Published  23/07/2014

Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden

Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden

Revisioning Paradise in a Fallen World
Interview with curator Jennifer Scanlan

Museum of Biblical Art, New York City
27 June – 28 September 2014


Observing New York City in the summer, when tourists from around the globe come to shop, eat and see great art and theatre, one could easily consider this teeming, commercially driven urban mecca as a paradise of sorts.

Yet on any given day, in any large city or small corner of the world, warning signs that 21st-century lifestyles and values might have led us astray threaten to breach our strongest psychological defences. And while, to some, an ever-conscious sense of sin and separation from God might seem like a relic from the middle ages, the theme of being cast out of paradise is eternal – and particularly relevant to everyone today as crises assail us from every side: political, economic, social and ecological.

Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) presents 19 works focused on the biblical story of the Garden of Eden from Genesis (2:8-3:24). By exploring existential and moral questions elicited by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, loss of innocence, expulsion from the garden and fate as homeless wanderers, these works seek to discover the roots of our longing for paradise and, perhaps thereby, regain some of what has been lost.

The exhibition is both a benchmark and a departure for MOBIA, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2015.1 It also represents MOBIA’s commitment to contemporary art and commissioning new works; six are featured in Back to Eden. Explaining the decision, director Richard P Townsend, who joined the museum in October 2013, describes the role of commissioned works as, “the opening of an exciting new chapter for MOBIA as we expand our exploration of the influence of biblical narrative on artists living and working today”.

Townsend and his staff worked with independent curator Jennifer Scanlan to create an eclectic, provocative display, which, no doubt, will leave visitors pondering their own visions of paradise as a key to their deepest desires. Studio International spoke with Scanlan about choosing and commissioning works for the show, the artists’ interpretations of the biblical story, common themes and symbolism, and the interplay of hope and despair characterising many of the works.

Cindi Di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with Studio International about Back to Eden, Jennifer. The works in the show span the past 15 years, with a good balance between intimate paintings and large installations, well-known names, such as Jim Dine and Fred Tomaselli, and emerging artists. Can you give us insight into the selection process?2

Jennifer Scanlan: When I started researching the ways in which the Garden of Eden had inspired artists, it became clear that there were so many rich themes –creation, the birth of Adam and then Eve, the concept of original sin – that I would have to focus the exhibition on one specific idea. So I decided to look particularly at the garden itself, as a place of perfect harmony between humans and nature. I chose artists that explored that idea in many different ways. I wanted to open viewers’ eyes to the ways the Eden story has become a part of our culture.

CDM: The six commissioned works range from a trompe-l’oeil wall painting by Mary Temple and diorama by Mark Dion to a cut-paper installation by Anonda Bell and animation by Marina Zurkow. What criteria did you give to the artists, and were you surprised by their responses to this powerful subject?

JS: Mostly, the commissioned pieces started as a conversation with the artists about work they had done in the past that might relate to the theme. They each presented a project to me with a basic idea of the direction it would take. After we agreed on a general concept, the idea was to let the inspiration guide them. I didn’t see any of the final pieces until they were installed, so they were wonderful surprises. Dana Sherwood made a fantastic foray into fake food, in a kitchen installation that includes historic cookbooks and videos of animals eating the feasts she had created for them. Bell developed her composition onsite, and her piece has an unexpected swarm of insects that take over a whole section of the huge wall she was given. 

CDM: Including examples of rare bibles from the American Bible Society collection helps to initiate a dialogue between the past and present. Why did you choose the particular bibles displayed in the exhibit, and how do these historical portrayals of the Eden story impact our understanding of the contemporary works?3

JS: I worked with the curator of the Rare Bible Collection, Liana Lupas. I wanted to show how certain motifs from the Eden story had carried through art history for hundreds of years. Lupas helped me choose some particularly beautiful images, and they proved to have all kinds of interesting connections with the works on display. For example, in the Koberger Bible, the serpent has a woman’s head; both María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Rona Pondick explore human-nature hybrids in their work.

CDM: Back to Eden reflects personal and universal beliefs, and historical and contemporary interpretations of them. I think that Mat Collishaw’s East of Eden (2013) epitomises this blend because it looks like an object from the Victorian era, but could also have been made today to cater to public fascination with the gothic; the snake is a timeless image of evil frequently encountered in religious texts and fairytales; and the framed mirror beckons viewers to look inside to see what is reflected within themselves. Can you talk about one or two other works that also bring the past into the present and involve viewers in the story?

JS: Dion and Alexis Rockman use the diorama – an historical form of display in natural history museums – to frame their work: Dion created a fantasy version of the snake before the fall, and Rockman offers a view of the polluted Gowanus Canal in New York City, in which the only “natural history” are the animals that thrive on human proximity, such as domestic cats and squirrels.

Adam Fuss also uses a historic form, the daguerreotype, in which a photographic image is imprinted on a silver plate. The plate itself is very reflective, so viewers can see themselves [in the image], on a mattress with snakes. Sean Capone uses a very contemporary medium, video, to explore archetypal images of the tree of life and the garden. Visitors can walk through his projection, essentially entering into his garden. Both of these works make viewers aware of their connection to the elements of the story.

CDM: Bell’s cut-paper Neither Shall You Touch It (2013-14) sets up a dialogue between archetypal female imagery: Eve, the good girl who errs through weakness, and Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who refuses to submit to her husband through wilful rebellion. These days, we like our girls strong, especially in dystopian novels and films in which they cut loose and give oppressors a run for their money. How does the tree figure function in this scene?

JS: I’ll agree that we are seeing more strong females in adventure films and books, but I would say that, in the vast majority of cases, female characters play second fiddle to the male characters, and wear tight-fitting clothes while they cut loose. Bell’s depiction of women is a reaction to these cultural stereotypes. Her Eve is in high heels, with a “feminine” silhouette, and was created to be subservient to Adam. Lilith is the untamable wild beast, covered in hair, with no pleasing curves. I would love to see a dystopian film in which Lilith was the heroic protagonist. Rockman is working on a film – maybe we can suggest that to him.

The tree is a reference to the classic image from the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve flanking the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Instead of a verdant, fruit-bearing tree, it is a barren tree, covered in images of dead eucalyptus trees from Bell’s native Australia. She connects the drought that killed these trees to climate change. Like many of the artists in the exhibition, she is interested in the ways that the Eden story is replaying itself in our current environmental situation; because of our poor choices, we are about to get expelled once again from our planet-garden. 

CDM: Despite the varied backgrounds and cultures of people viewing the exhibit, ecological devastation is something all of us have witnessed, heard and read about. It is, perhaps, the most obvious link between the biblical story and our century. With her Vertical Garden series of acrylic and mixed media collages (2007-8), Naomi Reis references the practice of creating small natural oases within urban environments and made me think of the popularity of shelter magazines offering advice on how to make our homes beautiful respites from the rough-and-tumble, workaday world. What were the sources of her inspiration?

JS: Reis spent part of her childhood in Japan, where even in very tightly packed urban areas, she noticed that people created small gardens. When she was working on these pieces, she took the imagery from Victorian botanical illustrations. In the 19th century, botany became both a profession and a popular hobby. Your house might have a solarium or even a greenhouse where you could keep exotic plants, and the botanical illustrations allowed you to study them. Of course, the title of one of her works, Falling Water, is a reference to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that is integrated with nature. So she really was inspired by a whole history of people trying to bring nature into their homes, albeit in a very controlled way.

CDM: Although the content of Back to Eden is quite serious, there is a fair amount of wit, too, with Lynn Aldrich’s Serpentarium (2002), in which she constructs a snake with a garden hose, and Barnaby Furnas’s The Fruit Eaters (2013), an acrylic painting that uses gravity to produce a “fall”. Can you describe another work that lightens the general tone of the exhibition?

JS: I love Pipilotti Rist’s Sparking of the Domesticated Synapses. It seems [deceptively simple], like some garden tools and flowers on a shelf, and makes you think of the nice neighbour who loves to garden. In the video on the side of the flower vase, however, the act of cutting flowers and putting them into a vase becomes very, very sensual. The artist made this piece with a sense of humour about the ways in which stereotypes can prove false.

CDM: I hope visitors pick up the small, paperback catalogue, which is quiet and unassuming on the surface, yet a lovely, poetic meditation on the garden themes. Your curatorial commentary is followed by the Genesis story and essays from Robert Alter and Sean McDonough, which address existential concerns in a larger context.4 How do their perspectives amplify viewers’ experiences of the art?

JS: Alter and McDonough are both important scholars who have written major books, so I was very pleased that they agreed to write for this catalogue. Alter looks at the figure of the snake in the Bible. Several of the artists, including Fuss, Dion and Collishaw, created works about this strange creature. McDonough looks at our yearning to return to paradise, and the ways in which we seek it all around us. Tomaselli’s work explores this yearning using an iconic image from [the Italian early Renaissance artist] Masaccio’s famous Expulsion fresco [c1425]. Lina Puerta’s piece also builds on this idea. She sees Eden in the weeds that grow in an urban environment, sometimes the only garden available for city-dwellers. Her weeds are embellished with fabric, beads and gold chains, a little paradise created out of the natural and the manmade.

CDM: I have left my favourite piece from the show for last – Dine’s wistful memory piece, The Garden of Eden (2003). This stainless steel installation revisits imagery he has used in other works: a gate, a statue of the Roman goddess Venus and gardening tools. In telling an intensely personal story, Dine has captured the universal desire to return to an idyllic time when we were content. How do you interpret his symbolism?

JS: Dine’s grandparents had a hardware store when he was growing up, and he has many happy memories of playing and working there, so for him this was a Garden of Eden. I think it is particularly interesting that in the original story, after the fall, Adam was cursed to “toil the land” for his food. For Dine, and probably for many garden enthusiasts, physical labour is pleasurable, an opportunity to transform the earth.

CDM: You earned your MA in the history of decorative arts, design and culture from Bard Graduate Center and worked as an associate curator at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York. Is Back to Eden a bit of a departure for you, and has working as an independent curator broadened the scope of your interests?

JS: My experiences at MAD broadened my interests beyond design first – many of the exhibitions there included works of contemporary art. Temple, for example, has a piece displayed at MAD. Working as an independent curator has allowed me to expand even further beyond the object to include other media, which I included in Back to Eden with Zurkow’s animation and Capone’s video installation.

I remain very interested in the ways that contemporary art intersects with design. I see those categories continuing to break down with artists interested in the emotional resonance of objects, and designers interested in the conceptual basis for their installations.

CDM: Can you give us a preview of projects you are working on?

JS: I will be going back to my roots, with a tapestry exhibition opening at 108 Contemporary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in September and a large historical exhibition for MAD that looks at women working in craft materials at the midcentury and today, opening the summer of 2015. I also have a few contemporary design exhibitions in the works, and this collaboration with MOBIA has been so positive, we are looking at ways to work together again.

CDM: These projects will certainly keep you busy and give us a lot of look forward to. But for now, let us congratulate you on Back to Eden, which is likely to spark some deep reflection on the values and qualities of life that might make a garden flourish and feed the soul, despite the odds.

1. For Studio International’s review of MOBIA’s first exhibit, Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South (12 May – 24 July 2005), see

2. The artists selected for Back to Eden are: Lynn Aldrich, Anonda Bell, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Sean Capone, Mat Collishaw, Jim Dine, Mark Dion, Barnaby Furnas, Adam Fuss, Rona Pondick, Lina Puerta, Naomi Reis, Pipilotti Rist, Alexis Rockman, Dana Sherwood, Mary Temple, Fred Tomaselli and Marina Zurkow.

3. MOBIA is located in the main headquarters of the American Bible Society in New York City.

4. Robert Alter is professor of the Graduate School and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Sean McDonough is professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts.

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