Madrid exhibition reimagines Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights for digital age

Adam is a busy robot poring over the codes of creation. The climate disaster has imprisoned the devil in a block of ice. And a social media sinner is lashed to a hashtag for all eternity while a Terminator stalks through a charnel house hell.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is once again in full, admonitory bloom. More than five centuries after it was completed, Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece is being reimagined and reinterpreted by 15 international artists using everything from sound art and sculpture to painting, video, installation, gifs and digital animation.

Bosch’s original triptych, which sits in the Prado in Madrid, warns of the dangers of yielding to our baser desires. Its 21st-century descendants, on show in a huge, converted slaughterhouse complex down the road, speak eloquently, and often disturbingly, of technology, consumerism, the solipsism of social media, physical identity, the commodification of sex, and a planet in peril.

The exhibition, staged at Matadero Madrid by the Colección Solo, is the fruit of five years of acquisitions and commissions, and 18 months of preparation.

“One of the drivers was the idea that the original work is kind of the Renaissance version of an interactive artwork: it’s got these grey shutters on the outside and this scene of the world that’s not particularly interesting in its own right,” said Rebekah Rhodes, the collection’s head of research and publications.

Once opened, however, the triptych’s dazzling oil on wood reveals its secrets and would have offered its viewers both titillation and moral instruction.

“There’s also the idea of Bosch’s garden as a mirror for the present; taking this idea that the original could be seen as a guide to good behaviour for a noble class,” said Rhodes.

“But if we hold up a mirror to the 21st century, what is there? Is there a nice landscape we see? A lot of the people we’ve brought together in this show are doing that and forcing us to ask really relevant questions about what’s around us.”

Visitors to the show enter a dark hall soundtracked by Enrique del Castillo’s Umbráfono II, an optical reader that uses celluloid film to create a hypnotic score by mixing 16th century polyphonic compositions with contemporary electronics. Then it is on to Dave Cooper’s Bosco Cooper, scene of a couple riding on a wolf through a forest of nipple flowers. “As long as all those weirdos in my painting are consenting adults, then it’s all OK,” he says in the catalogue.

Heaven X Hell, a series of four animated gifs by Sholim, is a moving medley of pastel colours and the macabre, while Dan Hernandez’s GOED translates Bosch’s work into a maplike landscape inspired by open world and role-playing video games. Cassie McQuater’s Angela’s Flood also takes its cue from video games, placing a strong female character from a 90s series in the middle of a lush and lurid world.

Other artists tackle the sins at the heart of The Garden of Earthly Delights in a more head-on fashion. Filip Custic, known for his visual work with the Spanish singer Rosalía, considers lust, pride, and the interplay of technology and the human body in his piece Homo-?.

Miao Xiaochun’s Microcosm envisages Adam as a robot in a world of plastic animals, destruction and conflict, above which hovers a Chinook helicopter suggesting the possibility of escape for a lucky few.

Two characteristic mashup works by Mu Pan show horse-riding monkeys invading Eden as enterprising mice make off with the apples, and a Chinese banquet-themed painting that references Goya and features Willy Wonka, Elvis, Louis Armstrong – and Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek fishing together.

The show ends with Speculum, a digital triptych by SMACK. Across three LED screens, each measuring 4m by 7m, the trio depicts a post-natural garden of technological horrors. A grotesquely artificial Eden, populated by huge cats and candy-coloured monstrosities, is watched over by Isaac Newton and a flamingo with a satellite dish for a head. Paradise is a debauched but strangely lonely place of sex, self-absorption and the odd pop culture figure, from Kurt Cobain to Batman backstroking down the river. Hell is the hashtag man, and a place of burning cities, crucifixion, hanging, addiction, greed and self-hatred.

The organisers hope the show will both bring the viewers closer to Bosch’s work and inspire them to take another look at our contemporary garden of delights.

“Looking at it now, the original can strike us as something that’s very difficult to decipher,” said Rhodes.

“But in its day, I don’t think it was so difficult for people to decipher: there are symbols that are very obvious and which come from medieval stories and visual narratives. If you’re a late medieval person looking at the work, you know that a fish is a penis and you know that a strawberry’s a reference to getting laid.”

Swapping that symbolism for more familiar images, she added, “can help us to reflect on it now, and it can also be nice invitation to go back and look at the original work”.

But what, one wonders, would Bosch himself have made of all this lurid, hi-tech re-landscaping of his garden?

“He was an innovator in his day and I feel pretty sure that he would feel excited about the range of different media and the range of different opinions that are in the show,” said Rhodes. “I hope so. Or he might be shocked. He might think we’re all going to hell.”

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