Meridel Rubenstein: Eden Turned On Its Side: Selections from Photosynthesis
THE Magazine, September 2014
Eden Turned On It's Side is a nine-year endeavor in three parts:
Photosynthesis, The Volcano Cycle, and Eden in Iraq. A selection from the first series (started in 2007) and two volcano images are hanging in a small side room of David Richard Gallery. The expected completion of Eden in Iraq is 2016. Meridel Rubenstein is a renowned photographer and environmentalist asking through this timely series, “Can Eden be restored?”
Rubenstein (along with plenty of others) maintains the Judeo-Christian ideal of Eden that the Earth was at one time perfect. First there was light, which allowed for photosynthesis, vegetation, and life. A symbiosis between man and his lair was born that we really still depend on today despite millennia of innovation, industrialization, and destruction. To capture this Edenic ideal that informs Photosynthesis, Rubenstein photographed people and vegetation from New Mexico, Vermont, and Singapore.
Perhaps the most literal selection is a grid of nine photographs, each with a single leaf from a different tree in a different stage of photosynthesis. These specimens transcend their weary decay and, magnified, their decomposition becomes filigree and the green, gold, yellow, and orange become idyllic displays of the intelligence of nature. They float in darkness on black grounds as if to indicate the pending absence of light. Like Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstracted plants, Photosynthesis Leaf Grid decontextualizes the object in reconsideration.
In digital postproduction, Rubenstein repeatedly uses a large central circle suspended amid puffy white clouds that acts like a thought bubble, a magnifying glass, and a globe all at once. Its contents vary, but its most basic image, seen in Gaia Cloud and Winter Cloud, is a simple circle whose contents are inverted using Photoshop. Greek mythology identifies Gaia as one of the primordial deities and more succinctly as the personification of earth or even Mother Earth. Gaia Cloud conjoins heaven and earth while probing the existence of heaven on earth.
The floating mandala in Fall Seasonal illuminates an autumn tree—ancient and wise in its enormity and healthy in its idyllic brilliance. It may as well be the tree of knowledge where we ate the apple, where our eyes were opened, and from which we thus endured expulsion. Paradise was barred but also preserved. Fall Seasonal suggests this distance and dislocation while referencing another creation story: the Big Bang. A fertile ball floats in a gaseous atmosphere ready to combust. Winter Seasonal is the sibling image, which documents a leafless tree preserving its energy through the cold. In both of these images, the tree is chopped into smaller frames of macro and micro rectangles that, pieced together, offer a multi-perspective composition of paradise, proposing nature’s omniscience.
Rubenstein writes that “wherever people thought there to be Eden, invariably there would have been some sort of environmental conflagration that destroyed it.” The flaming sword barring entrance to the Garden of Eden in Genesis is just one example of this heated destruction that forms section two. The Volcano Cycle concretely focuses on Indonesia’s Ring of Fire and Mount Toba’s eruption over seventy thousand years ago, theorized to have caused a global catastrophe resulting in a bottleneck in human evolution. These images are printed on aluminum panel to evince “deep, geological time full of minerals and melted ore.”
For Eden in Iraq, Rubenstein went to Southern Iraq’s former marshlands, also known as Mesopotamia, which are cited as the hub of civilization if not the original Garden of Eden. In 1991 (following the First Gulf War), Saddam Hussein diverted the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, thereby making the area inhospitable for refuged militiamen as well as for all the other mammals and fish. The previously dense ecosystem was drained, leaving behind a desert. Rubenstein and environmental engineer Mark Nelson want to restore this site of war and destruction to a brimming garden, reinstating Eden to this post-Edenic site.
In this epic trilogy there is no fairytale or apocalyptic beginning and end, but instead a cyclical proposition of birth, destruction, and renewal. Rubenstein seamlessly stitches together our legendary fables with our ephemeral geography and prompts intent reconsideration of our cultural heritage and legacy.