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  • Michael Abatemarco

Back to the garden: Eden turned on its side

Cover: Santa Fe New Mexican's Pasatiempo, August 1, 2014

After the Gulf War, the Iraqi government revived a program to divert the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers away from marshlands in Iraq, resulting in the loss of 90 percent of marshland habitat in less than 10 years. The program decimated species, causing the death of thousands of fish and waterfowl, and created a refugee crisis among the Marsh Arabs, traditional tribes and tribal confederations that rely on the wetlands for survival.

It is there, in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, part of western Asia’s Fertile Crescent, that the fabled Garden of Eden of Judeo-Christian heritage is believed to have existed. For photographer and multimedia artist Meridel Rubenstein, Eden became a symbol not of religion but of hope in a time of conflict. In response, she created Eden in Iraq: The Wastewater Art Garden Project, which she hopes to finish by 2016, in time for a photographic exhibition at David Richard Gallery.

Eden in Iraq is the final chapter in a three-part series by the artist, collectively titled Eden Turned on Its Side, that examines the precarious relationship between human beings and the natural world. Selections from the first part of the series, Photosynthesis, are on view at the gallery through August 24. For Rubenstein, a visiting associate professor of art, design, and media at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore, the project had its genesis while she was traveling in Africa and Europe between semesters. “What I was looking for — I just couldn’t articulate it — was how nature could be a healing force,” she told Pasatiempo.

Photosynthesis is a series of composite images of trees and people exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, meant to underscore a threatened symbiotic relationship. This is its premiere in Santa Fe, although Rubenstein maintains a studio here. It was in the midst of working on the Photosynthesis images that Rubenstein got the idea to do Eden in Iraq. “When I was making one of them, I had this thought that it was about Eden, but I don’t have any Western religious training, so I don’t think about Eden. I thought, I wonder where people think Eden was? I told my friend Linda Durham about it, and a week later she said, ‘Turn on the television.’ There was a program about the group Nature Iraq. That’s when the light bulb went on.” Nature Iraq is an NGO committed to restoring, preserving, and protecting Iraq’s natural environments and resources.

The Volcano Cycle, the second series of images created as part of Eden Turned on Its Side, is a consideration of deep time explored photographically. It references creation myths, cycles of life and death, and issues of climate change. The David Richard Gallery plans on exhibiting this particular work sometime next year.

The series developed in response to Rubenstein’s visit to Lake Toba, in Sumatra, where a supervolcano erupted some 74,000 years ago and according to one theory wiped out more than 60 percent of earth’s human population. “It’s an interesting site,” said Rubenstein. “There was a vast number of people, plants, and animals killed. It was called the Weak Garden of Eden,” where life had to begin anew. “This is a section about time,” she said. “Several things have to work together. The first is metaphor. History is a big deal. Metaphor is a big deal. Place, land, nature, culture — all these things have to be there.” The images in The Volcanic Cycle, a few examples of which are included in the current show at David Richard, contain elements of landscape photography taken in Indonesia. They underscore the fragility and tenacity of life in the region, where geothermal activity produces a harsh and unforgiving environment.

Rubenstein plans to return to Iraq in the fall, where she has made several trips to establish a site for Eden in Iraq, and begin preliminary development of a wastewater garden. “I had a team I created to work on this project. We’ve gone three times already, and we’re really in the middle of it. We’ve all along been working with Nature Iraq. The 2014 budget for the country wouldn’t be passed until this last election. Once it was passed, there was a budget being prepared for water projects for the marshes, and I wanted to get the project in that budget. The government for the whole region decided they wanted to fund us. That was so amazing. I dragged in my neighbor, who’s an environmental engineer. It’s Mark Nelson, who’s from Synergia Ranch. That’s the group that did the Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Mark was responsible for the waste system, the closed system of the biosphere, which he inhabited for two years. By the second trip I got university money because of this teaching job. I was able to write a research grant. Mostly they give money to scientists, but because there was this environmental-engineering component, I got [it]. But the money doesn’t pay for us to build. It only covers travel expenses.”

Many of the Marsh Arabs were forced to abandon traditional lifeways when Saddam Hussein’s government drained the marshes, a move intended to root out militiamen taking refuge there after a failed Shia uprising in 1991. The region, once among the world’s largest wetland environments, was effectively turned into a desert. “The Marsh Arabs are ancient, and they’ve been isolated, so they haven’t assimilated with the rest of the region,” said Rubenstein. “They go back seven, eight thousand years to Mesopotamia, to Sumer, to the first cuneiform writing, like the Code of Hammurabi. It was the beginning of our roots. When Saddam was deposed, they started coming back. Because of Nature Iraq, 50 or 60 percent of the region has been re-greened. Some people came back wanting modern houses, which are cinder block, and others have come back and built old adobe houses. But the main architecture is dome-shaped houses with woven reeds. This is traditional.”

The wastewater garden will honor the rich cultural heritage of the region while simultaneously acknowledging its ancient past. There are no immediate plans to develop the garden as a resource for food because the water is not potable. “Right now, as far as we want to get is a wastewater garden with a leach field — an equal amount of land for the garden and a secondary garden where the gray water comes out. Once it’s been cleaned by the plants, it’s much purer than the gray water we know. So for every square meter of wastewater garden, we have a square meter of secondary. You can eat above the leaves from the wastewater and secondary gardens, so you can have dates, pomegranates, things like that. But you don’t eat from the ground.”

Rubenstein sees the project as a chance to create a symbol of hope in a region ravaged by recent conflicts with other nations, including the United States. “Something has changed in me a little over the last 10 years. ... I’m making something for somebody else, and that’s the most important thing."

Michael Abatemarco - Pasatiempo - Santa Fe New Mexican - August 1, 2014

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