Monday, April 27, 2009

////Putting slashes where they don't belong is annoying and overly hip///////

I'm pretty thoroughly confused about what the New Museum's 2008 exhibition After Nature was about, or was meant to be about. Without having seen it in person, I'll have to hold off on complete condemnation, but, based on what the website's "online exhibition" offered, all I can say is that I'm baffled - utterly baffled.

Here are some things that I'm baffled about:

1. The title of the exhibition. Is it after nature, as in nature has ended or been destroyed and this is the result of no more nature? Or is it after nature, as in made in the likeness of nature?

The curatorial statement suggests the former, saying, "
After Nature surveys a landscape of wilderness and ruins, darkened by uncertain catastrophe. It is a story of abandonment, regression, and rapture - an epic of humanity and nature coming apart under the pressure of obscure forces and not-so-distant environmental disasters." But I just can't imagine that anyone would spend the time I'm sure it took to put the show together without thinking of the double meaning of the title. So I'm going to assume that it is meant in both ways, which is an enticing idea.

Reading the title as meaning "in nature's likeness," we might expect work that deals with representations of nature. August Strindberg's
Celestograph seems to do this. According to the audio recording of curator, Massimiliano Gioni, speaking about the piece, Strindberg, believed that he had developed a way to photographically record the cosmos, when, in fact, the patterns on his paper were simply caused by debris and humidity. Thinking of this work in the "in nature's likeness" sort of way, we see a irony and fallacy in the hubris of believing that we can understand or record our universe.
August Strindberg, Celestograph, 1894

2. What in the world does the curator mean by the word "nature"? All I can postulate is that Gioni means it in the broadest possible way. Based on the tremendously varied work in the exhibition, it almost seems as if the show is a violent reaction against any attempt to define nature. Ranging from William Christenberry's fairly straightforward kudzu pictures, which deal easily with the conflict between humans and our destructive but beautiful natural environment, to Tino Seghal's irritatingly obscure performance piece, which I suppose is meant to address expectations of what art is and how humans should behave, the show seems entirely incoherent. I just can't imagine why these two artists would ever be in a thematic show together.
William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981

Tino Seghal at the New Museum in 2008

Are all of these artists talking about nature? Is this just post-apocalyptic stuff? Is this about the breakdown of the natural order? Maybe that's how these artists are connected. If I think about the ideas of breakdown and chaos, I start to understand how some of this might fit together. I love Roger Ballen's work, which was included in the exhibition and relates to the idea of breakdown.

Roger Ballen, Children on bed, 1996

In the audio available on the website, Gioni says the show is about an "image of nature as if it was crumbling and dying and all the energy had been sucked away." This statement makes me think more of apocalyptic environmental catastrophe than of the idea of breakdown as I described above. Perhaps his language is why I'm having such a hard time understanding this show.

Is this a show about nature? I'm not really sure. Gioni apparently grew great inspiration from Werner Herzog, and I think I can see that influence. Herzog seems to understand the world as chaotic and mysterious, and that seems to define this show.

///p.s. The title of the post refers to the stupid tech-aesthetic slashes all over the online exhibition.////

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