While a large segment of the art world has obsessed over a tiny number of stars and their prices, an esthetic shift has been occurring. It’s not a movement -- movements are more sure of themselves. It’s a change of mood or expectation, a desire for art to be more than showy effects, big numbers and gamesmanship. It’s a shift from theatricality to actual drama, from art about selling art to an art that’s serious and ironic at the same time, eager for audiences but not slick and accessorized. Some of it is really good; some already looks like neo-Romantic dreck.
"After Nature" zeroes in on this shift. It’s a dark ode about the human race’s running out of time, life gone wrong, nature out of control. We see kudzu enveloping buildings, amputees being bathed by the able-bodied and a full-scale replica of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s shack. Werner Herzog’s film of Kuwaiti oil fields set afire is a glimpse into the abyss; Huma Bhabha’s giant head is dying god and emerging monster.
"After Nature" is a somber, serious, cerebral show. Maybe excessively so. Its curator, Massimiliano Gioni, has used the late W. G. Sebald’s lugubrious book of the same title as a narrative platform. Sebald’s story deals with doomed 18th-century Arctic explorers, suffering and tragedy. It oozes melancholy, as does Gioni’s catalogue essay about "a land of wilderness and ruins that exists in an imaginary time zone suspended between a remote past and a not-so-distant future" and a "world devoid of humans." Yikes.
Perhaps Gioni waxes romantic because the artists in "After Nature" depict public and private hells. The emblem for the show may be Klara Liden’s dark alcove with its upside-down spinning model of the New Museum overhead and a video of the artist moonwalking through the city at night. This work demands concentration, exudes enigma and transports you to a living limbo.
Each level is distinct. The artists on the fourth floor, for example, form an extraordinary abstract rebus of Goya’s bloodcurdling etching of mutilated corpses hung from barren trees. Here, Zoe Leonard’s tree supported by crutches and cables stands in for Goya’s gnarled trunk; the contorted figures in Roger Ballen’s photos become Goya’s butchered bodies; Maurizio Cattelan’s stuffed horse with its head stuck into the wall is simultaneously viewer, victim and allegory.
In fact, "After Nature" is so tightly scripted and grounded in humanistic liberalism that individual pieces begin to read less as artworks than as text. Everything becomes subservient to the narrative. And as well plumbed as that narrative is, it doesn’t negate the fact that some of the artworks are weak. Leonard’s tree is great as part of an overall picture, but it isn’t very interesting on its own. If you don’t know what the Kaczynski reconstruction is, it’s just a shack. I also missed some artists farther below the art-world radar who might have fit into the show. For example, in the early ‘90s, Laura Stein grafted living cacti together into Frankensteinian creatures; recently, she’s reportedly taught a macaw to take photographs. After nature, indeed.
In other words, Gioni has expertly orchestrated a hymn of minor chords. However, as Brian Eno observed, "you can make major chords sound sad, but you can never make minor chords sound happy." As complex, thoughtful, and inventive as "After Nature" is, it lacks paradox.
Nevertheless, it’s thrilling to see an excellent curator at a New York museum boldly tackle a large themed survey -- to identify a trend, and not be trendy.
"After Nature," July 17-Sept. 21, 2008, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10002
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at email@example.com