A Contemporary Garden of Delights

When I first had the opportunity to work with Carolyn Janssen (she created three stunning Park Pictures billboards in 2011), I was struck by her wide-reaching engagement with art history. As it turns out, she had a grand idea to take a famous masterpiece–Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights–and remake the circa-1500 triptych in the context of 21st-century digital/selfie culture. I was hooked. And with that the NCMA’s commission of ~*{G.O.E.D.}*~ was born. There’s much more than meets the eye to Janssen’s piece, so I spoke with her to get the details on this immersive photograph.

Carolyn Janssen finished her contemporary take on The Garden of Earthly Delights in 2015 after two years of work. She says, “I perform the role of every single figure, a process that involved carefully developing each identity, their personality, motivations, and desires.”Jennifer Dasal:How did you determine that you wanted to take on Bosch’s iconic work? What inspired you to do so?

Carolyn Janssen: Since I was very little, I’ve been fascinated by the epic constructed narratives–visual and written–that explore our relationship to pleasure and the divine. The Garden of Earthly Delights doesn’t shy away from any of the most pressing issues of human longing: death, the meaning of life, sex, and identity, while also audaciously making bold statements about the consequences of living. I wanted to dissect and investigate this historic approach to meaning-making from the inside out, reimaging the work from a distinctly contemporary, gendered, and performative perspective.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, circa 1500, oil on oak panels, 87 — 153 in., Museo del Prado, MadridSome see this piece as revealing the “childhood of the world,” and I am interested how texts and metanarratives suggest rigid explanations about existence. Through speculative experiments with materiality, self-representation, and queering, I wanted to turn that rigidity on its head. At the same time, the original work provides plenty of ambiguity, existing as not quite terrestrial, not quite paradise. There is almost a science fiction overtone that deliciously examines a futuristic utopia, bringing to mind visions of cyborgian feminism, transhumanism, and the Buddha-verse. Our culture has never really gotten over utopic imagining.

JD: Any particular artists (besides Bosch) whose works you were looking at, in preparing for this takeover of art history?

CJ: There’s certainly a growing canon of fascinating artists who interrogate myriad topics through photographically recontextualizing historic works of art. I especially love Debbie Grossman’s reworking of Russell Lee’s U.S. Farm Security Administration photographs, which presents a rural early 20th-century town populated exclusively by women. But I often tend to look outside contemporary art for visual influence, exploring the worlds of digital kitsch, pop culture, and contemporary cinema. My imagery came from a range of influences including Miley Cyrus, Lisa Frank, teenage Tumblr blogs, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and David Lynch.

JD: Tell us about your time in Madrid, particularly when you were studying the painting at the Prado. What sort of thoughts and ideas were brewing in your mind while looking at the original?

CJ: My time at the Prado was incredible–I spent hours examining the piece and drinking in every detail. I felt like I had an intoxicating, almost romantic experience with Bosch at the time, at once hallucinatory and poignant. Early Spanish painters did call it La Lujuria (the lust), after all. Being present with the triptych, drawn in as it hauntingly unravels this disturbing world of religious dreams and nightmares, makes it easy to become lost in its affective atmosphere like a thick sultry fog. I was able to cohabit with each creature individually–the mythological animals, the libertine nudes, the hellscape dwellers, the biblical Adam and Eve–and embody them, even feel embodied by them in return.

“I would step back, peer through the ruckus, and appreciate the ways in which The Garden of Earthly Delights tells us what we want it to. In many ways it’s a mirror of our own desires and longings.”

While at the Prado, I also became obsessed with viewers of the piece–dozens of groups from around the world gathering in front of the piece every day along with a tour guide who analyzed and interpreted its meaning through a megaphone in multiple languages. Of course everyone had their own fervent, bewildered apprehension, leading to constant debates among the large, diverse packs of Madrile±os, Canadian teenagers, elder Korean visitors. Often it was difficult to even get close, so instead I would step back, peer through the ruckus, and appreciate the ways in which The Garden of Earthly Delights tells us what we want it to. In many ways it’s a mirror of our own desires and longings.

JD: Walk us through the process of how this piece was created, start to finish.

CJ: It was a wild ride, from beginning to end. I began with fervent research in Madrid, exploring the history and cultural references that constitute the piece’s foundation. Afterward, during a several-month residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, I began to accumulate a library of self-portraits through the use of several lifetimes’ supply of nude garments, prosthetics, and wigs.

In the piece I perform the role of every single figure, a process that involved carefully developing each identity, their personality, motivations, and desires. My collaborator Galen Stolee was invaluable in posing and photographing–as well as helping to develop the costumes and looks for–each character that you see. As the self-portraits accumulated, I built sets, sculptures, and materials to photograph for the landscape. In Photoshop, I’d assemble hundreds of layers, carefully stitching them all together. Eventually, the files became so huge that I had to work on each panel singularly.

The piece persevered through shattered monitors, equipment burglaries, car crashes, chaos, and calamity. But eventually I finished hell–the final panel–on Halloween night, and that felt somewhat auspicious.

JD: How long did the work take to create?

CJ: From conception to completion, the work took about two years.

JD: What challenges did you face during the re-creation? What were you most excited about, and was there anything that you dreaded?

CJ: It was sometimes intense, harrowing even, to embody the full range of ideas and affects that Bosch provokes: death, the meaning of life, sex, identity. There was a level of emotional and performative commitment required that I hadn’t quite been tasked to do in my prior work. Investing myself in that experience was cathartic, even ecstatic, and sometimes terrifying. But this is only one in a long line of forgeries and reproductions of Bosch’s work throughout history. It’s almost as if The Garden of Earthly Delights was always asking to be made into a digital photograph–able to be endlessly copied, reworked, and reinterpreted, compressed and decompressed, eternal and ephemeral all at once. I just went ahead and gave it what it wanted.

Take a virtual tour of Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, which has intrigued and bewildered art historians for 500 years.

On a purely technical level, the sheer volume of details and materials to manage was nuts–challenging to harness, but so worth it.  

JD: What was the most surprising thing about this project?

CJ: I was constantly surprised by Bosch. I would wonder what kind of madness, passion, and conviction led to his original inception, and marvel at his devotion. Channeling his world was an alarming, bizarre, rich, and memorable experience–as was challenging the dominant statements on morality and gender the original made. Additionally, it was sometimes unsettling how much the themes Bosch was inviting me to explore haunted and permeated my personal life.

JD: What has ended up being the most rewarding aspect of the final product?

CJ: My original goal was to investigate the ambiguous readings of this cryptic masterpiece, and it’s been extremely rewarding to see the results. Since no materials exist to explain Bosch’s original intent, scholars have presented a range of interpretations, with the most accepted view suggesting the content mirrors the concerns of late medieval Europe: the Last Judgment, original sin, and death. Additionally, they point to content that supports the view of many medieval moralists, who viewed women, and ultimately Eve, as the main temptation drawing men into a life of lechery and sin.

“Much of his symbolism seems to express a covert misogyny. It was important that I re-imagine the original as a female-bodied person grappling with the same themes he laid claim to.”

In direct contrast to this theory, other historians see Bosch’s masterpiece as a surrealist celebration of a paradise lost. It’s this fractured identity, hidden somewhere in the liminal space between fervent moral watchman and free-thinking visionary, that makes Bosch such a muse for me. At the same time, this reverence lies in tension with the knowledge that much of his symbolism seems to express a covert misogyny. It was important that I re-imagine the original as a female-bodied person grappling with the same themes he laid claim to.

JD: Tell me about the materials you photographed to create the objects in the work–there are some recurring items.

CJ: It was important to me that all of the imagery come from my personal context and surroundings. The landscape is filled with cones, mountains, blurs, glitches, and pixelizations created from clay, food, Play-Doh, tin foil, duct tape, and found sculptures in my natural setting. I was interested in using whatever was cheap, accessible, and temporary in order to contrast with the permanence of the original, and often fashioned the objects in a sort of ritualistic manner. My studio became felt like a museum full of all sorts of strange artifacts from another dimensional plane.

Ultimately I was fascinated by how flat they all become in Photoshop, despite their physicality in my personal life, which felt relevant to the process and materials explored in the work.

Janssen’s commissioned work, which measures 5 feet high and nearly 9 feet wide, is on view in West Building through mid-December.JD: Dig us deep into your thought process behind inhabiting every individual (male and female!) in Bosch’s work. What does it mean for you?

CJ: My decision to inhabit every figure in the work was crucial to my concept, expressing a sort of autonomy and commitment to wrestling with each theme and issue expressed. I wanted to convey a certain kind of obsession with deconstructing and embracing the ambiguity of this work. Using my own body as a site for this conversation felt like a necessary structure to do so.

“By casting all the heroes, villains, victims, angels, and monsters in my version of Bosch’s piece using my female body, I wished to offer a contrasting subversive story.”

If Bosch’s masterpiece is indeed a didactic warning, then scholars agree that women are presented as the main culprit and challenge to male atonement. By casting all the heroes, villains, victims, angels, and monsters in my version of Bosch’s piece using my female body, I wished to offer a contrasting subversive story. The gender play I performed as male and female was a strategic way to question the assertions presented in the narrative, as well as provide a playful new alternative. I wanted to celebrate the potential for pleasure, damnation, and moral decision-making to be all delightful and de-gendered.

Additionally, using self-portraits allows me to explore our contemporary need to document ourselves, prop up our personal brands, and create idealized fantasies. I wrestle with “digital sublime,” using hundreds of digital self-replications to reflect on the transcendence and anxiety of technology use.

JD: Are there any “Easter eggs” in the piece, or anything that would be especially fun or interesting for viewers to find?

CJ: The mass materiality of the piece often caused me to think about art’s relationship to capitalism, and the way these masterpieces are marketed. In the Prado bookstore, I was fascinated by the mousepads, clothing, mugs, and weird sculptures for sale based on the original. Some of these items made their way into ~*{G.O.E.D.}*~, referencing my own loops of consumption with the masterpiece.

There are also small clips of text, objects, and gestures that I left for myself, such as references to the Photoshop template or my desktop folders, that act as ritualistic interventions.

JD: Which of the three panels was the most enticing for you to re-create?

CJ: The first panel felt crucial, since the interaction between Adam, Eve, and God set the stage for the rest of the narrative. The costume, posture, and look for each of those characters consumed me for some time. I felt like it was important for me to stage a careful and strategic intervention, one that would challenge the story of Eden without fully departing from it.

The center panel and hell were more like an amusement park ride, possessing me and drawing me through delirious days and nights of endless performance and sensory overload.

A detail from the first panel. Janssen says these three biblical figures are “probably closest to my heart.”JD: Do you have a favorite scene/element/character that you created?

CJ: The biblical trio in the first panel are probably closest to my heart, but there are some particularly absurd characters in the middle and final panel that are now part of me forever, for better or worse.

JD: Are you intending on reworking any other art historical masterpieces in the future?

CJ: I have a few ideas brewing.

JD: Has this project inspired a new direction in your work, or how has it affected your current mode of working/thinking/ideas?

CJ: Working on this piece has motivated me to more aggressively tackle the deepest questions and conflicts we all share. Which isn’t to say that my earlier work was less universal, per se. Only that I feel more committed than ever to embracing a deep honesty in my artmaking and research, and an opening to the world expanding around me.

JD: This work is on display at the NCMA during the year of the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death. Tell me a little bit about engaging with that history–it wasn’t intentional, as I understand it!

CJ: It feels very serendipitous that the stars aligned in that way, especially since it’s wasn’t intentional on my part–I had no idea! Maybe he was calling to me? I feel very honored.

JD: What else would you like our viewers to know about this amazing piece?

CJ: With this work I was really interested in examining our contemporary relationship to pleasure, desire, and longing. Our culture boasts its own “garden” of excess: a material orgy steeped in digital consumption that threatens our tenuous ecology and humanity. While the consequences of this consumerist approach are grim, scientists and activists point to possible environmental resolution through similar technological advances. Futurists image a world of ecological responsibility through energy innovation, nanotechnology, and political tech movements. Much like Bosch’s piece, the inhabitants of our innovative and rapidly evolving culture could be preparing for either salvation or damnation, depending on one’s view of the garden.

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