In searching the Google Art Project, I encountered in the work of Anselm Kiefer the starkest contrast between an original, analog composition and its digital reproduction. In several ways, Kiefer’s compositions exaggerate certain elements innate to all analog visual art, particularly the importance of scale and the inexorable deterioration of the artwork. Through an analysis of Google Art’s digital reproduction of Kiefer’s Humbaba (2009), this post intends to examine how the massive scale and use of already decaying matter in Kiefer’s work illustrates Benjamin and Malraux’s critiques of photographic reproductions. In addition, such techniques might function as a means of preemptively resisting remediation into the digital.
Scale: As Malraux notes in The Voices of Silence, “There is another, more insidious, effect of reproduction. In an album or art book the illustrations tend to be of much the same size. Thus works of art lose their relative proportions” (Irvine 4). This is particularly evident in Google Art’s reproduction of Humbala, in which not only is the composition approximately reduced to the same size as all other reproductions in the database, but even the description itself fails to provide the proportions of the artwork.
As a result, the viewer must rely on previous experiences of Kiefer’s other compositions, or general cultural knowledge of Kiefer’s work, in order to imagine the probably grandness of its scale. While the shirt in the composition provides some means of assessing proportion, the size of this shirt is left indeterminate by both the image and the description (is it a man’s shirt? A doll’s? etc.).
Decay: In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Benjamin examines the inability of the reproduction to reproduce the context of an artwork (“In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place” (253)), while also mentioning (somewhat briefly) the importance of the materiality of the artwork in assessing its authenticity: “This history includes changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership” (253). It’s this latter materiality that I would like to focus on with regard to Kiefer. Certainly, all analog visual art is subject to decay, but here we have compositions which readily exhibit their own decomposition through the intentional combination of elements already in the process of decay (dead leaves, rotting twigs, tattered cloth, etc.). In addition to providing sensory perceptions that resist digitalization (e.g. odors and textures), the accelerated dilapidation of a Kiefer composition ensures that the composition itself undergoes significant physical changes faster than most other forms of visual art. It is not merely that the meaning of the artwork changes based on situational or historical context—where it is in space (art museum, studio, gallery, internet database) and in time (intertextuality stipulates that the introduction of new artwork into the network alters the meaning of the old)—but also that the artwork itself observably changes at a rapid rate in comparison to, say, tradition oil-on-canvas paintings. This unique quality of Kiefer’s work is not digitalized, for the digital image never organically decomposes (although it would not be impossible to simulate this, I’d imagine, Google has yet to do it).
Certainly, we do not have to take the digital reproduction as a replacement for the original. In this sense, the digital reproduction serves to provide access to a global audience; it extends viewership to anyone with an internet connection. However, in the case of Kiefer’s work, is there any point in this extension of access? Two of the main characteristics of his composition—massiveness and decay—resist any attempts at digitalization (as my friend remarked in a conversation about this, “It’s only as massive and decaying as your screen”). What, then, is left? Is it even the same artwork in the digital context? Would a more thorough metatextual description alleviate these deficiencies? (Does not visual art also resist translation into the written word?) Adding to Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, might Kiefer’s work provide a case study as to how older mediums might compete with newer mediums not only through remediating the new, but perhaps through employing elements that actively resist remediation into newer formats?
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939).
Irvine, Martin. “André Malraux, “La Musée Imaginaire (The Imaginary Museum)””.