Monday, July 28, 2008

“After Nature” -the New Museum NYC








“After Nature” is an important group show of twenty-six international artists, past and present, at the New Museum, which proposes a saturnine new direction in art. The catalogue is a foldout slipcover around a paperback of “After Nature,” a book-length poem in three parts by W. G. Sebald. It’s an arresting gesture. The rapturously depressive German writer, who died in 2001, would seem an unlikely hero for contemporary avant-gardists, who have been more easily imagined reading comic books. The first two sections of the dauntingly erudite work—on the Northern Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald and on the German naturalist Georg Steller, a participant in a disastrous Arctic expedition led by Vitus Bering in 1741—exude Old World gravitas, laced with obsessive descriptions of material ruin, physical disease, and mental suffering. The third, which is roughly autobiographical, quotes “King Lear” and expresses anguish directly: “Oh, / you are men of stones. . . . Water? Fire? Good? / Evil? Life? Death?” But Sebald’s signature tone is dead calm. His conjurings of historical and personal loss, which in his novels and memoirs are usually keyed to the calamities of the Second World War, happen to you slowly, as you read, like the onset of a cold. (I’m an admirer but not a fan.) What young artist would want to get mixed up with such connoisseurship of remote sorrows?

The museum’s director of special exhibitions, Massimiliano Gioni, who curated the show, is confident of Sebald’s Pied Piper appeal, as he is of Werner Herzog’s—the director’s gorgeous and dire film on the aftermath of the Gulf War, “Lessons of Darkness” (1992), excerpts of which are loop-projected on the first of the show’s three floors, is another touchstone. Gioni also cites Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road” (2006), writing of a rising sensibility haunted by “the destabilizing sensation of having come upon the remains of our own civilization after its extinction,” transfixed by “offended sceneries and scorched earth,” and hankering for qualities of the “pure, distant, and extreme” in “a sphere that is, if not religious, at least sacred or obscure, like a mystery cult.” Remarkably, the visual goods on display endorse Gioni’s rhetoric. Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change.

The selections of unfamiliar past art in “After Nature” nonplus the viewer, by evident design. There are cameraless photographs, called “Celestographs,” made in 1894 by August Strindberg, the playwright, who exposed film to the night sky in hopes of capturing starscapes; he decided that the results had metaphysical import, despite comprising only traces of dust and chemical discoloration. Hand-lettered, delirious sermons by the Reverend Howard Finster (1916-2001), a Georgian bricoleur, and surreal abstractions by Eugene von Bruenchenhein (1910-83), a working-class Milwaukee-an, admit outsiders to the collegial mix. And little-known films by the late sculptor and painter Nancy Graves—obsessive studies, from the early nineteen-seventies, of camels, frigate birds, and the moon—contribute a note of, in Gioni’s words, “cosmic stupor.” These things share a driven sincerity; they couldn’t be made by anyone who didn’t mean them. One work jars, instructively: a dangling, taxidermied horse, its head (if it has one) buried high up in a wall, by the internationally celebrated, zingy satirist Maurizio Cattelan. Cattelan’s horse comes off as gaudy and smug—emblematic of a cul de sac (art as engineered sensation, more or less) that most of the artists in the show strive to escape.

The major surprise is the sculpture of Pawel Althamer, a forty-one-year-old artist based in Warsaw, whose animal-intestine-skinned, straw-stuffed, naked people, among other works, give an old-fashioned humanism the burning presence of an angry revenant. Althamer’s art discounts considerations of style to insist on realities of life and (chiefly) death, as does a bolted-together and propped (and perhaps needlessly large) reconstruction of a dead tree, by the American Zoe Leonard. Other artists pile on raw-nerved provocations: the Italian Diego Perrone, with photographs of maw-like holes in arid ground, some with a naked man who seems to contemplate a suicidal plunge; the New Yorker Dana Schutz, with an Expressionist painting called “Man Eating His Chest”; the Pole Artur Zmijewski, with a video in which naked able-bodied people become living prostheses for naked victims of maiming, helping a one-legged man walk and a man without fingers shampoo his hair; and the Pakistani-born American Huma Bhabha, with “legs, and arms, and heads” (2008), a big, truly scary skull in several mediums.

If the common run of contemporary art risks triviality in the pursuit of seduction, the new kind incurs hysteria as a toll of earnest intensity. Emotional reach exceeds formal grasp throughout the show, and certain melodramatic lurches fail entirely. (I don’t care what Robert Kusmirowski intends by his painstaking reconstruction of the Una-bomber Ted Kaczynski’s cabin; it’s dumb.) But the futility of artistic technique in the face of world conditions may constitute a subject for art as substantial as any other, and rather more compelling than today’s stacked-deck models of success. Bhabha’s gruesome death’s-head neatly—that is to say, messily—critiques Damien Hirst’s famous diamond-encrusted skull, which sold last year for a reported hundred million dollars. Work like Bhabha’s tacitly cancels the credit of artists who allude to terror and horror without personal investment. Existentialist standards of authenticity may be back in force, however fleetingly. How much can we bear of art that, like Sebald’s writing, glories in bottomless malaise? I expect we’ll find out.

11 comments:

CAP said...

This is a pretty interesting art blog Anon/Tjebbe - straddling NY and Berlin
- But please!
Could you limit the number of posts on your home page? To say 5 or 10? There must be about 50-60 now and it takes a long time to download (for those of us still on dial-up - about 180 items) as well as to navigate.
It's a simple formatting option, under your settings tab - would not interfere with your layout or content in any way, would only file posts at a given number for each page of the site.
Would be very helpful!

But that apart - I like the shows you've posted and find the background on artists like Rezi van Lankveld interesting.

Anonymous said...

okay i will try and change that! thank you for your kind comments and interest in my blog!
best regards

t.

Anonymous said...

dear cap,

i´ve changed the settings to 4 post on the first page i hope this helps!

best
t.

CAP said...

Anon - Umm...

We still seem to have all the posts for 2008 on the home page, for some reason.
????
Is there a date option on posts? I'll have a look...

But thanks for trying.

CAP said...

OK - the problem might be that you have checked 'days' in the box next to number of posts displayed on homepage. That box has to be set to 'posts'.

Apart from that, one small quibble on the slogan beneath your header - 'There is live outside the ivory tower' -
Shouldn't that read
'There is life outside the ivory tower'?

Or am I missing some joke here?

Anonymous said...

no joke, your absolutely right !!! type-o- !!!

Anonymous said...

hmm changed the settings again it says 4 posts now so hopefully this works.
grt
tjebbe

CAP said...

Nope, no change,

But thanks for trying, G/T

CAP said...

OK - how about this - Yes you are changing the number of posts - as well as the option for By Posts rather than By Days, for your main page - BUT

Are you then scrolling to the bottom of that page and clicking on SAVE CHANGES?

I

Don't

Think

So

The same goes for corrections to the spelling glitch in your header.

Sure you can spell life, when it really counts, but did you then scroll to the bottom of the formatting page and click on SAVE CHANGES?

I

Don't

Think

So.

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