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Anselm Kiefer’s monumental Secret of the Ferns (2007) redirects the artist’s apocalyptic sensibility, honed in response to the Holocaust, to the slow violence of extinction. The installation adopts a foundational practice of early modern natural history: the herbarium’s preservation and presentation of dried, pressed plant specimens. It also mobilizes the symbolic associations of ferns, which Kiefer calls “the first plants” but which are reimagined in the gallery space as the last plants in a postapocalyptic future. The framed specimens hang in a massive hall, with two abandoned concrete bunkers spewing out coal in the center—an allusion to ferns as the source of fossil fuels. Coal appears again in the enigmatic charcoal inscriptions on the frames that allude to ferns’ rich associations with rituals of magic and transformation. The overall mood is of a temporality at the end of time, a proleptic elegy that anticipates the extinction of even the most common and resilient plants, and the human cultures associated with them. Transmuted from mnemonic device to vehicle of commemoration, Kiefer’s apocalyptic herbarium elicits grief and mourning—but also, perhaps, what Judith Butler has called “the transformative effect of loss.”
Environmental Humanities – Duke University Press
Published: Nov 1, 2021
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