University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque
February 2 – June 16, 2018
Meridel Rubenstein’s photographs brought me to the Bible, which I hadn’t read in earnest since I took a great books class in college. I probably don’t need to tell most people that the Book of Genesis is, at least from a literary perspective, a bit confusing and disorganized. It contains multiple infractions against clear storytelling: it’s repetitive, it introduces characters without explaining who they are, it defies temporal logic, and its pronouns (at least in the translation I read) are a mess. Of course, these are the same aspects of the story that make it compelling and which emphasize that the narrative transcends human logic. We mortals are not meant to comprehend the divine.
Many historians believe that Eden’s original location is in present-day southern Iraq, near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The area, as the wall text in Meridel Rubenstein’s exhibition explains, has been devastated by various factors, including war and the draining of the marshlands by Saddam Hussein. With the support of the non-governmental organization Nature Iraq, Rubenstein formed the Wastewater Garden Project in 2011, which seeks to rehabilitate the marshlands and to make them functional and beautiful for the inhabitants of the area. Rubenstein’s series Eden in Iraq contains the most recent of the photographs included in Eden Turned on Its Side, and based on the wall text, I expected to see images along the lines of social documentary, since they were shot while Rubenstein worked on the Wastewater Garden Project. Instead, the photographs are carefully constructed and verge on the allegorical. In Adam and Eve in the Iraq Marshes, near the Possible Historic Site of the Garden of Eden (2011–2012), a young man and woman flank five other figures, ranging in age from infant to elder. Presumably the man and woman are Adam and Eve, although nothing about their dress or poses makes their roles obvious. The tree in the center of the composition is presumably either the Tree of Life or the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the Bible and the Quran differ on this detail), but we see no forbidden fruit, no nudity, no postures of shame or expulsion from the garden. This is a new iconography for a new Eden, and its figures face the camera calmly, with no apprehension. Other photographs from the series stitch together images into a sort of digital collage, creating a geometric tiled effect that Rubenstein has used in past work. The interiors of domestic spaces mingle with shots of clouds and mountains and temple ruins, the resultant composition a compression of time and space—although again I experienced a pang of desire for more context. Living people inhabit these interiors: who are they? What is Rubenstein’s connection to them?
Origin myths clearly preoccupy Rubenstein, and her most compelling images from the other two series in the exhibition address conceptions of time on both micro and macro scales. Volcano Cycle is a series of photographs taken at a string of islands containing active volcanoes known as the Indonesian Ring of Fire. Rubenstein’s images of ashen branches and plant life peeking through volcanic soil invoke geologic time, a concept that inherently contradicts the origin stories of religious texts but that inhabits the imagination nonetheless. In one photograph, crags of charcoal-colored volcanic rocks cradle a pool of turquoise water nearly obscured by a mass of rising steam. The photo, printed on a sheet of aluminum and thus emitting luminous sheen, evokes a prehistoric scene; I nearly expected to glimpse a creature dragging itself from the primordial ooze. The pool in the photograph is, in fact, a crater lake in Java, its concentration of hydrochloric and sulfuric acid so high, due to the volcanic activity near its site, that little life could survive in it. Another simple photograph of tan-colored rocks set against a black background, titled Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash, 74,000 Years Old (2010), alludes directly to the Toba catastrophe theory, a now disproven origin myth akin to the story of Noah’s Ark.
The exhibition’s final (or first, depending on which way you turn when you walk into the gallery) series, Photosynthesis, refers to human dependence on plants for oxygen, and some photographs take that dependence to a literal extreme. In Summer Solstice (2009–2011) a group of women sit and stand in a forest with their limbs tethered to tree branches. In Respiration (2009–2011) a woman breathes through an oxygen mask connected by a plastic tubes to an actual tree. Other images of the solstices or equinoxes, large photographs which also employ combination printing, portray scenarios enacted by various people in New Mexico and Vermont and are filled with symbolic actions and props (books, trays of soil and snow, a lighted disc) to rival epic scenes such as those by nineteenth-century photographer Oscar Rejlander. Of the three series that comprise Eden Turned on Its Side, these are Rubenstein’s most playful and capacious; its oddities facilitate the potential for multiple interpretations and offer the viewer a chance to create new myths all her own.