In 1965 a major blackout hit north-eastern USA, and in it Robert Smithson saw a preview of the eventual heat death of the universe. What struck him most was the reaction it provoked. ‘Far from creating a mood of dread,’ he wrote in Entropy and the New Monuments (1966), ‘the power failure created a mood of euphoria. An almost cosmic joy swept over all the darkened cities. Why people felt that way may never be answered.’
This strain of doomsday euphoria may be inexplicable, but it’s distinctive and familiar – something specific yet hard to specify. The success of ‘After Nature’, a curiously compelling apocalypse-themed show at the New Museum, lay in the precision with which it conjured up this particular cluster of affect. It was a deeply uneven show, filled with a lot of tepid work, but somehow all of that mattered less than the atmosphere of the whole, the singular note struck by curator Massimiliano Gioni’s selections: sombre on the surface yet tinged with almost camp excess, something swoony and overripe leaking in from all sides.
Invoking environmental catastrophe and damaged humanity with a self-consciously melodramatic flair, the sensibility on display might best be described as ‘eco-goth’. Appropriately enough, the guiding spirits of ‘After Nature’ were a pair of death-haunted Germans: the filmmaker Werner Herzog and the writer W.G. Sebald. A narrative poem by Sebald from 1988 supplied the show’s title, and Gioni reproduced the late author’s discursive quasi-historical meanderings in a cabinet-of-curiosities curatorial approach, mingling art and eccentric artefacts.
A re-edited version of Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992) served as the centrepiece of the show and was the most powerful work on display. Shot in the aftermath of the first Gulf war, the film presents the burning oil fields of Kuwait as evidence of a planetary cataclysm. It is documentary as science fiction, filled with astonishing shots of towers of flame, piles of wrecked machinery, rivers and lakes of oil. In brief interviews we hear about children crying black tears, women struck mute. With Richard Wagner swelling on the soundtrack, Herzog narrates these scenes with oblique commentary, as though he is an extraterrestrial observer filing a post-mortem. The film’s opening epigraph, attributed to Blaise Pascal, neatly sums up the doomsday Sublime: ‘The collapse of the stellar universe will occur, like creation, in grandiose splendour.’ (But, as Herzog has pointed out, and as Gioni’s text re-emphasized, the line is actually not from Pascal at all. The director made it up himself.)
Herzog’s dramatizing tactics – repurposing the merely factual in the service of a higher truth – was the strategy adopted for ‘After Nature’ as well. Striving for something equally mythic and strange, Gioni yoked the works he chose into the service of what he called a ‘visual novel’. This model had the effect of adding interesting resonances to familiar – sometimes over-familiar – work. Maurizio Cattelan’s taxidermied horse (Untitled, 2007), seemingly stuck head-first high up on a gallery wall, might in other contexts have registered as merely prankish; here it was meant to be read as ‘an image of surrender and loss, a monument in reverse’. Sharing a spare gallery with Zoe Leonard’s trussed, pieced-together Tree (1997), it managed an unlikely solemnity.
Not everything benefited from such recontextualizing. Pawel Althamer’s life-size figures made of animal skin and straw dominated almost an entire floor of the exhibition. Gioni’s text proposed that they ‘could be interpreted as effigies built to preserve the image of a race on the brink of annihilation’. This seemed like a stretch, an excessive imposition of narrative on work that felt more gimmicky than evocative. In a similar vein, but far more effective, was Berlinde de Bruyckere’s Robin V (2006–7), a greyish cadaver-like figure of wax and resin displayed in a glass vitrine. With its head and shoulders replaced by a tangle of roots and branches, it suggested Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521) as much as a side-show display.
Yet the outstanding works in ‘After Nature’ were the ones that brought their own strange stories with them, rather than simply slotting into Gioni’s end-time scenario. William Christenberry’s series of intense colour photographs documenting a building enveloped by kudzu vines was a real-life ecological revenge fantasy. Perhaps the most evocative objects in the show were four of August Strindberg’s miniature ‘celestographs’ – works truly fashioned by nature, though not in the way intended. In 1894 Strindberg was convinced he could capture starlight directly, without the mediation of a camera. Setting photographic paper on his window ledge at night, he was convinced that the image he achieved was a portrait of the heavens. Yet the stellar scenes were nothing more than dust and chemical imperfections, age and corrosion contributing rust-coloured nebulae. Nonetheless, there was something truly cosmic in these tiny, odd relics. They were souvenirs of entropy – something Smithson would probably have appreciated.