Somewhere between our own culturally specific creation myths and the Big Bang, our planet was born.
Out of nothing, into something; out of darkness, a first breath.
From tightly compacted space to infinite spaciousness.
Out of nothing, something.
For eons, the ocean of our atmosphere has cradled
us. But now, as it thins from carbon emissions and hydro-fluorocarbons, it may not be able to provide life support to our earth. Upon this planet, lots of things are upside down. Photography allows particles of light to illuminate our present reality, upside down and backward, onto our retina, a piece of film, or a digital light-recording
system. It’s the artist’s job to turn things right-side up in a different way.
Photosynthesis is the predominant light-recording system that sustains life on earth. Sunlight converts Co2 into sugars, releasing energy and nourishment mainly for plant sources known as phototrophs. A by-product of this process is respiration whereby plant sources exhale oxygen that we anthropoids inhale while exhaling Co2 for plants in return. Is it possible to restore any balance between oxygen and carbon, between we humans and the natural world? Or are we prisoners of global greed that is robbing us of our Edenic right to clean air, soil, and water?
This Post-Edenic symbiotic exchange is the subject of this work.
The Volcano Cycle explores deep time with photographic images of volcanoes from Indonesia’s Ring of Fire. These evoke earth forces, climate change, and human coevolution. Large-format negatives have been printed digitally on prepared aluminum plates with archival pigment inks through either the dye sublimation or direct pigment printing processes. The metal echoes the deep timbre of the eruptions, as well as the transmutation of materials, minerals, and metals that occur during a volcanic event.
After eons of fire and ice and then melt, our Eden emerged. Without the earliest volcanic activity, enough carbon dioxide would not have been released to produce global warming to melt the ice cover. Oxygen could then arise to eventually breathe us into being.
Mount Toba erupted on Sumatra seventy-four thousand years ago, creating an extreme volcanic winter that extincted, if not all of us, then a large portion of life. It is possible that some of us, who were lucky enough to have made tools, were able to crawl out of the deep ash, to keep going. Thus Mount Toba is referred to by scientists as the “Weak Garden of Eden,” because, at least at Mount Toba, life had to begin anew.
Volcanoes made it possible for life to exist on Earth.
They enable us to see the beauty of the great natural forces of the planet—of which we are part. They offer a window into both our own evolution and participation in global warming. I want people to see how alive the Earth is without it being terrifying. These pictures are the opening of a conversation.
In 2010, in the midst of creating both Photosynthesis and Volcano Cycle for Eden Turned on Its Side, I learned about the valiant efforts of the Iraqi Environmental NGO, Nature Iraq, to restore the vast drained Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers cross on the eastern edge of the marshes, so these wetlands are thought to be in extreme proximity to the original historic site of the Garden of Eden.
The marshes are home to the Marsh Arabs, who lived an unchanged way of life here for over seven thousand years, until the early 1990s. Then, when Saddam Hussein drained and burned the wetlands to punish Shi’ite rebels hiding there, they were murdered or driven out. With Sadam’s demise in 2003, people started returning, with simple hand tools, to break through the earthen canal and let the waters back into the desiccated land. Azzam Alwash, an engineer from Laguna Beach, California, immediately returned to the nature preserve of his childhood. He created Nature Iraq with the mandate to help restore and preserve Iraq’s endangered waters, flora, and fauna.
Despite progress, the situation is far from perfect—with people now building on land instead of on waterways, the Euphrates has become dangerously contaminated with human sewage. I initiated the Eden in Iraq project in 2011 to create a demonstration wastewater garden that will restore health and grow beauty in the devastated marshes of southern Iraq.
These images are made to resonate, both conceptually and in a material sense, with the other two parts of Eden Turned on Side—Photosynthesis and Volcano Cycle—and to remain companions to the Wastewater Garden Project. Our garden design is based on Mesopotamian wedding-blanket patterns. The images presented here are configured as weavings in the sense that different themes are being woven together: nature, culture, environmental and cultural history, and more. Here linen, tapestry, and metal are employed to give a sense of the fabric of life in the marshes.
TENDING THE GARDEN
Excerpts from Shawn Michelle Smith’s 2017 essay (featured in Eden Turned On Its Side)
Meridel Rubenstein’s Eden Turned on Its Side is about human relationships to the environment. It develops a theme that has long inspired Rubenstein, namely our intimate connection to the land, but it extends the line of inquiry temporally back into geological time and spatially out into a global expanse. The work consists of
large-scale photographic images that tend toward installation pieces, as is characteristic of much of Rubenstein’s art. It comprises three parts, Photosynthesis, Volcano Cycle, and Eden in Iraq, which explore ecologies on the scales of human time, geological time, and mythical time. The work resonates with current conversations about the Anthropocene, a newly named geological period in which the earth registers indelibly the mark of human industry, and especially the effectsof fossil fuels. This is literally an “age of man” in which human life on the planet has inexorably transformed it, leading to the current crisis of climate change.
Rubenstein’s Eden Turned on Its Side engages this enormous transformation but asks viewers to consider their own place in this ongoing dynamic and their own relationship to the natural world. Entering into conversations that tend to universalize as they take a global view, Rubenstein’s work invites one to look at the problem up close as well as far away and to consider what one might do, in even the smallest way, to repair the damage done. Eden Turned on Its Side locates viewers in the Anthropocene as agents rooted in particular landscapes that are connected on a global scale. It asks one to consider one’s relationship to place and plants and people, both intimately and planetarily.
Rubenstein’s Photosynthesis explores our physical dependence on plants to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, and a few of the large-scale photographs envision this relationship directly. In Respiration a white-haired woman stands in the shade of a grove of trees. With one hand she holds an oxygen mask to her face, and with the other she reaches out to touch the trunk of a cottonwood tree. Looking closely one sees that the tubing of her oxygen mask is attached to the tree, which provides her life support. The photograph is disquieting in its directness. But the discomfort it generates is also instructive because the image asks one to consider questions that are uncomfortable, questions about our dependence on and integration with the natural world. Respiration underscores that as the earth ails, we do too.
With Volcano Cycle, Rubenstein binds photography with the deep time of geology. Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash presents two mounds covered with light, powdery dust that spills onto an indeterminate dark background. Although scale is difficult to judge, the image is almost forensic in its straightforward documentation, even as it is also aesthetic in its minimal forms, dramatic lighting, and high contrast. The image points to the “Toba catastrophe theory” according to which “a massive volcanic eruption changed the course of human history by severely reducing the human population.” First presented by Stanley H. Ambrose in 1998, the theory proposes that a “mega-colossal” volcanic eruption in the Toba caldera in Indonesia approximately seventy-four thousand years ago produced massive environmental change.
Pyroclastic material and gases shot into the atmosphere created a global volcanic winter that led to planetary cooling and eventually to the extinction of all other human species except for the branch that became modern humans. Although it has since been challenged, the Toba catastrophe theory stands as a dramatic figuration of mass extinction and human evolution. Rubenstein’s Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash encourages one to consider both our potential evolutionary link and our ultimate vulnerability to cataclysmic geological events. The powdery ash of Mt. Toba figures both our beginning and our end. The series Eden in Iraq explores environmental devastation and renewal in the marshes of southern Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, near the site of Biblical Eden on earth. In 1991, after popular uprisings that emerged during a cease-fire of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein drained the Iraq wetlands in retaliation, turning it into a desert and displacing the Marsh Arabs. Twelve years later, the US war in Iraq, which many critics deemed a “war foroil,” wrought military destruction across the land and reinvigorated the demand for fossil fuels in the United States. Rubenstein’s Temple of Inanna evokes this double history of environmental devastation in Iraq, mirroring bullet shells with the shells of marsh snails.
These two different kinds of casings flank an image of a woman who represents the goddess Inanna, set in the grasses of a renewed marshland. Inanna, goddess of love and war, was patron deity of the city of Uruk and the most revered goddess of ancient Mesopotamia. Responsible for “the redistribution of resources and fertility of the earth,” Inanna serves as an appropriate symbol for the regreening of the Iraq marshlands in Eden in Iraq. In Temple of Inanna Rubenstein presents Inanna in negative, as if she is a latent power waiting to reemerge and restore the marshes.
Rubenstein’s work asks one to imagine a new coeval relationship to the natural world that humans have utterly transformed. Eden Turned on Its Side underscores climate crisis and foreshadows the possibility of massive extinction, but it also holds out the possibility of renewal. The work grounds people in specific places within planetary environments and encourages one to recognize the ways in which daily life is imbricated in global forces. In doing so it also suggests that regeneration on the local level might effect transformation of the vast earth systems that one also inhabits. Although it may be impossible to right an overturned Eden in the age of the Anthropocene, at the very least one can begin to tend the garden at home.
Eden Turned on its Side
Essay by PATRICIA LEVASSEUR DE LA MOTTE, France/Singapore
Assistant Curator for Photography and New Media , Singapore Art Museum (2007-11) Independent Curator, The Philanthropic Museum, an on-line database project dedicated to photography and new media art.
Meridel’s newest work, EDEN TURNED ON ITS SIDE (2007– ), looks at ecological processes across time that either reinforce or destroy the notion of Eden. It focuses on intersections of nature and culture in relation to ecological and social imbalance. Composed of three parts, EDEN TURNED ON ITS SIDE is not presented as a timeline but as a natural cycle of life, death and rebirth where human beings and nature are deeply connected and exist in true symbiosis. The three parts are Photosynthesis, The Volcano Cycle, and Eden in Iraq. The first part, Photosynthesis, includes images of trees and people exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the seasons, in a post-Edenic and threatened relationship. The second part, The Volcano Cycle, explores deep time with images of volcanoes from Indonesia’s Ring of Fire that evoke earth, climate change and human co-evolution. The third part, Eden in Iraq, is set in the marshes of Southern Iraq, a site said to be near the original Eden. It also features new Adam and Eve in the new Eden that aims to transform relics of war and destruction into art. Here Meridel is co-designing an artwork that is a wastewater garden/memorial site. A sister garden, Eden Again, is planned for the International Symposium on Electronic Arts in Albuquerue, New Mexico, USA September 2012.
To understand the impact of photosynthesis and its relationship with human beings, Meridel photographed, at each solstice and equinox, people and trees at different stages of photosynthesis, initially in the US. Meridel believes that people must be aware of global environmental concerns as something akin to their own bodies. This work suggests our tendency to forget our origins in nature and that our survival depends on the balance between conservation and human development. In the wake of the Kyoto Protocol, we have failed to find global solutions to reduce carbon emission and energy consumption, or to find alternatives to fossil fuels. Incredibly, scientists are looking for life on other planets, even as we are unable to protect our own. Can we learn from our mistakes and our rapidly disintegrating environment? With the recent climate changes, devastating earthquakes and tsunamis, do not we see that the planet is severely reacting to our ecological recklessness?
Photosynthesis is the source of life and is the predominant light-recording system on earth. The humble leaf serves as a symbol of photosynthesis where sunlight converts carbon dioxide into sugar, a paramount source of energy for all living things. A by-product of photosynthesis is the production of oxygen all living things need for respiration.
The Volcano Cycle, continues the inquiry into carbon cycles, leading to an exploration of deep time and the idea of the creation of life being much further back in time, long before the creation of human beings.
Meditating two years ago on Photosynthesis, Meridel wondered where she had gotten such an idyllic idea of the symbiotic nature of people and trees. Despite her lack of religious training, she realised she still fostered an idea of a Judeo-Christian Eden. She also realised that wherever people thought there to be Eden, invariably there would have been some sort of environmental conflagration that destroyed it. The Garden of Eden is found in the traditions of the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some other religions and cultures have creation stories in similar settings and ascribe various locations as the place of first habitation. This universal concept of paradise can be found for example in Tibetan Buddhism in the mythical kingdom of Shambhala (also called Shangri-La), Greek mythology in the Garden of the Hesperides, in Hinduism in Mount Meru and in Chinese traditions as the Age of Virtue.
EDEN TURNED ON ITS SIDE is an invitation to meditate on the mysterious cycle of life. The photo-making and the renderings proceed from Meridel’s spiritual research. As she explains: “I had some older images of clouds and scanned one to use. I drew a circle and then tried changing the interior space into a negative image. Instantly heaven and earth conjoined. Then I made my first mandala/cloud circle extended image. Meridel composes some of her photographs as mandalas, which means “circle” in Sanskrit. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas are used by adepts for focusing attention, as a spiritual teaching tool, and an aid to meditation.
EDEN TURNED ON ITS SIDE: Photosynthesis is a meaningful body of work that brings together some essential values of science, ecology, religion, and spirituality in order to find the true balance between human beings and nature. Her mandalas take us from oxygen molecules to the biosphere to the heavens. As it was in Eden, our lives and happiness depends on a perfect, yet fragile symbiosis with our natural environment.