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Leisure galleries: Huysmans’ Against Nature

(Added 29 November 2007)

Nepenthes or Pitcher Plant, artist unknown

Leisure Projects has been circling around Joris-Karl Huysmans novel, ‘Against Nature’ ( A Rebours ).

When it appeared in May of 1884, Huysmans’ Against Nature “fell like a meteorite into the literary fairground” (Huysmans – Introduction deluxe edition, 1903) and was considered alternately as manual for decadent, aestheticized living or cautionary fable of debauched cultural crisis. However, we at Leisure Projects would prefer to consider Huysmans’ imaginary abode as a gallery of leisure- an interior landscape, personal museum and system for provocative intervention.

The isolated Villa at Fontenay is the interior landscape of Huysman’s main character Duc Jean des Esseintes. Des Esseintes’ study is bound ‘like books’ in tones that gain intensity in artificial light- crushed morocco and indigo plinths, honeyed-orange leather with royal blue silk. Activating the yellow and plumb expanse of an oriental carpet is a moving sculpture of des Esseintes’ design, a gilded and bejeweled tortoise.

The des Esseintes dining room resembles a ship’s cabin, its entry decorated by travel schedules, fishing nets and rolled russet-coloured sails. Travel being overrated, this elaborate construction allows for a perfect journey of the imagination, undisturbed by “the vulgar reality of actual experience”. Between the artificial portholes of the cabin and the windows to the exterior, natural light filters through aquariums of clockwork fish and artificial seaweed. With the ingenious addition of “coloured essences” des Esseintes produces at will “the various tints, green or grey, opaline or silvery”, that the ocean atmosphere absorbs from the weather.

In curious fits of creative consumption Des Esseintes passes his time “listening to the taste of Music” by composing “liquor symphonies” or exploring the “syntax of smell” in the creation of olfactory landscapes. Bored by his hothouse collection of fabricated flowers (“executed in indiarubber and wire, calico and taffeta, paper and velvet”) des Esseintes pursues natural flowers that resemble fakes- assembling a depraved conservatory of vegetal follies, including monstrous plants that carry attributes of pox, rot, and disease. In these activities des Esseintes procures, edits and displays, finding new sensations in the arrangement of elements.

‘Against Nature’ A Rebours, Joris-Karl Huysmans. 2003 edition translated by Robert Baldick, with notes and introduction by Patrik McGuinness

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