"Against Nature" is group show that examines the works of a handful of contemporary artists in relation to the legacy of the Decadents. It casts its gaze over works that draw their inspiration from or evoke literary sources 'or sensibilities- such as Huysmans, Comte de Lautreamont or Baudelaire. Or, they allude to the work of visual artists such as Gustave Moreau, Félicien Rops, Aubrey Beardsley or Ernest Dawson.
In a sense, this period in French culture 'and mirrored in the work of contemporaneous thinkg in other European cultures- represents an enigma. It is, at once, distinctive. It gives us a strong sense of its characteristic existence. This, almost like one of Moreau's murky, misty works, is more of a vision or illusion than a reality. The Decadents, essentially remain fragmented and impossible to pin down. They are the old generation ' with remnants of the Gothic, Orientalism and Romanticism- colliding with unborn Modernism. A sliding into Symbolism and a whiff of Art Nouveau not quite born, of Expressionism not yet screaming, Virginia Wolf not yet repeating herself. Repeating herself.
Remaining a constant on the developmental landscape, the Decadents pop up for generation after generation as an influence, a formative experience. And yet, like rogue elephants or man-eating tigers, they often act alone. A single book by Huysmans known to so many who cite it as key to their personal development. Yet, they know no other writing by the man or his peers. Moreau's 'Salome' dances in the common dream. Yet of his life or exact place in the march of art history, even the self-claimed fans could not say, confused by a lack of orthodoxy in his image.
One reason for this defiance of a cohesive position or direction might be the players themselves. Eccentric, individual and perhaps, on the whole, too affluent to need to form alliances based on the pragmatism of economics. Theirs was a world in which deathly melancholic emotions coexisted with the erotic and profane, the key players, in a number of cases, far too outwardly adherent to the values of the dying caste system that afforded them their privilege to act upon the impetus. At times the concurrence of the erotic and Thanatic is extreme. La Petite Mort. Literally. Literary.
This is not the high-octane hysterics of the horror orgasm in the Gothic. It might look like it at times, but this is a place in which inertia and melancholia replace death and arousal and intoxication pass for penetration. It might look like Art Nouveau at times. But this is not the natural world as a reaction to industry and war. It is a place in which the mimetic forms of animals and plants replace human beings, signifying that they are more worthy of the author's gaze than the social world. This is not the oriental fantasy of the nineteenth century with its desire to possess the colonised world. It is more the denial of one's duty as the dominant coloniser's heirs instead, to turn native and adopt the ways and heady spices of the other. This is not homosexual camp, though it has visual tendrils reaching unto it. It is effete. But in a way that casts its rolling lusting eyes upon the female form as readily as boys.
"Against Nature" poses no unifying hypothesis nor postulates any reason for this fascination, intentional or otherwise. It offers no explanation for the references to the visual languages of the Decadents amongst contemporary artists. It merely traces the forms and maps out the residues. Maybe it's just a spike in the graph, the disproportionately great resonance of a relatively small but fascinating legacy. But maybe it's indicative of something else. Like the mise en scène of the Decadents themselves, signalling nothing precise that lurks in immensely detailed interiors still too far out of focus or too recessed within the shadow to have a name or form. It remains a tingle between the hips or a taste on the tongue, not an experience or an emotion, but a sensation yet to be identified. If one could be bothered to rise to the effort.
Hanne Barr, Boris van Berkum, Emma van Drongelen, Ludovica Gioscia & Karen Tang, Geraldine Gluibislavich, James Richards, Kate Mayne.