After Nature

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Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog, 1992

New York was borderline unbearable this weekend. The humidity was tropical and the heat was Egyptian. So it was a good time to think about environmental degradation and to drift over to the New Museum to see “After Nature”, a little fever dream of a show that brings together works by 35 artists that either have a post-apocalyptic mood or that assume one by association with the other work in the show. The title comes from the book length poem by W.G. Sebald, the late, great, very saturnine German writer. But the presiding literary influence could just as well have been Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s all about extinction and what follows.

Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum’s director of special exhibitions, who organized the show, set the end of the world mood on the first of its three floors with a screen showing passages from Lessons of Darkness, the mesmerizing, semi-wordless Werner Herzog documentary shot in Kuwait after the Gulf War in 1991. A few key chapters of the film are set in the oilfields set afire by retreating Iraqi soldiers. (Herzog’s film is available on DVD. Rent it — now. I happen to own a copy that I’m watching in the upper left hand corner of my computer as I write this. Hey, it sets the mood.)

On the same floor are some of William Christenberry’s color photographs of invasive kudzu in the rural South, implacable plant life overtaking everything. These are pictures that beckon to the lazy side of your death wish, images of an old world gently subsiding into the overgrowth. They made for a nice lyrical counterpoint to Herzog’s Gotterdammerung. It goes without saying that Wagner is on the Herzog soundtrack, not just the sound and fury side of Wagner but some of the sweeter, more elegiac parts of Parsifal and Das Rheingold. But what you really can’t get out of your head are the long, slow tracking segments of roadside devastation set to vocal music by Arvo Part.

The next floor was dominated by Robert Kusmirowski’s hermetic full-scale reproduction of the Unabomber’s cabin, a mad corruption of Thoreau’s retreat from civilization, the last word in anger mismanagement. In the same gallery there was a first-rate Dana Schutz of a man eating his chest. (In this more or less Germanic exhibition — Germanic in its Romanticism; Germanic in its post-Romantic apocalyptic nostalgia — you realize again how neatly Schutz has capitalized on the German neo-expressionism of the ’80s.) And in the vein of Wagnerian hellfire and visionary derangement there was a nice series of flamboyant finger paintings by the untrained artist Eugene von Bruenchenhein, whose work was discovered in his cluttered house after his death in the 1980s. He’s also called an “outsider artist” but I hate that term. It sounds like something invented by real estate agents when they’re trying to sell a sketchy neighborhood.

But the high point of that floor was a ten-minute video by Artur Zmijewski. In the first, dark, black-and-white part, a naked man who has had his right leg amputated at the hip struggles up a flight of stairs. He joins another naked man on a mattress, then the two of them rise to pace their dark room together in a conjoined three-legged walk. In the second part a naked young man with badly injured hands — he’s missing most of his fingers — is tenderly lathered in a shower by a naked woman. In the third part the men return. At the end we see them from above lying in profile. They’re making a kind of joint tandem bicycle movement while lightly whistling a tune. In this part they smile a bit, stepping outside the “art”. What was it about? I’ll say dependency and survival in an injured world.

On the third floor, it was tour de force time. When you come off the elevator you see a huge broken tree, bolted back together and held up by crutches and guy wires attached to the walls. It’s by Zoe Leonard. Across the gallery is a Maurizio Cattelan, the Harpo Marx of contemporary art. It’s a horse suspended high over the floor but hanging flaccid like a hanged man and with its head buried in the wall. After the gravitas of Leonard’s tree, Cattelan’s horse felt a bit slick, too “made for the international art circuit” — like the parade of airborne wolves tumbling into a glass wall that Cai Guo-Qiang just showed at the Guggenheim — but I have a feeling it will stay with me. Not just the great tradition of equestrian portraiture but horse power itself is coming to an end here.

And in the same room are four or five photographs by the New York born photographer Roger Ballen. Ballen started as a documentary photographer working in rural South Africa in the Walker Evans mode. Over the years he’s evolved into something very different, a photographer who sets up enigmatic, slightly creepy scenes in his studio. (Think Diane Arbus meets Joel-Peter Witkin and they both go to lunch with Ralph Eugene Meatyard.) There’s a good selection of his work in the image gallery on his website.

For me the show ended with a little video set in a very small room tucked in along a staircase. The artist Klara Liden moonwalks around lower Manhattan at night. It was all about reclaiming the city. Very nice.

Then I went downstairs, opened the glass door and walked back into the furnace.

(There’s an image gallery from the show at the New Museum website. And a New York Times slide show here.)