Thoughts & Insights

Palm Sunday, or the Spirit in Matter

A palm tree extends its full length, from the root ball to the tips of its fronds, diagonally across an appropriately sized exhibition space. Anselm Kiefer has called this impressive installation "Palm Sunday".

Like almost all of his works, Kiefer’s “Palm Sunday” evokes a long chain of associations in me. In this case, they are mental bridges that, for once, reach back even to my early childhood. It is the connection between the material quality of the installation and its meaningful title, that builds these bridges between what I felt as a child a long time ago, what has developed since then, and what has emerged from it today. The time frames blur as if swept up by a river. I cross the bridge.

More than ten years ago, I encountered this monumental work for the first time by chance, at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Those were the years when I was in New York very often because of the work on the MINDKISS Book. A walk through the galleries in Chelsea was always part of it. The second encounter happened recently, when I finally visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Kunsthalle Mannheim after months of lockdown two weeks ago. This encounter was also an unexpected one for me, as I had not informed myself about the works on display in advance.

There it lay before me a second time, this sculpture that had once been a living palm tree. Its huge, sharp-tipped fronds covered with cement-like dust, its trunk supported by sandstones, its enormous ball-shaped red roots. And I allowed everything to flow freely through my head, everything triggered by this phenomenal sight and by the words “Palm Sunday” themselves.

Firstly, all I see is this monstrous, long-dead plant lying in front of me. It used to be a marvel of nature, part of a species that has existed on this planet for 70 million years. Even under the most adverse conditions, it can live and survive. As it lies here, uprooted, the sight saddens me at first. And even now this dead specimen is still imposing, full of strength and spirit.

“I don’t consider myself a Platonist, but I believe that the spirit is in matter and that it is the artist’s task to extract this spirit,” Anselm Kiefer once said. I think of OUBEY and our conversation in 1992, when he spoke about Joseph Beuys and said that the latter’s unerring sense of the matter led to his ability to make a spirit recognizable out of matter.

At the same time, a motion picture summary of my cultural and historical knowledge plays in my head: “Palm Sunday” – the day of the great “Hosanna”. The jubilant celebration for the new King in the streets of Jerusalem, followed by the betrayal of the authorities in power, the arrest and the condemnation, for which the person responsible washed his hands of the matter, and finally the brutal death on the cross. But death is not the end. That is the message. Death is not the end of life. Death is overcome by the resurrection. What a story. They praise You, they deny You, they crucify You. But You overcame even death. Since this story has been told, every “Palm Sunday” contains within itself the prophecy of this story. A somber message of encouragement.

But there remains a distrust in the fickleness of people’s feelings and whims, especially when people appear en masse. They’re excited today and tomorrow, deny exactly that, which they were excited about the day before. It is hard to believe that until today there is an unofficial discussion between two world religions about the question of guilt in this story.

How can one question the eschatology of such a story by discussing a culprit? This is perhaps the drama of all theistic religions, that although they are still believed today, they have never really arrived in today’s world. They have become mere pictures of an idea. The religions do not try to understand themselves or to fit into the evolving world. They adhere to their partly obscure, yet well-told stories, which they have been telling for such a long time, recounting them as the unchanged truth. If they did not, these religions would probably be lost.

This subjective-associative sequence of thoughts lacks any art historical expertise. I am grateful to Anselm Kiefer for his magnificent and unique life’s work and hope that it will continue to reach many people in the future and enable them to recognize a previously unrecognized or repressed part of themselves. Because that is precisely why we humans create and need art: not to understand art, but to understand ourselves and the universe in which we live at least a little better.

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