When the world went into lockdown, nature appeared to take over, with seabirds settling in Venice and deers roaming Japan’s empty streets. Here, in the penultimate postcard of the series, Georgia Good explores nature’s return in Duane Michals’ famous work, Paradise Regained, 1968.
Duane Michals is a storyteller. For him, photography should not be documentary. It is inherently fictitious, theatrical, a way of constructing subjective visions of reality – concerned with the imagined as much as the real. Pioneering in his use of sequencing, Michals’ works are original, comedic, confessional. They are narratives. Their subject is the human condition. And Paradise Regained is no exception.
For Joel Smith, curator at New York’s Morgan Library, Michals sees that ‘there’s no reason to limit the camera to what you find in the world; it should be part of the history of expressing ideas.’ Michals always works in the currency of ideas, always looking inward rather than out: he quips that where Ansel Adams ‘dealt with Yosemite and sunsets, I was interested in metaphysical ideas, what happens when you die’. Through photography, Michals marries abstract thought with visual experience in a witty, transcendent search for truth. His highly staged sequences express the invisible – greatly parabolic, they engage in moral, spiritual and existential inquiry.
Paradise Regained reflects all this: posed and theatrical, it tells a story that is more than a story. Its subject is a couple in an office environment – familiar, sterile, mundane – whose reality is slowly transformed by plants, as their normality dissolves piece by piece. By the final frame, the couple are no longer alone: they pose amid a plethora of houseplants, let loose in wild botanical ubiquity. It is no surprise that at the time, Michals was intrigued by Henri Rousseau’s jungle paintings, with their bold, abundant celebrations of plant life.
The series, of course, has a major spiritual dimension. Following a Catholic childhood, Michals calls himself ‘a raging atheist… I was a pretend Catholic and then I stopped pretending’. Now, his so-called deities are artists like Magritte and William Blake. Yet like so many ex-Catholics, he couldn’t leave its myths and images behind. Paradise Regained clearly evokes a reversal of the Biblical Fall: a return of the modern Adam and Eve to their prelapsarian state, freed from a sanitised, constrained, dissatisfied existence and restored to the idyllic oneness with nature from which they first emerged. The series even shares a name with John Milton’s epic, the deeply Christian, if lesser known successor to Paradise Lost.
Yet the series reaches far beyond these roots. It is not moralistic; Michals sees his work as ‘about questions, not about answers’. But it’s hard to resist viewing Paradise Regained as a playful critique of the modern condition; it’s hard to ignore the word ‘paradise’, even if it deserves a pinch of salt. The subjects are in direct view of the camera – we look them in the eye, we feel a part of the room. We recognise the everyday facets of urban existence: the desk, the lamp, the coffee cup, the suits. We recognise the plants in the first frames, too: little windows, fragments of an ecocentric past, growing on a shelf or in the corner. Drawn in, at home with the mundane, we are seduced. In the sequence, a fantasy plays out: escape from modern artificial life, one prosaic lampshade at a time. Reality shifts toward an ideal, a paradisiacal, unselfconscious unity with nature – redemptive, renewing, liberating. Paradise Regained speaks of freedom in more ways than one: the woman stands tall over the man, undercutting performative gender norms, in portraiture and beyond. In the medium, too, Michals sets something free – through sequencing, the constraints of the still, frozen photograph are released, and the passage of time is allowed to vitalise photography.
As the couple lose their clothes, they are equalised, returned literally to their natural states; they are not exempt or above, but participate in change, part of the fabric of their environment. There is humour, perhaps, in their stasis and lack of expression, as if indifferent or ignorant to their own metamorphosis. Yet the absence of reaction comes as a relief: for once, humans don’t resist the natural order, and perhaps are unsurprised by their own transformation, which is, after all, the most natural thing in the world.
During lockdown there were, metaphorically, more plants in our room than before. With everything changed, we could question the reality and meaning of twenty-first century urban life. As roads emptied, stores closed and wildlife reclaimed cities, the sky seemed clearer, the air felt cleaner, and we turned back to nature more and more. (Not to mention the pandemic itself – an overwhelming reminder of nature’s command and presence). Watching seabirds return to Venice and deer roam the streets in Japan is not unlike watching Michals’ botanical office takeover. We cannot help but delight in it. Yet Eden remains domestic; the couple remains indoors. They never leave their apartment, just as Rousseau never left France. Perhaps the series implies that we needn’t go out looking for nature; we should simply sit, be hospitable, and let it come to us. As our own reality turns back toward Michals’ first frame, then, we must ask why we prefer his last – and if in some way, we can preserve it.
About Georgia Good
Georgia is currently an undergraduate at UCL, studying English Literature, where she is also an editor for SAVAGE, UCL’s journal for arts and culture. Based in Cambridge and London, she worked in communications and development at Lucy Cavendish College last year, including as a writer and editor for the college. Beyond these roles, she’s interested in intersections of philosophy with literature and art – particularly portrayals of the divine, posthumanist and ecocentric thought, and the relations of image and language to reality.
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts has opened up the series to other writers. See here to read the series so far.