“Digital Gardens”

“Digital Gardens” was based on the misconception that technology is obliterating the distinction between nature and culture. Completely lacking in irony or self-critique, it couldn’t quite decide whether the changing nature it attempted to chart was the one we like to oppose to culture, or the affective, impersonal force that sends storms in winter and warm weather in summer.

The exhibition’s curator, Louise Dompierre, would have liked to reduce the tongue-in-cheek, nature/culture hybrids of the six artists in the show to well-meaning messages and turgid exposés. But photographer Gregory Crewdson, yBa Mat Collishaw, and heavy-agricultural-machinery fetishist Doug Buis milk the ambiguity of the “natural” to uncanny effect, outmaneuvering the postmodern homogeneity suggested by the show’s title. Crewdson takes lush color photographs of Angela Carter–like suburban vistas, where giant fluorescent butterflies fly up from the swamp next door cluster in weird shapes or fly into ropes of braided hair. Collishaw’s seven parakeets compete with time-lapse replays of their own songs. The photographic tropes of constructed mutation, or the array of time-lapse tape recorders relaying birdsong back to the birds, conjure a mood rather than project a message about nature’s interface with technology. Janine Cirincione + Michael Ferraro’s virtual reality installation The Dead Souls, 1995, in which individuals’ genetic codes are up for grabs, stays just to the right side of easy parody. So do Crewdson’s and Buis’ works, which sit at opposite ends of an involvement with nature as Other; the former presents it as a Jurassic theme park and the latter as a dark reflection of the inner self. Both share a refusal to embark on ideological crusades. Buis’ gentle machinery (a cross between the eco-thriller Silent Running and Rebecca Horn’s sensual mechanisms) converts simple tasks into Sisyphean enterprises. His cumbersome Biosphere cast-offs are the disenchanted ’90s descendants of Helen and Newton Harrison’s closed ecological systems. Crewdson’s Cibachromes have less to do with mutation itself than with the creepy evocation of a specific generational mood in ecological consciousness—a ’60s moment when, after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, bright and wholesome suburbia suddenly looked terminally corrupt.

Janine Marchessault’s catalogue essay sketches an alternative scenario to the curator’s second-generation Baudrillarian confusion: meditating on the relationship of affect to art, she rehearses the impact of Daguerre’s great landscape dioramas and the ambivalent legacy of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose understanding of popular culture Marchessault describes as prescient but inadvertently legitimating of a myopic indifference to ecological activism. Which is to say: contemporary artists are celebrated for a morbid fascination with their own insensitivity to the world that surrounds them. Nature, however, always exceeds our definitions of it, and Marchessault concludes with an unintended but devastating critique of this unexpectedly fascinating show: “To collapse the nature/ culture dichotomy is to lose a fundamental epistemological ground for discerning what is and is not culturally determined.”

Charles Green