In a 1483 German Bible, the Garden of Eden is depicted as a corralled green circle; Adam and Even are ejected from its manicured grass to a hilly wilderness, with a trail leading off into the unknown. This idealized interpretation of original sin sits alongside more modern takes on our relationship with our environment — where the downfall of humanity is much less refined — in the Museum of Biblical Art’s (MOBIA) Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden.
At the preview for the exhibition, MOBIA Director Richard P. Townsend explained that he sees it as important to “show contemporary art as integral in the profound impact the Bible has had on tradition” by “looking critically at the good and bad.” He also said the show is meant to signal a “moving onto the next level” for the institution, and for “people who expect us to behave in one way, we want to be different.”
The comments were partly directed at the perception of MOBIA, which is located just north of Columbus Circle in a small second-floor gallery that too often goes overlooked. Rather than being a spiritual space, MOBIA is about responding to the artistic influence of the Bible, which has snaked its way through the Western cultural narrative like the serpent of Genesis.
With its group of 18 prominent contemporary artists, Back to Eden is designed to bring in a new audience. The museum has created a totally different experience from the black box of the previous Object of Devotion exhibition, which featured alabaster art from the Victoria & Albert Museum and felt more like an illuminated chapel. Back to Eden has MOBIA’s first art commissions, including work by Mark Dion, Dana Sherwood, Marina Zurkow, and Mary Temple. Temple’s piece is an illusion of a garden shadow through a window just outside the main exhibition space, part of her series of ephemeral paintings on architecture. “Just like light on the wall, they’re just moving through,” she said of the series. This sense of nature vanishing resonates throughout the diverse art in the exhibition.
“The Garden of Eden was really a theme that I was seeing still used and still recognizable in contemporary art,” said curator Jennifer Scanlan. “I decided to focus on the garden as this perfect place.” In doing so, she brought in artists with the Bible in mind both directly — such as Barnaby Furnas and his “The Fruit Eaters” (2013), which shows the doomed taste of apple in a frenzy of acrylic — and indirectly, such as Alexis Rockman, who considers the holy book in an environmentally conscious way. Rockman’s “Gowanus” (2013) vividly depicts the polluted Brooklyn canal in its ruined state, with its former wildlife morphed into a catfish-shaped ghost animal that writhes in the putrid green water.
There’s also, of course, the snake — in Mat Collishaw’s “East of Eden” (2013), where a reptilian form twists through a foggy mirror, and Adam Fuss’s “The Space Between Garden and Eve” (2011), which features two snakes entwined on a mattress. Presiding over the exhibition from the center of the room is a more curious beast: a serpent standing on legs among green foliage. This small diorama by Mark Dion responds to the Biblical language of the Eden story.
“God punished the serpent by making it crawl, and some scholars and fundamentalists have interpreted that to mean the snake once had legs,” Dion explained. It’s an unsettling vision of mutilation, and a transformation of tradition into a physical object, something Dion said was inspired by the scientifically questionable Creation Museum in Kentucky, as well as the American Museum of Natural History up the street from MOBIA. Even in that scientifically minded Manhattan institution’s dioramas, nature morphs into a facsimile of reality, an idealized human interpretation of the wild world.
Similarly, Dana Sherwood was inspired by the contrast between our perception of our relationship with nature and the reality. For “Banquets in Dark Wildness” (2014), which in the gallery takes the form of a tower of recreated confections and video monitors, Sherwood set out meals for raccoons in suburban Florida, starting with vegetables and then getting into more elaborate, impressive desserts. “What’s interesting to me is how our territories are overlapped,” she said, adding that in some depictions of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are shown existing harmoniously with a horde of animals. “There’s a desire to forge some kind of community. We want this idealized coexistence to happen, but when it comes to our backyard, it causes stress.”
In New York City, our complicated relationship with nature is evoked in its industrial corners, where the old “Eden” has long since been obliterated. “I wanted the most toxic, non-gardeny thing possible,” Alexis Rockman said of his painting “Gowanus.” Much of his art is directed at this idea of an environment destroyed, but also our nostalgia for what’s vanished as the deception of idealization. “I love places that have so completely fallen through the cracks they seem to be shameful,” he said, noting that even now the Gowanus is almost glamorized for its decay.
Back to Eden will have a series of free public programs with some of the artists during its run. It’s an engaging experiment in looking at ecology through the lens of the beautiful, fabled garden we were once tossed out of, and how we strive to coexist with the wilderness that remains while reflecting on what’s been lost.
Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden continues at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through September 28.
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