Get­ting Back to the Gar­den

Bi­b­li­cal Art Mu­seum Bites Into For­bid­den Fruit

Forward Magazine - - Arts & Culture - By Me­nachem Wecker

Look­ing at an im­age of a ser­pent en­cir­cling an ap­ple branch, most of us will think of the snake from the Gar­den of Eden. In pop­u­lar lore, Adam and Eve’s con­sump­tion of the taboo meal from the il­licit Tree of Knowl­edge of Good and Evil, as it is called in the Bi­ble, re­sulted in their ex­pul­sion from Eden. But ac­tu­ally, in Gen­e­sis, the orig­i­nal cou­ple’s de­par­ture from Par­adise had a lot more to do with God’s anx­i­ety that Adam and Eve would eat from the Tree of Life.

Those who don’t study me­dieval the­ol­ogy or his­tory or Judeo-Chris­tian mys­ti­cism ex­ten­sively likely haven’t heard nearly as of­ten of the Tree of Life as of the Tree of Knowl­edge. It comes as no shock, then, that artists have con­tin­ued to probe the tale of the cou­ple who had it all, lost ev­ery­thing, and had to rebuild and en­dure de­spite hav­ing never for­got­ten the taste of the per­fect life they’d once en­joyed.

Ac­cord­ing to Jennifer Scan­lan, the story “takes up only a few verses in the Bi­ble, Gen­e­sis 2:8-3:24, with just four main char­ac­ters and a sim­ple nar­ra­tive that continues to res­onate.” Scan­lan is guest cu­ra­tor of the Mu­seum of Bi­b­li­cal Art’s ex­hibit “Back to Eden: Con­tem­po­rary Artists Wan­der the Gar­den.” The ex­hibit traces some of the ways that con­tem­po­rary artists have ad­dressed Eden in their works, whether in­ten­tion­ally or un­in­ten­tion­ally; their treat­ments of­ten probe the re­la­tion­ship be­tween people and na­ture. In re­cent cen­turies, that power struc­ture has changed, Scan­lan notes. Where man was once dwarfed by and sub­ject to threats from na­ture, the roles have re­versed. “Most people only en­counter truly dan­ger­ous snakes in zoos,” she writes. “Yet these sym­bols per­sist as rem­nants of a time when people had a dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship with na­ture.”

Alexis Rock­man’s 2013 paint­ing “Gowanus” un­der­scores that re­ver­sal. The artist, whose work of­ten ad­dresses the par­a­sitic re­la­tion­ship be­tween man and na­ture, takes his ti­tle from the canal, which a 2013 Pop­u­lar Sci­ence ar­ti­cle called “an ab­surdly, laugh­ably pol­luted wa­ter­way right smack in the mid­dle of gen­tri­fied Brook­lyn.” Rock­man, ac­cord­ing to a MOBIA wall text, was in­spired to cre­ate the work af­ter

hear­ing of a dol­phin that died soon af­ter swim­ming through the Gowanus Canal.

The dol­phin, and other ghostly forms of sea life past, lurk be­neath the sur­face of the wa­ter, as sky­scrapers bathed in pas­tel tones loom above. In be­tween, pink, blue and yel­low chem­i­cals pour into the canal in a scene of degra­da­tion and de­cay. All of the 38 an­i­mals that ap­pear in the work — among them the Nor­way rat, the di­a­mond­back ter­rapin, the brown pel­i­can — are doc­u­mented in a di­a­gram along­side the paint­ing with their sci­en­tific names. Al­though as­pects of the work are very beau­ti­ful, the con­tent points to an ex­per­i­ment gone hor­ri­bly wrong.

For a small show, the ex­hibit has many stand­outs, from two stun­ning me­dieval Bibles (one from 1483 de­picts the snake with a woman’s head) to Mat Col­lishaw’s 2013 “East of Eden,” a mir­ror that dou­bles as an LCD screen em­bed­ded in a gor­geous and elab­o­rate frame, where the viewer can barely make out a slith­er­ing snake and misty clouds from be­yond her or his re­flec­tion. The viewer is the snake it seems, and the re­verse as well. Some works ref­er­ence me­dieval prece­dents — such as Fred To­maselli’s 2000 “Study for Ex­pul­sion,” which quotes Masac­cio — while oth­ers, such as Pip­i­lotti Rist’s 2010 “Spark­ing of the Do­mes­ti­cated Synapses” and Dana Sher­wood’s 2014 “Ban­quets in the Dark Wild­ness,” rely on video com­po­nents.

For a small show, the ex­hibit has many stand­outs.

And then there’s the snake. Lynn Aldrich’s 2002 “Ser­pen­tar­ium” rep­re­sents the snake with gar­den hoses, brass con­nec­tors and noz­zles, and ca­ble ties all con­fig­ured to sug­gest a pot. Scan­lan writes in the cat­a­log that she views the work by the Los Angeles artist as ref­er­enc­ing the “se­duc­tion of com­mer­cial­ism.” “[T]his snake,” she writes, “was ask­ing her to con­sume not an ap­ple, but the ever-chang­ing ar­ray of beau­ti­ful con­sumer goods in the ap­pear­ance-con­scious city.” Not only do the iconic green hoses twisted into the shape of a pot sug­gest a snake’s move­ment, but peer­ing over the top of the “flower pot,” one also gets a glimpse that isn’t un­like look­ing down the throat of a snake.

If Aldrich’s snake is ab­stract, though, Mark Dion’s 2014 “The Ser­pent Be­fore the Fall” is quite lit­eral. Re­spond­ing to com­men­ta­tors (e.g. Rashi) who noted that the bi­b­li­cal snake’s pun­ish­ment in Gen­e­sis 3:14 of be­ing made to crawl on its belly sug­gests that the snake orig­i­nally had legs, Dion de­picts the pre-sin ser­pent stand­ing on all fours. The work, as the ex­hibit texts note, imag­ines the snake as a dis­play at a nat­u­ral his­tory mu­seum. The an­i­mal doesn’t con­vey pure evil, but it cer­tainly has a smug­ness and sly­ness about it.

There isn’t much that is sub­tle about “Back to Eden,” but it’s still multi-lay­ered and very thought­ful. Eden can of­ten feel very far away in both time and space, like a Never Never Land that nev­er­the­less serves as the mea­sure for par­adises of ev­ery sort. But the MOBIA show cuts the bi­b­li­cal gar­den down to size, and Eden’s saplings look very dif­fer­ent in the hands of a range of con­tem­po­rary artists. There’s some­thing com­pelling about the di­ver­sity of in­ter­pre­ta­tions in the show, as Eden’s per­fec­tion has never been nearly as in­ter­est­ing as the ways that it has been in­ter­preted and mis­in­ter­preted.

ME­NACHEM WECKER

Dino- Mite: Mark Dion’s ‘The Ser­pent Be­fore the Fall’ is on dis­play at MOBIA’s ‘Back to Eden’ ex­hibit on the Up­per West Side of New York.

ALEXIS ROCK­MAN

Pol­luted Mind: Alexis Rock­man’s work was in­spired by the story of a dol­phin that died af­ter swim­ming through the Gowanus Canal.

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