Americans experience the world as being in a state of perpetual pre-apocalypse: Disaster looms large in the form of terrorism, AIDS, nuclear war, or environmental devastation. Assembling a collection of works that pit the vulnerability of man against the devastating force of man-made catastrophe, the New Museum’s “After Nature” exhibition heralds our fear and bravely imagines the world post-apocalypse.
The power of the exhibition lies in curator Massimiliano Gioni’s complex and contradictory view that destruction is beautiful. Werner Herzog’s documentary Lessons of Darkness inspired the show and is a fitting opener; the film is a smoky chronicle of Kuwait on fire in the months after the end of the first Gulf War. Herzog splices footage of firefighters battling blazing oil wells with exquisite aerial views of the desert pocked with searing red flames and billowing black smoke. In his paintings Atomic Age and The Birth of Light, outsider artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein also revels in the exuberant beauty of fiery explosions. Made during the Cold War era, his glossy waxworks envision the final atomic blasts as bright, looping mushroom clouds gleefully signaling the end.
But as Herzog and Von Bruenchenhein’s works marvel at man’s destructive power, another group of artists forces us to confront the human cost of violence. Belgian sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere’s wax sculpture of a corpse, laid in a glass case in the center of the exhibition hall, depicts an ethereal body whose punctured chest has come to rest at the root of a tree. Hanging above De Bruyckere’s cadaver is Dana Schutz’s Man Eating His Chest, a gruesome depiction of a man driven to a hysterical suicide via self-cannibalization. Tucked in the corner of the third floor is a similarly unsettling—albeit less gory—Tino Sehgal performance piece: Brilliantly placed at the foot of the stairwell, the work startles viewers who turn the corner to find what appears to be a fellow visitor crumpled on the floor. Using a rotating cast of smartly dressed young women, it features the performer writhing slowly, like someone in the grip of a graceful seizure. Our natural impulse is to help her up: It becomes incredibly uncomfortable to simply stand by and watch.
As “After Nature” plunges visitors into a dense and haunting exploration of death and mayhem, two artists offer us a path out: Robert Kusmirowski’s life-size replica of the Unabomber’s crude one-room cabin, aptly titled Unacabine, shows us Theodore Kaczynski’s answer to the encroaching threat of modern technology. Ten years ago, when Kaczynski’s cabin was first discovered deep in the Montana woods, it was popularly seen as the bizarre home of a reclusive and passionate maniac. Today, we can better empathize with Kaczynski’s impulse to retreat into the protective womb of nature; I found myself walking around the structure looking for a way in.
Polish artist Artur Zmijewski offers the solitary view of human life lived in the wake of disaster. His video piece, An Eye for an Eye, explores the intimate day-to-day challenges of living with combat injuries. A one-legged man finds a way to walk by joining forces with another man: In a loving embrace, the two move as one. The video offers no explanation for the one-legged man’s injuries, but it gives us hope that though the wounds may be permanent, we too can find a way to hobble out of the darkness with another’s love and support.
Humanity, it seems, is both the cause of our fear and our only source of protection.