Between 1951 and 1965 René Magritte published a series of poems, illustrations, photographs, short stories, and theoretical essays in a journal he called La Carte d’Après Nature. Translated as The Postcard of Nature, this publication was a diverse assortment of concepts, information, and artistic ephemera that had been pulled from various eras in history. Though the subject matter was often disparate, every piece related to the whole by way of Magritte’s dreamy train of thought.
Curated by Thomas Demand–the German photographer concerned with how we recognize what is real and what is artifice–“La Carte d’Après Nature” pays homage to the Belgian Surrealist by amassing a collection of work by artists whose interest with the natural world links them across the vast distances of medium, time, and space. Demand’s own investigation of the problematic relationship between nature and its man-made imitations is evident in the artworks he has selected.
Hung against a thunderous backdrop of red velvet curtains (the deftly garish wallpaper designed by Demand), three of Magritte’s paintings act as the hushed, yet all-powerful force behind the exhibition. The eerie, witty, and deliberate spatial inaccuracies of In the Airy Glades (1965), The Great Style (1951), and The Universe Unmasked (1932) amplify the pretense of representation, while also suggesting that simulated truths are not necessarily false. The effect is both one of illusion and actuality. With Magritte at the center, Demand spins an intricate web–connecting photographs, sculptures, films, and sound art in a way that emphasizes our fascination with the natural world as well as our desire to be free of it.
August Kotzsch’s 19th-century black and white photographs of trees, streams, and undergrowth are juxtaposed against Luigi Ghirri’s small, understated snapshots, blending traces of environmental purity with the heavy hand of human interference. Particularly revealing Ghirri works include Lucerna (1971), a depiction of an oversized billboard featuring fizzy iced drinks atop a stretch of green grass (an ad that would certainly have been effective had it not been blocking a lush canopy of trees), and Lagio di Braies (1978), an up-close look at a rack of postcards that promise scenic views of snowcapped peaks. In Salisburgo (1977) a group of tourists crowd together to look at a pseudo-realistic map of Austria. The quiet and untouched flora found in Kotzsch’s images echo the isolation and collective earthly denial located in Ghirri’s C-prints.
Though the predominant medium in “La Carte d’Après Nature” is photography, sculpture, film, and sound seamlessly immerse themselves within the exhibition’s labyrinthine composition. Martin Boyce’s tinted windows periodically allow us a glimpse of what lies just around the corner, while a record of lyrical birdsongs by Henrik Håkansson plays on a continuous loop.
Jan & Joël Martel’s Cubist “trees” (1925, 2011), Tacita Dean’s silent film of magpies agitating the high branches near her studio (2003), and Chris Garofalo’s display case of fictitious porcelain botanical life (2007-2010) create the ethereal, yet domesticated effect of strolling through a provincial wood. Also included are a number of three-dimensional models and sculptures by William Kissiloff, Becky Beasley, Kudjae Affutu, and Saadane Afif; photographs by Sigmar Polke and Leon Gimpel; as well as amusing performance-based films by Ger Van Elk and Rodney Graham.
Under the watchful eye of Magritte’s In the Airy Glades, we are urged to double back through the maze of altered, arbitrated, and often altogether fabricated representations of nature, reminded that what matters in “La Carte d’Après Nature” is not the individual works, but the woven thread of thought.
~Taylor Ruby, a writer living in Brooklyn
Images: Luigi Ghirri, Salisburgo, 1977; René Magritte, In the Airy Glades, 1965; Chris Garofalo, porcelain sculptures, 2007-2010. Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.