After After Nature
Last week I was in New York City and had the opportunity to see two-thirds of the exhibition After Nature at the new New Museum. (The exhibition is opening in stages and the installation of the second floor – the floor which “sets the tone for the exhibition”, according to curator Massimiliano Gioni – was not ready when I was there.) After enjoying the panoramic views of New York from the rooftop I took the stairs down and began the exhibition on the fourth floor. Stepping into a gallery, I immediately encountered a slim woman in jeans and shirt writhing in slow motion on the floor, long hair covering her face most of the time. Perhaps I was seeing the exhibition in reverse, I realized; but it was too late.
The exhibition’s title, of course, is borrowed from W.G. Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature. Gioni explains that his exhibition “aspires to a similar hallucinatory confusion [as Sebald’s writings], a conflation of temporalities, a blurring of facts and fictions – an exhibition as a visual novel or wunderkammer.” In addition to Sebald, the acknowledged guiding spirits are filmmaker Werner Herzog and novelist Cormac McCarthy. Rather than trying to define anything, After Nature seems to spiral outward in multiple directions: “offended sceneries and scorched earth”, “private cosmologies and universes untouched by man”, “ancient traditions and arcane faiths”, and the “bliss” or “madness” we might experience at the end of the world. There are already a number of exhibition reviews online already, some of which point out the exhibition’s lack of focus. But whether that’s a problem or not (a characteristic like “focus” usually isn’t a goal for exhibitions at the New Museum), there are wonderful pieces to be seen, including Maurizio Cattelan’s untitled (2007) comic/apocalyptic horse implanted some twenty feet off the ground into a gallery wall and Robert Kusmirowski’s Unacabine (2008), a replica of “Unibomber” Theodore Kaczynski’s cabin. And then there was the writhing woman, who, it turns out, is one of several performers in Tino Sehgal’s piece Instead of allowing something to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000).
On the way out, I stopped and bought the eponymous shrink-wrapped exhibition catalog for After Nature ($24.95). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it consisted of a dust wrapper that unfolded to six panels neatly tucked around a Modern Library paperback copy of W.G. Sebald’s After Nature ($11.95). That’s a nifty mark-up for what is essentially a dust jacket. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire book appropriated like this before. The wrapper includes an essay by Gioni and a checklist noted as accurate “as of June 25, 2008”.