Exhibition review: Anselm Kiefer’s SternenFall/Shevirath Ha Kelim in MONA

The tunnel looks almost like a mine shaft and the heavy stone and the dim light adds to the ambience that one is about to enter a different world. In fact, this is the entrance to the library of the MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. The Museum opened in 2011 and is funded by gambling Millionaire David Walsh who describes it as an “subversive adult Disneyland“1. The MONA is home to all kinds of special old and new artworks from a collection of 400 porcelain vaginas to an overweight Ferrari. The tunnel, however, leads to an even more remarkable place, the library and the Kiefer pavilion.

„When it comes to punter-collectors like David Walsh, Anselm Kiefer gets what he wants. And what he wanted in this case was a special pavilion to house his work. Access through the library.“2

 The Kiefer pavilion is home to German artist’s Anselm Kiefer’s piece SternenFall/ Shevirath Ha Kelim (Falling Stars/ Destruction of the Vessels, 2007). Kiefer was born in March 1945 and studied art in Karlsruhe and Düsseldorf with Horst Antes and Joseph Beuys. SternenFall/ Shevirath Ha Kelim in its peripheral pavilion is the only artwork bathed in natural light in the cavernous subterranean museum designed by Melbourne architect Nonda Katsalidis. The German word “Sternenfall“ (Falling Stars) was the title of Kiefer’s 2007 solo exhibition in the Grand Palais in Paris  and refers to the monumental industrial space of the Palais (which is also home of the annual Chanel fashion show) as its impressive architecture with the glass roof offers a view of the sky.

Kiefer who handed in a series of photographs doing the Nazi salute as his honors project at University, not as a political statement or criticism but as an experiment in order to engage with the question what he would have done if he was an adult under the Nazi regime, often works with the topics of mythology, science, and (art)history. Being born in 1945, just a few month before the end of World War II, he never consciously experienced the terror of the Nazi regime himself. However, he engages in German history in many of his artworks and finds great inspiration in by delving history and mythology, especially the Bible and the Kabbala.

The artwork SternenFall/ Shevirath Ha Kelim is a massive sculpture made of lead, iron and broken glass. The metals are formed into an enormous decomposed bookcase with integrated glass fragments and more broken glass around it. Half library, half bomb-shelter, the large gray sculpture  looks fragile and overwhelmingly massive at the same time. The shards of glass mixed with paper slips with numbers written on them protrude from the bookshelves and spread in the surrounding of the library and on the floor where they create an ambiance of a raid. In fact, with Kiefers background and preferred subjects in mind a connection can be made to the nightmares of the Kristallnacht (Night of Broken glass) from the 9-10 November 1938 in Nazi Germany and Austria. During the pogrom the SA paramilitary forces and non-Jewish civilians looted and destroyed Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues and left streets covered in broken glass behind which gave it the name Kristallnacht. Another reference in regard to the books can be made to the book burnings by the Nazis in the early 1930s. Nevertheless, the library and its books can also be seen as a possibility of mending and learning through history and literature which have always been great inspirations for Kiefer. Modern poetry, in particular by Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, is omnipresent in all of Kiefer’s works. Another interesting aspect of Kiefer’s work in the MONA is his incorporation of symbols, myths, and iconography taught in the Kabbala and its confrontation with recent history.

Shevirat Ha-Kelim: The Breaking of the Vessels after the event in the teachings of the Kabbala that explains why disharmony exists in the world

According to the Kabbala, the Breaking of the Vessels occurred when God’s light could not be contained within the 10 vessels that were housing it, thus creating a state of discord in the world. Harmony is only re-attainable through a process of “tikkun olam”, which translates as “world mend”, and which is intended to reconnect Jews with “the infinite.” Above Kiefer’s installation, there hangs a glass crescent, on which the words “Ain Soph” are etched: the Hebrew words for “unending” or “infinite.”

Infinity can also be connected to space and the numbers on the paper slips on the floor as they come from the NASA identifiers for stars. Nevertheless, they do also heavily remind of the numbers tattooed on prisoner’s arms in the Nazi concentration camps.

In the end, the audience has to find its own interpretation of Kiefer’s works. The opportunity to connect his works to the Nazi Holocaust presents itself but even without this background knowledge SternenFall/ Shevirath Ha Kelim is one of the most impressive works on display in MONA and only one of the many reason to visit the largest privately funded Museum in Australia, the Museum of the Old and New Arts in Tasmania.

1 Young, Kane (24 January 2011). “Biggest shock is the best“. The Mercury (Hobart). Retrieved 17 March 2012.

2 https://www.mona.net.au/mona/Library

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