Let’s Talk About Sex: A Rendezvous in the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’

Article by Mary Alexander // Aug. 06, 2019

The current exhibition at Gropius Bau in Berlin, which shares its title with Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,’ takes its cue from the painting’s erotic iconography and its influence on contemporary representations of sexuality/sensuality. The center panel of this work, which gives the celebrated and enigmatic triptych its name, was painted at a momentous point in European history, following the introduction of moveable type, the rise of humanist thinking and the age of European exploration and colonialism. Today, the work is housed at Madrid’s Prado Museum. A copy of the inner panel, created by Bosch’s followers between 1535 to 1550, is on view in the space at Gropius Bau, acting as a starting point for the exhibition and opening a historical perspective on the motif of the garden, as expressed by twenty international artists. Above all, a visit to the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ is a sensory and revelatory experience. In this group exhibition, artists including Yayoi Kusama, Lungiswa Gqunta and Rashid Johnson—whose monumental sculpture of potted plants brings life into the light-filled atrium at Gropius Bau—examine the garden as a metaphor for the present state of the world.

Five centuries have come and gone since the death of Hieronymus Bosch and no one really knows why the Dutch artist portrayed a paradisiacal garden in this particular way. The inner panel comprises a series of momentary motifs, where nude men and women, fair and dark-skinned, together with a variety of animals, plants and fruits, portray their sexuality openly and without judgement or shame. Viewers are still deciphering the vivid imagery in the expansive garden landscape and continue to be divided on the symbolism, which has led to a wide range of interpretations through the centuries. The art historian Hans Belting, for example, argues that what we see in the center panel is a utopian world where sexuality is not admonished, and so offers an alternative vision to the biblical Garden of Eden. And according to Laurinda Dixon, the numerous nude figures suggest “a certain adolescent sexual curiosity.” Could Bosch’s colors and depiction of humans—whether cavorting with fantastical animals, feasting on enlarged fruits or engaging in foreplay—be neither a didactic warning on the sinfulness of sexuality nor a depiction of paradise lost? Less a representation of vice, the ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ is perhaps a commentary on humanity’s connection to nature and fundamental ephemerality.

In the center of the middle-ground, a circuit of men are seated on unicorns, boars, horses, camels and other animals. Propelled by lust, they circle the women bathing in a small lake at the center of the scene. Carrying fruits and eggs and accompanied by various birds, the procession is possibly a reference to medieval fertility rituals. Bosch’s emphasis on birds has been interpreted by some as a double entendre; the Dutch word “vogelen” (“vogel” = bird) could refer to having sexual intercourse. Other parallels to contemporaneous culture and courtly life, such as medieval love gardens, can be seen in the foreground, where men and women converse, flirt, consume fruits and engage in various amorous activities. Inside the large fountain in the middle of the background, framed by eccentric architecture that resembles elongated tongues, a bearded man overtly fondles a naked young woman. Although the center frame drips with lustful and erotic scenes, this is the panel’s most explicit moment. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see this particular vignette in the version created by the School of Hieronymus Bosch, currently on view at Gropius Bau.

In Reindert Falkenburg’s book on Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights,’ he writes that the use of “double” images in the center panel reveals sexually charged motifs. Falkenburg believes that the naked woman in the middle of the foreground, standing next to a vessel with a pair of berries above her head, not only recalls the similar pair of berries in the hands of the man sitting inside the vessel, but also is a veiled allusion to male genitalia. This particular vignette is mirrored in the video ‘Homo Sapiens Sapiens’ by Pipilotti Rist, when a candy-colored sequence alternates between close-up shots of hands rubbing testicles and squeezing a pair of peaches. Rist’s seductively beautiful oval-shaped video is part of a sumptuous installation complete with floor to ceiling drapes, dreamy humming music and orange and green serpentine floor pillows for visitors to sprawl on as they watch the video above. Populated by two Eves in a boundless garden landscape, the hallucinogenic atmosphere is as pervasive here as it is in the curious and dense imagery of Bosch’s ‘Garden.’ Dealing mostly with nature and the naked body, both works captivate and assail the senses through a riot of colors and sensual, imaginative motifs.

In a nearby space, the sounds of swishing leaves and moaning can be heard coming from Zheng Bo’s ‘Pteridophilia’. Derived from “pterido-” and “philia”, the title describes a fetish and love for pteridophyta plants, which reproduce by releasing spores rather than seeds. In the video installation, set in a fern forest in Taiwan, six naked young men recall ancient Greek sculptures and form erotic relationships with ferns. Made in collaboration with three local BDSM practitioners, the films show young men stroking, hugging, licking, rubbing, eating and engaging in sexual intercourse with plants. Like the nude figures in Bosch’s ‘Garden,’ the protagonists appear blissfully self-absorbed and seemingly at one with nature. Addressing the thematic areas of colonialism, botany and the Anthropocene (i.e., the current geological age, when human activity has a dominant impact on the planet) ‘Pteridophilia’ ultimately depicts our deep human desire for connection.

In Zheng Bo’s captivating and erotic video installation, which includes potted plants and a “Survival Manual” of illustrations and classifications of edible ferns, four films use the space of the garden to explore “eco-queer” potentials and the possibility of intimate relationships between humans and nature. According to the artist, “the idea of the garden could help us move away from an anthropocentric worldview.” At a time when climate change is threatening the existence of humanity and other species and sexual imagery is often used to attract attention or publicity, ‘Pteridophilia’ is striking for its vulnerability and non-exploitative portrayal of young people engaged in lustful, loving and boundary-pushing relationships with the natural world.

This article is part of our monthly topic of ‘Sex.’ To read more from this topic, click here.

Exhibition Info

Group Show: ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’
Exhibition: July 26 – Dec. 01, 2019
Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin, click here for map

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