“Concrete Jungle”

Tanja Grunert

For centuries, artists regarded nature as a source of beauty and harmony, an endless equilibrium of form and color, life and death. They kept returning to nature in quest of solace; it was the symbol of paradise. Today, nature offers little solace, however, and much less than paradise is revealed by Alexis Rockman, Bob Braine, and Mark Dion here. They present a world that has seldom appeared in art; their paintings, photographs, and installations tell of a destroyed nature, with which we are quite familiar, but whose existence we keep trying to block from our minds.

Rockman’s paintings show a nature that has long since become a bleak concrete wasteland, in which only a few gaudy birds fight rats and crows for survival. To discern these dynamics, however, we have to peer into the work very closely, for these pictures are painted in a style that derives from turn-of-the-century botanical and zoological illustration. For this reason, they appear innocuous at first glance. Needless to say, that impression contrasts sharply with their content, which both attracts and repels.

Braine’s six photographs, hanging on the end wall of the gallery, show in a shattering way countless animals killed on streets and highways. Freedom of mobility for some creatures has always interfered with that of others, sometimes causing an imbalance. Dion placed two garbage dumps in the gallery; in two opposite corners of the space, trash cans and old mattresses, empty paint cans, stuffed plastic bags, and old newspapers form extravagant “still lifes,” which are familiar to anyone who has ever walked the streets of New York. He too has seen the rats, starving cats, and gulls on such piles, and now these creatures, all of them stuffed, populate the garbage distributed in the gallery.

Nature, as art used to show us, seemed to be infinitely balanced—but no longer. Today, its equilibrium is threatened; vegetation is changing, certain animal species are dying out and being replaced by more and more parasitical creatures that menace the original species. Nature is being relentlessly transformed and seems on the verge of approaching an end. However, that is only part of the message here. Rockman’s paintings are a blend of fairytale illustrations and the intoxicating imagination of Hieronymus Bosch. They are cute and terrifying at once. And Dion’s garbage dumps likewise have a charming innocence in their display of stuffed animals; yet at the same time, the collected filth arouses disgust and abhorrence. The overall installation of this show is seductive and fascinating, yet repulsive; it seems marked by an ingenuousness that triggers a profound malaise. Precisely this mirrors our treatment of tortured nature; the seeming naïveté with which all of us participate in the devastation of nature is the naïveté of a drug addict. He too knows quite well that he will die of his addiction, yet he can’t give it up.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.