The triptych reveals a desiccated landscape of drowned and burned marshes in southern Iraq.
The wreckage of war, it once flourished with a landscape of reeds, trees and the chlorophyll of life. The mythic, historic and geological nexus of the Garden of Eden, it was scorched and drained by Saddam Hussein in 1991 in retaliation for popular uprisings during a cease-fire in the Gulf War.
Photographer Meridel Rubeinstein captured this tragedy and the hopeful greenery that is returning in “From Eden in Iraq, Ehmad and His Boat, Central Marshes,” 2011-2012. The piece is part of the exhibition “Eden Turned On Its Side,” opening at the University of New Mexico Art Museum on Saturday, Feb. 3.
A UNM alumna, Rubenstein has long been drawn to concepts of home, place and the environment. The show marks the first time her series “Photosynthesis,” “Volcano Cycle” and “Eden in Iraq” have been grouped in a major photographic exhibition. “Photosynthesis” focuses on the natural cycle of the seasons and our dependence on trees. “Volcano Cycle” documents the active volcanoes of the Indonesia to explore environmental change on a non-human scale. “Eden in Iraq” examines environmental devastation and renewal at the site of the biblical Eden.
“My work has always been concerned with place and home,” Rubenstein said in a telephone interview from Singapore. “The planet became home through this three-part work.”
The “Photosynthesis” piece “Winter Cloud (The Ocean of the Atmosphere)” (2009-11) resembles an Earth form free-floating in a cloud-flecked sky. The composition emerged after the Santa Fe-based artist had traveled to South Africa, Kenya and Madagascar and completed a residency in Ireland. At the time, she was new to Photoshop.
“I had these old pictures of clouds scanned,” Rubenstein said. “Somehow, I figured out the command for drawing a circle. It made the Earth. It was me trying to think about the atmosphere, the planet and oxygen. I was trying to make work about carbon gas, so I started with photosynthesis.”
Her “Volcano Cycle” on prepared aluminum plates knits photography with the deep time of geology. Rubenstein works at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, where she is a visiting associate professor at the School of Art, Design and Media. She collaborated with the school’s Earth Observatory, traveling to several active volcanoes, including Mount Bromo, depicted in “From Volcano Cycle, Mt. Bromo from above, Encircled, East Java, Indonesia (2010).” Her images reveal the “Toba catastrophe theory,” where a massive eruption changed the course of human history 74,000 years ago. Gases shot into the atmosphere to create a global volcanic winter that few survived. The blast led to planetary cooling and the eventual extinction of all other human species except for the branch that became modern humans.
“I was looking at deep time to understand these powerful forces,” Rubenstein said. The aluminum serves as a plate nearly re-creating the sound of the volcanic roar, she added.
The “Eden” series grew out of a “60 Minutes” piece about the original Eden’s place in modern Iraq. Once the third-largest wetland in the world, it was turned into a desert by the ravages of war.
The work features a back view of Rubenstein’s escort, Ehmad, and the boat that took them there.
“I got this instant feeling of ‘We’ve got to get the garden back’,” she said. “It was (once) full of reeds, trees and birds. When I left, it was 20 percent regenerating. The human destruction has just parched the marshes. There were seashells and bullet shells.”
UNESCO recently designated the Mesopotamian Marshes as a World Heritage Site.