by David M. Roth
One of the first things would-be photographers learn when they pick up a camera is that you can’t photograph a feeling. Pictures are capable of evoking memories of feelings, but they can’t, generally speaking, re-create a state of mind. The camera records only what it sees. What informs experience and gives it meaning – the synthetic and often ineffable composite formed in the mind from sensory input – can only be hinted at by whatever facts a photographer chooses to present.
Documentary photographers deal with this problem by taking a lot of pictures in the hope that a preponderance of “evidence” will tell a story. In so doing they ask a lot of viewers, namely, that they replicate, from discrete images, the photographer’s experience without benefit of all the intangible things that went into it.
Cubists addressed this issue by presenting multiple views of a subject. Surrealists and Dadaists did it with collage and montage. Contemporary artists, like David Hockney, take these approaches further still. Over the past few decades, the New Mexico-based photographer Meridel Rubenstein has adopted similar methods and made them, with significant modifications, her own. She is, for lack of a more precise designation, a poetic documentarian. She does for the Anthropocene what W.G. Sebald did for literature. Where he toured post-WWII Europe and imagined that living organisms and inanimate objects could talk, Rubenstein portrays humankind’s relationship to the Earth as an ongoing dialog between the geologic past and the civilized, politicized, environmentally fraught present.
Eden in Iraq, on view at Brian Gross through April 6, is the third such investigation undertaken by the artist as part of a larger, ongoing project called Eden turned on its Side. It was inspired by a 60 Minutes report on the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, a dissident Shiite group that Saddam Hussein drove into exile (and death) by draining the marshlands that had sustained them for millennia. The area, located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, encompasses 3,000 square miles and is said to be the site of the biblical Eden and the largest wetland in the Middle East. After Hussein’s engineers dug canals that diverted the water into the Persian Gulf, the region became an uninhabitable desert. Then, in 2004, after Hussein was deposed, something miraculous happened: Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American engineer living in California, returned to form an NGO called Nature Iraq. It demolished the canals, and has since restored about half of the wetlands, bringing back with them some of the area’s former Ma’dan inhabitants – a people whose roots trace to the Sumerians. Today the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Iraq’s first national park.
The best entry point into the show is a photo hanging behind the reception desk titled Adam and Eve in the Iraq Marshes Near the possible Historic Site of the Garden of Eden. (It’s one of only two “straight” photos in the exhibition; the rest are geometric composites printed on a variety of different media.) This one shows a family beside a cedar sapling with grasslands stretching out behind them to the horizon. The sky is overcast, the light flat. It’s an unremarkable scene. However, if you look closely, you’ll see the gleaming white dome of a mosque. This is something you'd expect to see in a city or a village. But here, in the middle of nowhere, it reads as a mirage.
It’s one of many visual non-sequiturs in the exhibition. Combined, they capture the seeming contradictions of a place where antiquity and modernity intersect. By seamlessly presenting these oppositions in the same proximate space, Rubenstein offers a larger, more holistic view than what photojournalists – including those who identify as artists — typically show.
Eden Again, Southern Iraq Marshes, a triptych rendered as large-scale (73 x 110 inch) jacquard tapestry, is a good example. It depicts what the marsh looks like today, post-restoration, and
what it looked like after it was destroyed. The contrasts couldn’t be starker. Each section contains three images: views of verdant waterways on the left, snippets of parched desert on the right, and in between, an expansive view of the surroundings shot from inside a magnificent reed structure. Telling details surround it. Two, at the bottom right corner of the piece, are contained in an image showing a snail shell and a bullet casing sitting side-by-side in the dirt. That photo encapsulates as well as any, the region’s recent political history and the immense ecological challenges that lay ahead.
Green Kitchen (with unexcavated Temple of Inanna at Uruk and steps of Ziggurat at Ur), Southern Iraq Marshes is equally impressive for how skillfully it unites things that wouldn’t ordinarily appear in the same frame: a lime-green kitchen, replete with modern appliances, that could have come from the pages of Dwell, and several images showing pieces of two ancient structures that date, respectively, from the 5th and the 2st century BCE. Viewers who know little of post-war Iraq and even less of the saga unfolding in the country’s marshlands might reasonably wonder if the two actually co-exist in the same environment. (They apparently do.)
Also on view are several devastatingly beautiful composites made from dye sublimation prints mounted on aluminum. Dawn and Dusk, Mesopotamian Marshes, a mash-up of two photos taken from the same vantage at different times of day, shows a water buffalo in silhouette on a levee. The scene is bathed in an otherworldly blue light, cleaved at the center by golden rays whose stained, fluid character may remind you of the darkroom hijinks Sigmar Polke employed in his series on Pakistani hashish smokers. Nearby, Temple of Inanna with Shells and Shells, Mesopotamian Marshes, shows a fictive representation of the goddess Inanna (as a veiled woman) flanked at either side by the same bullet casings and seashells noted earlier; only here, instead of photographing the objects where she found them, the artist shot them in the studio against a black background. That, combined with her choice to print the face of Inanna as a negative image, gives the piece the look of a forensic/archeological find.
What’s not included in the exhibition is perhaps as important as what is. A central part of Rubenstein’s Eden in Iraq project was the creation of a wastewater garden: a sewage treatment facility that would both purify polluted water and sustain an ecosystem of native plants. It is also a cultural heritage site, incorporating revived crafts and icons into its design. Working
with two environmental engineers, an industrial designer and an archaeologist, the artist — with funding from the Singapore university where she teaches — designed a 26,500-square-meter site capable of supporting the needs of 7,500 inhabitants of El Chibaish, the region's largest marsh town of 60,000. Seen in this context, Rubenstein’s composites point to a broader vision of what artists can achieve and the changes they can effect when they think big and act accordingly.
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Meridel Rubenstein: “Eden in Iraq” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through April 6, 2019.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.