For all of its melancholic overtones and stomach-turning curios, After Nature at the New Museum is an exceptionally fun place to be drunk. And why not? The apocalypse isn’t exactly something that one should face sober.
Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s Director of Special Exhibitions, the show is meant to be, “read as a visual novel, a story of nature after a trauma, a retelling colored by mythology, religion and distress.” On its opening night, however, it felt more like a carnival ride.
After the requisite schmooze and booze on the seventh floor Sky Room, I started my tour of the three-tiered exhibition from the top down and was immediately staggered by the brilliantly executed pairing of Zoe Leonard’s Tree (1997) — a 21-foot tree reconstructed with an elaborate steel support system—and Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (2007) — a taxidermied horse hanging dejectedly from its headless neck.
Fueled by the gee-whiz curiosity that often accompanies the initial stages of intoxication, I barreled my way past After Nature’s other dramatic oddities, including a life-sized replica of the Unibomber’s cabin; a vitrine-encased corpse covered in waxy, wooden tentacles; a video of a three-legged, four-armed, two-headed man; and a village of humanoid figures made of patch-worked animal intestines. Blowing a mental kiss to the pink-clad Cattelan (a longtime favorite) as I breezed through the door, I left convinced that wow, I’ve been past the end of the world and it was fun!
There is, however, much more to After Nature than mere spectacle, and, at its core, Gioni’s exhibition feels deeply cerebral. Recently revisiting the show on a sober weekday, I was bewildered and overwhelmed by the visual and ideological clutter of the second and third floor galleries, but I also felt provoked into an instantaneous dialogue with the show’s stronger works.
When viewed within the context of the exhibition, Werner Herzog’s 1992 film And A Smoke Arose—Lessons of Darkness provides an excellent sounding board for classic questions about art and its function: Is it immoral to aestheticize catastrophes? Must art be political? Are human brains hard-wired to weave any collection of images into a cohesive narrative?
The last question begs consideration of After Nature’s status as a “visual novel” –- certainly, it shares some common traits with literary works like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and, of course, the W.G. Sebald poem from which the show takes its name, but the thread that attempts to bind the individual art works is too long and too loose to provide any satisfactory sense of unity. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that After Nature is a compilation of compelling objects from which viewers can pick and choose those that fit their own dystopic fantasies and further their own mental inquisitions. Here’s the end of the world. Do with it what you will.