Thursday, October 16, 2008

Trudy Benson's Review of "After Nature" at the New Museum

"After Nature": A Delirious Prank

"After Nature", the extensive group show at the New Museum, spans three floors and includes the work of twenty-six international artists. The show includes almost one hundred different works and was organized by the museum's director of special exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni. Thematically inspired by Werner Herzog, W. G. Sebald, and Cormac McCarthy, Gioni proposes a post-apocalyptic perspective in art. Gioni writes that the exhibition is meant to be "a cabinet of curiosities that pieces together a fragmented encyclopedia", and overall meant to portray a mood suggested by Herzog's "ecstatic truth". Herzog minces around what he means by "ecstatic truth", describing it as a poetic truth liberated from fact just as Gioni's selection of works tries to send the viewer on a wild goose chase for integral meaning.

Individual themes within artworks include loss, as in Artur Zmijewski's film Oko Za Oko (An Eye for an Eye) in which a cripple is helped by another man to perform mundane acts; death, as in Pawet Althamer's figurative sculptures; and environmental issues, as in Allora and Calzadilla's Growth (Survival), an installation of Jenny Holzer's running LED light sculpture as light source for a large, hanging staghorn fern.

Tree, Zoe Leonard's dismembered tree pieced back together, resonates with the jumbled mood of the rest of the show. Perhaps the most palpable of Gioni's elusive grapple with "truth", Tree is a documentation of a random act of nature. High up on the wall Maurizio Catelan's taxidermied full-sized horse (Untitled) dangles with its head seemingly stuck in the wall. Together the two pieces more than dominate the room. The scale of works in the comparatively sparsely-curated room infuse the room with an eery energy. Both pieces stand as kinds of perverse monuments to loss, in that after their demises, the tree and the horse were turned to an improper use.

The third floor "houses" a full-scale replica of the Unibomber's cabin by Robert Kusmirwski with is only slightly evocative once we've answered the question, "Why is this colossal home blocking my view of the rest of the room?" Also disappointing are the unexciting large scale photographs of holes dug by Diego Perrone. The two pieces together feel like a room in an underfunded natural history museum; the artworks seem more like artifacts and the mood is morbid.

Pieces in the show were often accompanied by impartial or found texts placed with the intention of misleading the viewer even further of the curatorial decision making. According to Gioni, these blurbs suggest "new possible keys for their misinterpretation", but to the viewer who hasn't been let in on Gioni's deceptions, they come off as unprofessional. In fact, the entire exhibition operates under the premise of a fictitious presentation: that of a documentation of the present by some future institution. Once we've completed all of the necessary research into Gioni's inspirations and are making Herzog's search for an "ecstatic truth", this deceptive approach seems heavy-handed. The fourth floor alone, because of its overall mood rather than literal fabrication, is definitely evocative and fulfills Gioni's intentions.

The exhibition seems to prey off of eccentricities assumed by Massimiliano Gioni. Surely Herzog's truth could be reached in a slightly more prosaic manner than the overly romantic "After Nature". Gioni actually expects us to stumble starry-eyed through his Hall of Curiosities!

Gioni's attempt to discuss the changing themes of young artists today is another ambitious proposition, perhaps upstaged by his "quest for truth". The incorporation of the nuclear finger paintings by outsider artists Eugene Von Bruenchenhein and quotes by Reverend Howard Finster are ecstatic exclamations of the kind of overly dramatic romanticism we find Massimiiliano Gioni guilty of.

Trudy Benson

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