Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Symbolism of the Fall of Humanity: Art Show at The Museum of Biblical Art

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Archeologists have found an area in Turkey which might have inspired the Garden of Eden story.  Gobekli Tepe is a region which once had overabundant vegetation and animal life, attracting numerous hunter-gathering bands which lived lives of extraordinary leisure and ease there. This was super-lush, fertile land that naturally provided an excess of food for everyone with minimal labor.  Yet, it is also part of the archeological record that, ultimately, this easy life ended and was replaced by the much harsher lifestyle of farming; it appears that farming, itself, began in this very region.  Instead of nature readily providing the needs for small groups, now men and women had to engage in back-breaking labor in hierarchical arrangements to eat. Folk memory and tall tales being what they are, it is believed this transition from ease to toil became the basis of the story of “The Fall.”

Yet, the Garden of Eden story also contains numerous symbolic aspects which are open to various interpretations.  Jennifer Scanlan compiled the work of 19 artists at the Museum of Biblical Art to explore the various aspects of this allegory. This museum, by the way, is absolutely free and this show is not-to-be-missed.  Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is a museum for Bible-thumpers – no way: this museum has amazing and thought-provoking shows.  Please use the free audio guide, when you go, in that you’ll hear actual interviews with the artists. You can easily spend a couple hours at this show and come away having been intellectually, aesthetically and morally engaged.

One of the numerous symbolic aspects of Eden that is open to interpretation is, of course, the snake. In many stories of world mythology the snake represents a type of spiritual thief.  In the Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumerian), for example, a snake steals the flower of immortality from the hero.  In the “Garden” myth the snake is, however, like a traditional trickster figure who literally thinks he is doing something good but just plain gives destructive advice.  There are no sinister, malicious, ulterior motives: the snake wants to be helpful, but his shortcut to salvation is wrong, wrong, wrong.  He seems to represent that capacity we have to take things to another level we perceive to be higher, more efficient and faster, but which is, in reality, self-destructive. The tragedy of the ‘fall’ is that the first humans lacked the capacity to discern bad from good spiritual advice, until it was too late.  Human spiritual history (for a big chunk of the world population) becomes the attempt to reclaim Eden after this horrible but unavoidable debacle. I mean, OK, John Milton, what the hell were they supposed to do? It looked like a damn good deal to me too when I first read about it.

Yet, to Adam Fuss, the story of the snake in the garden “doesn’t make sense”. To Fuss the snake represents life and fertility and any number of positive qualities.  Fuss uses an old daguerreotype method to present two intertwined snakes on a mattress. The mattress can connote a place of rest and reproduction.  He challenges us, perhaps, to see the snake not as a traditional allegorical character but as a pro-sexual, pro-reproductive symbol.  Interestingly, there was a group of ‘heretics’ in France in the 1200s called the Cathars who believed that the universe was so flawed and so evil that the creator god must have been some type of perverse monster.  They deliberately read the Bible as a type of tragedy where the snake was a hero attempting to liberate humanity from the workings of the creator god and Satan became the hero of the entire book. Fuss seems to go in a more ‘pagan’ than Cathar direction though.

Mat Collishaw uses the snake in a somewhat more traditional manner as he presents what appears to be a mirror with the undulating image of a snake writhing and moving about as we look at our own reflections.  According to the audio guide the snake represents something once desirable but now repulsive.  To me, seeing the snake embedded in the mirror with my reflection, wantonly dancing around, leads me to consider the nightmare scenario of possibly discovering that some inner characteristic I’d like to rid myself of might not, in actuality, be possible to eliminate.  Well, let’s keep our fingers crossed!

In a humorous vein, Mark Dion presents a creature which at first sight looks like a dinosaur, but then you learn that according to the Bible not just Adam and Eve were punished.  God removed the legs of the snake after the fall and made it crawl on its belly.  Dion shows us literally what a four-legged snake before the fall might have looked like.  In his interview presented through the audio guide he indicates that one of his purposes in creating the piece was to show the high intelligence of the pre-fall snake.  So we see a four-legged creature brimming with knowledge and confidence (he looked a little like Anthony Weiner to me). This is snake as supernerd, Wikisnake, ready to give you tons of false information with the deepest sincerity.

Lynn Aldrich also presents her version of a snake as a coiled garden hose.  She explains that she wishes to equate the snake to the ‘underlying discomfort’ with urban and suburban life that is often felt by those living in and around  LA.  It’s not a sense of horror or dread, but a subtle sense that something is wrong which often dominates the lives of the more thoughtful inhabitants of the City of Angels.

Among my favorite pieces was Barnaby Furnas’ painting of Adam and Eve in which he tried to convey a sense of Newtonian gravity in the painting through dripping paint.  He feels that ‘the fall’ is best represented by our subjugation to gravity.  Gravity limits our movements, binds us to the ground  and is responsible for the aging process.  Fred Tomaselli takes Masaccio’s Adam and Eve and presents their internal circulatory and visceral systems (in lieu of the amazingly expressive facial expressions in Masaccio’s painting) in his portrayal of the expulsion from Eden.  Posture and viscera speak to us of the inner pain involved in a divorce from the divine.  Tomaselli’s is the most stylish fiery sword I’ve seen in art and the implication is that Adam and Eve simply lacked the cellular wherewithal to resist the advice of the serpent.  As Peter Weiss once wrote: “These cells of the inner self are worse than the deepest stone dungeons…”

Jim Dine shows his fascination with tools in a piece which implies the change in relationship between humanity and nature after the “fall”. Dine obviously loves tools: his dad apparently owned a hardware store.  As the son of a mechanic I can understand his almost fetish-like appreciation for these things. The irony, of course, is that this love of tools belies the stated horror of the consequences of the fall.  The implication could be: maybe the ‘fall’ wasn’t so bad after all. Look at all these cool tools and the cities they built.  What’s so bad about this? 

The answer might be in Alexis Rockman’s piece about the Gowanus canal. In his interview Rockman literally asks, in regard to the environment, “How can you not despair?”  He presents a conglomerate image of this heavily polluted canal inspired by the story of the dolphin that accidentally swam into it and died soon after of toxic shock.  Dominating the extreme pollution of this canal is the image of a cat.  Rockman states that it looks into the polluted canal almost Narcissus-like, and like us, the cat is an innocent looking creature which, in reality, is mischievous, self-absorbed and destructive.

Marina Zurkow shows a similar pessimism in her video Mesocosm (Times Square). You have three screens corresponding to Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.  The left screen shows pre-industrial Times Square, the central screen shows the current area and the screen to the right shows ‘hell,’ a Times Square dominated in the future by the vermin which evolved in response to our existence: rats, cockroaches, pigeons. 

The tree is also a central aspect of the story of Eden.  A tree is a bridge between the earth and the sky or between the earth and God or even between the ‘lower’ and the ‘higher’.  The story of Eden is, basically, the story of choosing between two different bridges. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons uses human hair in an image combining the image of a woman with that of a tree.  The piece is dominated by the color red which can denote both positive and destructive characteristics.  In Rona Pondick’s piece she also presents the combined image of a tree and humans. The tree is a bridge because the roots dig deep into the soil but the branches reach up into the sky.  In Pondick’s piece we see that human heads extend from the very tips of the branches.

Lina Puerta points out that the nature we usually see in cities is highly controlled nature which often denotes affluence and she is more interested in weeds and other forms of vegetation which spread uncontrollably and which are considered eyesores.  You see these recalcitrant forms of plant life spreading unopposed throughout a blank white wall. This would seem to be the ‘garden’ fighting back and trying to reclaim us despite our efforts to remain fallen.  Naomi Reis uses modernist architecture combined with Babylonian hanging garden style vegetation to represent our quest to get back to the garden.  

Modernism and the belief that architecture could be humanistic and inspire positive social change is inherent in the belief in ‘utopia’ that has followed the fall. Mary Temple paints shadows of trees on the wall of the museum which are so realistic you initially think they are actual shadows coming from outside. In reality, they do not correspond to anything from outside the nearby window. The shadow is divorced from real nature, the nature has been lost and in an eerie, supernatural situation we see the empty remnant of the interaction between nature and the sun.

Pipilotti Rist presents a little video piece involving home gardening which questions the social relations involved in servants engaged in the upkeep of the gardens of the wealthy.  The garden in our world is no longer a natural thing but something that must be sustained with exploited labor and the products of industrial production. With the abandonment of a God-provided life, we established hierarchical systems in which nobody truly prospers. The wealthy become corrupted in comfort while the poor become corrupted through physical and emotional pain. Dana Sherwood presents various cooking utensils as apparent evidence of the fall as well as a humorous video in which she presents culinary delicacies from her kitchen to the wildlife around her home.  She discovers that raccoons prefer cookies to the traditional staples of their diets. The fall of humankind has even corrupted the natural tastes of wildlife, which also prefer junk food to the real stuff.

Finally, we might ask, “How could something come from nothing? How could something always be?” Indeed, Emil du Bois-Reymond considered the origin of the universe to be one of the 7 unanswerable questions to which we can only respond by saying: “Ignoramus et ignorabimus.” “We don’t know and we will never know.”  To some extent Sean Capone’s piece “1,000 Paths to the Divine” made me recall that quote.  The origin of the type of spiritual state promised by many of the world’s religions – true altruism, unconditional forgiveness, tolerance, universal love, overcoming our anger and aggression – would be as incomprehensible as the origin of the entire universe.  Where would this state of being come from? The implication in this wonderful video seems to be that our path to the divine is sensory induced, based on the experience of the fall and a quest to understand ourselves and the world as a way to overcome the fall. Our inner experience of this process will be part metaphorical and part unrecognizable - a seamless combination of the inner and outer worlds showing that the mind and nature will be one again when the garden is regained.


If you like non-literal Bible interpretation, please consider buying my e-book:

If It Didn't Happen: Between Literalism and Secularism, A Search for Greater Meaning in the Bible

During one of Mr. Gauss' religious education classes, two students engaged in a heated debate. One claimed that modern science shows that all Bible stories are false and that the Bible is not a work of any significant value. The other student countered by asking, "If the stories are not true, why would anyone write them? Why would they be in the Bible?" 

This is, of course, the central question to be asked. Can we find value in the stories of the Bible in light of current scientific and archeological evidence and if we can, what exactly is that value? Have literal interpretations been completely missing the point of the stories? Have we been teaching our children the wrong interpretations of these amazing stories? Is there a cross-cultural symbolism in the Bible that provides greater meaning to this book than a literal interpretation?

Mr. Gauss possesses a Masters Degree from Teachers College at Columbia University as well as teaching experience at both a Catholic and Jewish middle school. The findings of the book are supported by extensive and surprising research.

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