If the story of the Garden of Eden is such a common cultural reference
point, what more can be said about it?
Plenty, at least judging by a new exhibit at the Museum of Biblical
Art in New York, which is affiliated with the American Bible Society.
The famed narrative of Eden in the Book of Genesis has been the
subject of “New Yorker cartoon after New Yorker cartoon,” said guest curator
Jennifer Scanlan, noting the enduring power of the Eden narrative.
Couples solely wearing fig leaves remain “instantly recognizable as
Adam and Eve and fruit trees inhabited by snakes as the Tree of Knowledge of
Good and Evil with the serpent,” she writes in the exhibit catalog.
Yet even with archetypes that are so well-known, the themes contained
in Genesis about the storied paradise where it all began can still capture the
imagination of contemporary artists, who find in it new echoes, meanings and
These can be about innocence and longing, earthly paradise and the
challenges of being human, or the need to protect the earth from environmental
Environmental themes are particularly prominent in “Back to Eden:
Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden,” which is on view at the museum through
Sept. 28. The nearly two dozen pieces on display include paintings, sculptures,
works on paper, and installations containing video elements.
Of particular interest to the environmentally minded, and those who
like large-scale paintings, is Alexis Rockman’s striking and dystopian
“Gowanus,” a 2013 work depicting the Gowanus Canal, a long-polluted Brooklyn
site that, as museum notes describe it, is notorious among New Yorkers as a
“toxic wasteland” reflecting “the disastrous potential for the destruction of
nature” by humanity.
This “wandering” through the metaphorical garden has a new element for
a museum that, up until now, has not commissioned works of art. Six of the
works exhibited are products of MOBIA’s first-ever commissions. That is a fresh
approach for a museum committed to art that, even if it is modern or
contemporary, is rooted in a religious and narrative tradition.
“It shows a new direction,” said Scanlan, noting the new pieces have
changed perspectives “about what a museum of biblical art can be.”
Richard Townsend, the museum’s director, agreed. He said the
commissions had paid off by “opening up new avenues for the museum’s
exploration of the Bible’s enduring influence on the visual and cultural
landscape today,” as well as revealing “the influence of biblical narratives in
today’s culture and society.”
“The story of Eden is a framework that gives contemporary artists
access to universal themes,” he added, “speaking to age-old human desires and
Not long ago, during a previous MOBIA exhibit, Bibles and biblical
literature developed during two centuries of American wars filled one exhibit
space. Now, that space is the site of an arresting video installation by artist
Sean Capone, who created one of the commissioned pieces. With its shifting colors
and images, Capone’s work suggests different connections to the Book of Genesis
— from blank nothingness comes a video “garden” of constant flow, regeneration
More concrete, but perhaps even more provocative, is Mark Dion’s
diorama of a key player in the Eden tale: the serpent. This work, also a
commissioned piece, gives the viewer a new take on the creature. Looking alert
and adroit (and not to mention creepy), Dion’s serpent is depicted as it might
have appeared before meeting its eternal fate as a creature forever slithering
away on its belly.
The idea of Eden, Scanlan said, means different things to different
people. It can be a place to return to; an enclosed space of harmony; a place
of origin; or, more tragically, the birthplace of original sin. To many,
“it just becomes a symbol of humanity at its most innocent,” she said.
And yet, there lies the serpent, too, the very antithesis of