New Museum of Contemporary Art, July 17 – September 21, 2008
In 1894, August Strindberg, the late-nineteenth-century playwright, produced a series of enigmatic images he deemed ‘celestographs.’ He made them by leaving photographic plates out at night and then developing the results, which consisted of splotches and nebulous dot clusters on a black ground. Strindberg took these patterns, vaguely reminiscent of the aged surface of an underdeveloped Polaroid, to be images of the cosmos, direct transcriptions of the starry skies above. In fact, they were produced by chemical interactions with detritus on the photographic surface.
If Strindberg’s hypothesis were correct, his would have been an image ‘after nature’ of the first order. More direct and more faithful to its subject than any drawing could have been, it would have sidestepped the human hand and eye completely. This desire for an unmediated communion with the greater world crops up throughout After Nature at the New Museum. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Director of Special Exhibitions, it features both established contemporary artists and outsider figures who share, in the words of Gioni, “similar intensities.” Thus the Reverend Howard Finster, a preacher of visions and prophecy, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, an outsider painter and sculptor from Wisconsin, find a place in the show alongside Strindberg. Even more so than the self-aware and self-conscious professional artists included here, there is something lonely about these figures, looking for meaning in a world that is out of synch. There’s something poignant, too, in their failure to grasp their object. For all of Strindberg’s conviction and excitement, his images remain nothing more than chance interactions of water and particles on the plate’s surface.
The exhibition glories a bit much in the “intensities” of its artists, striving for a feverish atmosphere that’s both amusing and a little irritating. In both the selected artworks and the exhibition materials, Gioni vacillates between a hyped-up end-of-the-world scenario ("after nature" as post-nature) and a more subtle interrogation of the art-nature relationship (‘after nature’ as a mode of descriptive art-making). The real meat of the show lies in those pieces that probe the latter.
Zoe Leonard’s 1997 "Tree" stands opposite Strindberg’s celestographs, and is a deft contemporary meditation on the ‘after nature’ theme. A tree whose trunk and branches have been dismembered and fitted back together with the aid of metal brackets and suspension wires, it is, quite literally, a nature morte, a frozen still life of its formerly organic self. Here, though, nature performs a dual function, acting as both subject and object, raw material and finished form. It’s a zingy little mind trick, and the work pops back and forth between reality and representation as you walk around it. But it’s bleak, too: while art has not been exiled completely from the equation, its reach has been dramatically circumscribed.
The nature-culture divide envisioned in Allora & Calzadilla’s "Growth (Survival)" is both livelier and more disquieting. The piece co-opts a 2002 Jenny Holzer work, "Yellow Corner," whose shining LED displays are used as the light source for a hanging staghorn fern. Holzer’s text, a reading on incestuous desire, scrolls by on the LED lights, giving voice to an inner monologue as the narrator slowly gazes over the body of a young girl. The resulting ecology embodies both lust and sustenance, an eerily maternal web of voyeurism and affection. In nature, the staghorn fern is an epiphyte, attaching itself to tree trunks and growing around them—which maintains a poetic consonance with the whiffs of dependence and suffocation you get in Holzer’s streaming words. Here, the fern hangs in the air as a ball of greenery, its lower leaves totally encasing whatever basket it was originally mounted in. At the end of the day, self-perpetuation seems the only rule. You get a similar sensation looking at William Christenberry’s photographs of the rapid spread of kudzu in rural Alabama: nature, insatiable and insensate, blindly retakes the human landscape.
After Nature is concerned not with nature per se, but with how nature is cast and recast in moral, aesthetic, and political dimensions. Roberto Cuoghi’s “maps” are fictive terrains of the so-called Axis of Evil, turning one nation’s political myth into actual cartography. Myths on a human scale—real, believable ones—seem harder to come by. Berlinde De Bruyckere’s life-size wax sculpture is both recognizable and yet keenly unfamiliar. Reminiscent of a crucified Christ with its arched torso and stiffened feet, the figure’s upper half is a mess of ropey growths, sprouting like tree branches from where the head and arms should be. Ultimately, it’s indecipherable as a personage or even a human figure, leaving us to identify only with the sensations it conveys: pain, discomfort, decay; perhaps a hint of redemptive potential. Pawel Althamer’s profusion of self-portraits points to a similar kind of void at the core. The artist’s face stares out at us from multiple directions: here he is a small wooden form, here a life-size version made of animal intestines, here a shriveled fetus.
For all the heated searching on display in these works, there’s a powerful sense of emptiness at the center. This isn’t a comment on the artwork, which for the most part thrives on the tensions at hand. Rather, it’s a comment on where we stand as a culture. It’s here, in that emptiness, that the twin strands of “After Nature” come together, if only briefly. Now that art-making ‘after nature’ is no longer a practicable technique for seeing and creating, we’ve entered a new and alien territory. It’s not so much a landscape post-nature, though, as it is post-culture. The artists on hand give us witty and terrifying proposals for the road ahead: inversions of the art-nature hierarchy, obsessive attention to signs and portents from beyond. Huma Bhaba’s legs and arms and heads, a large, grimacing face, posits a kind of cross-generational revenge, a new race emerging from the ruins of our violent past. But so far, none of these myths seems particularly viable. We seem to have lost our efficacy as reworkers of nature, and with it, a stable sense of ourselves.
Emily Warner is a New York-based critic and writer, and former Editorial Intern at NYFA Current.