Monday, April 27, 2009

After Nature

I was interested in After Nature's use of literary influences, both in the presentation on the website and at the exhibit at the New Museum. The most prominent text on the website comes from excerpts of sermons by Reverend Howard Finster, a man whose frenetic handwritten aphorisms and observations provide a running commentary for the online images. Several words or phrases from each sermon excerpt appear as hyperlinks that connect the viewer to another word/image pairing. The found material doesn't have any obvious correlation to the images upon which they are superimposed. In addition, the hyperlinks do not provide any deliberate or linear correspondence between images. The juxtapositions seem both random and consistently ominous.

These juxtapositions may feel random, but they are deliberate moves inspired in part by the work of W.G. Sebald, the author whose prose poem After Nature provides the title for this exhibition. The influence of literary texts pervades this exhibition. In their audio commentaries, artists refer to apocalyptic lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, August Strindberg's Inferno, Lovecraft's The Beast and the Cave, and even The Unabomber Manifesto (not literature, exactly, but certainly a dystopic text that has inspired some of the art objects in this exhibit).

Several of the works in this exhibition reveal a fascination with decapitation, engorgement, and the abjection of the human body. This focus on the decapitated head has biblical resonances, too. Consider the detail from Thomas Schütte's The Magnificent Seven:

At first, the disembodied head looks like a kind of death mask, but the blood-red color of the ceramic, and the severe crack along the front of the face suggest a violent death. The bubbled material on the side of the bloodied head is presented as an earthlike material that is in the process of decomposition. There's something forensic to me about this head, but something organic, too—the idea that Adam was made of the earth.
Huma Bhabha's legs, and arms, and heads is another disembodied sculpture available for online viewing:

The title for Bhabha's piece comes from a particularly post-apocalytpic excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry V, in which a soldier in the king's army speculates on what will happen when the amputated limbs of mutilated soldiers join forces in the afterlife and demand a reckoning. Bhabha's head, which is made of both synthetic and natural materials. Like the memento mori of earlier centuries, this disembodied, decomposing head points more to what's missing than to what's there.

This pointing to what's absent recurs in Dana Schutz's Man Eating His Chest:

When I showed this image to my wife, she observed that the painting's bleak but bold color palette, process of self-engorgement, abject horror of the painting echoed the posture of some of William Blake's visions in The Book of Urizen (1794):

Like many of the artists in this exhibit, Blake was a reclusive visionary interested in creating his own systems of signification. Chaos and disorder are also depicted in Atomic Age, the painting by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, another artist who, according to the curator, "developed personal cosmologies" in order to create his art:

With what appears to be snakes coming from an atomic cloud, Von Bruenchenhein's image is paired with the words "///THE earth will pass away with a great noise and there will be no place for it" on the site. The painting is disturbing enough, even without the doomsday prophesizing words laid on top of it. It seems like the destruction of an atomic bomb would beget even more destruction, in the form of snakes.

Snakes, too, have a prominent place in William Christenberry's audio commentary about the kudzu of the South, and how the fear of being tangled up in hoopsnakes informs his vision of overgrowth and superabundance of nature.

Perhaps, then, I'm most interested in how these apocalyptic visions speak back to one another and use familiar, recognizable tropes from apocalyptic traditions across time periods, even as they create innovative art objects. But I'm not sure if After Nature represents "new ecological systems struggl[ing] to find a precarious balance" that the introductory text on the website refers to. Rather I see an exhibit that's clearly depicting hell on earth and there's nothing very precarious about it.

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