the depths of space, with the six digits prefixing the numbers reminiscent of the six-digit ka-tsetnik numbers tattooed on German concentration camp inmates. The main stars in the Cassiopeia constellation are labelled, and the names of five neighbouring constellations, including Auriga and Perseus, are written in chalk.

    The title, also written in chalk, refers to Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s 1973 book on physical and emotional relations between plants, humans and the universe, in which the authors claim the plant as the universe’s guard and healer, and the bearer of its secrets.

    The way Kiefer’s huge book stands upright, with its leaves fanning out and buckling under their own weight, calls for a journey of exploration around it. Tactile impressions build up, as do fears of being crushed by the lead while negotiating the furthest reaches of space, but it is not an easy read. As the poppies and numbers indicate, Kiefer’s work remains rooted in the issues of recent history and remembrance that are evident in his painting Twilight of the west 1989, but his engagement now goes beyond national re-examination and responsibility to include global issues of ecological survival and, in Shaune Lakin’s words, ‘of the ways in which we construct interactions with each other and space’.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008