How Bosch’s masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights is reinterpreted, reborn and still relevant today. We’ve picked two digital artists: Carla Gannis and SMACK to compare and contrast their different approaches, techniques and styles to convey their views about earthy delights.

Pablo A. Herrera | Ed. Peter Traynor | 20 July 2022

Jheronimus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1505) – video by Great Art Explained 50:52 min. © Courtesy of Great Art Explained.

Hieronymus Bosch finished The Garden of Earthly Delights in around 1505. The painting represents Eden, the earthly world, and Hell. The central scene is hell, where humans sin in the absence of moral or religious restrictions. Naked men and women engage in various pleasure-seeking activities in the absence of God, unaware of any future consequence. Bosch created a rebellious and anarchist fictional narrative, a form of art that had not existed before, not only for the theme but also because of what set Bosch apart from his other contemporary painters (including Jan Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci): painting humans from the inside and not from the outside, representing their fears, obsessions, passions, hidden desires, and yearnings, giving us a highly existential world, and he did it in a poetic way that the world hadn’t seen before either.

It’s hard to believe this hallucinogenic scene was painted over 500 years ago. Being in front of it is like being inside an unsettling Alice in Wonderland full of bizarre bodies caught in an awkward moment. We have to decipher what they are doing exactly and why. We are not exactly sure about Bosch´s intentions as he didn’t leave any diary or notebook in which we could read his thoughts or views. Historians can’t agree whether the painting was an allegorical interpretation in support of the Bible or a critique. Perhaps he was being critical of the society of that time, and the target was to moralise via acid criticisms, but that is disputable. 

We might think that his fantastical, morbid paintings caused scandal and cessation in those times, but that wasn’t the case. The triptych created an immediate positive impact and was soon displayed in one of the most prominent locations in Europe: the palace of the Counts of the House of Nassau in Brussels. Bosch had admirers from everywhere and even joined the highly respected Brotherhood of Our Lady, a devotional confraternity with seven thousand members from around Europe. 

Since Bosch first appeared, an endless number of artists incorporated many elements of his paintings into their work, but we had to wait 400 years to finally categorise what he was doing: Surrealism. But even still, that wasn’t precisely what Bosch was doing. Bosch places his scenes in the earthly, not the surreal world. He was not representing dreams; he was representing our secret desires kept in the dark drawer. However, when surrealism appeared, many thought they had found a definition close to what Bosch was doing.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a five-sided triptych, which causes a problem for any conventional exhibition spaces. In fact, it has changed its position many times because it makes no sense for it to be hanging on a wall. It is as if the painting had been living in discomfort for 500 years. Now, it has reached the age of 3D, virtual reality, and metaverse, and it seems somehow that it has finally found some allies with a platform where it can find – and expand – all its possibilities. It appears that artists now can explore Bosch’s creativity like never before. The fascination seems more vivid now that the painting has landed in the digital art era.

Just like 500 years ago, humans are still fascinated and terrified by radical opposites like life and death, heaven and hell, and other complementary factors without which we cannot live, such as absurdity and poetry. On top of that, we live a lifestyle of double standards – something that, deep down, we all love and secretly pursue. We can find all those elements in The Garden of Earthly Delights, and it is open to any free interpretation.

Carla Gannis: The Garden of Emoji Delights

The American transmedia artist Carla Gannis made her version The Garden of Emoji Delights (2014), mixing the secular language with the new pop iconography of emojis (most of the time replacing religious elements). The result was rather overwhelmingly impressive. If we only see pictures of scenes of this piece, we would think a child made it after buying a sticker book. Gannis’ work has that nuance that we – unfortunately – lose when we reach adulthood, which is the passion for the absurd – without knowing that we are doing something absurd -, the freedom to let ourselves be carried away by what our imagination secretly commands us and the lack of fear in the execution. All these factors can also be seen in Bosch’s paintings, making Bosch’s style extraordinary.

Gannis recaptures the essence of Bosch. The humour is only the first layer through which Gannis’ work is viewed. It is a good start, but there are plenty of layers to go through to admire the job properly. Bosch and Gannis work with symbols, signs, iconography, and cultural and contemporary codes, and they all can have many meanings. Just as we cannot be sure of Bosch’s true intentions, when we see Gannis’ piece, we can ask ourselves: Is Gannis criticising the consumerism of our time? Is she bringing to the table the moral, social and political concerns of today’s society? Is she questioning our addiction to new communication platforms on social media? Is she embracing our modern times – just as Andy Warhol did -? The fascinating thing about Bosch’s work is that all the answers can be ambiguous and volatile.

We use emojis to represent our emotions and feelings, sometimes with irony or humour. Sometimes emojis can be more effective as a substitute for body language and tone of voice while we try to communicate something in a text. There is something dramatic and existentialist about this. Gannis also explores the world in an era when the new generations are trailblazing a gender revolution; the future seems to be non-binary, with varying gender identities and queer ethics. In The Garden of Emoji Delights, emojis give new identities to humans, and we cannot always be sure of their gender. We can also notice more diversity.

Carla Gannis affirmed in an interview: “Emoji are a contemporary glyph system which offers an emotional shorthand for virtual expression. Pleasurable stylisations are ubiquitous worldwide and across generations. Transcribing visual symbologies of an earlier era using Emoji makes perfect nonsense/sense to me, particularly with Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, in that his visual style was so idiosyncratic and remarkably distinct in contrast to his peers. His transgression of the codified religious iconography of his day, his humour and irreverence, appeal to me most, and feel ‘modern’”. The Garden of Emoji Delights is currently on display at Fotografiska Tallinn Museum, Estonia, until 28th August 2022.

SMACK: SPECULUM

SPECULUM by the Dutch collective SMACK, a digital triptych on three LED screens, with a total length of 21 metres. This colossal piece transits into the metaverse and brings Bosch’s masterpiece firmly into the twenty-first century in a remarkable way.

SMACK is a trio of digital artists Ton Meijdam, Thom Snels and Béla Zsigmond working with computer animation. They have a background in Fine Arts and also in Design.

For Bosch’s 500th anniversary celebrations, SMACK was commissioned to work on an interpretation of The Garden of Earthly Delights, and they made Paradise (2016). The result was so impressive that they were commissioned – by Colección SOLO – shortly afterwards to make Hell and Eden. The triptych was called SPECULUM, a space that invites a stark conversation about ourselves and the society we have built. This is an apocalyptic and overwhelming universe with images moving in a disturbing loop. It is impossible not to feel seduced and probably disgusted at the same time. 

The digital artists have turned Bosch’s work into an impressive mise-en-scène using artificial intelligence, large-format digital animation and sound art to present a raw world with direct references to popular culture: drones, drugs, syringes, CCTV cameras, fried chicken, Disneyland, commercial brands, casinos, the academy awards in the Hell, plastic rubbish, etc. The exhibition was sold out in its recent staging at Matadero Madrid (2021-2022), where it was seen by more than 90 000 visitors.

Comparing their work with The Garden of Emoji Delights, this is more visual than conceptual, and for that reason, the narrative is more straightforward and clearer. In the section Paradise, for example, we see scenes of lust, desire, hedonism, and decadence. In one corner, some animals observe how humans behave, exactly as we humans observe animals when we go to the zoo. In the middle of the field, a gigantic white penis could symbolise the power in the world, led by its testosterone, and those men riding horses in the shape of penises portray the worship of this macho system. In the background, we see concrete civilizations moving in the middle of green areas that wave as if they were about to explode, warning us about climate change.  It is a paradise where sex, lust and superego take precedence over all things. We are living under the worship of the God Penis. It evidences the excesses of society, the multiple eyes and security cameras watching everything, the technology moving at a relentless pace, and the imminent environmental collapse.

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