Getting Back to the Garden (of Eden)

Biblical Art Museum Bites Into Forbidden Fruit

Dino-Mite: Mark Dion’s ‘The Serpent Before the Fall’ is on display at MOBIA’s ‘Back to Eden’ exhibit on the Upper West Side of New York.
Menachem Wecker
Dino-Mite: Mark Dion’s ‘The Serpent Before the Fall’ is on display at MOBIA’s ‘Back to Eden’ exhibit on the Upper West Side of New York.

By Menachem Wecker

Published July 21, 2014, issue of August 01, 2014.

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And then there’s the snake. Lynn Aldrich’s 2002 “Serpentarium” represents the snake with garden hoses, brass connectors and nozzles, and cable ties all configured to suggest a pot. Scanlan writes in the catalog that she views the work by the Los Angeles artist as referencing the “seduction of commercialism.” “[T]his snake,” she writes, “was asking her to consume not an apple, but the ever-changing array of beautiful consumer goods in the appearance-conscious city.” Not only do the iconic green hoses twisted into the shape of a pot suggest a snake’s movement, but peering over the top of the “flower pot,” one also gets a glimpse that isn’t unlike looking down the throat of a snake.

If Aldrich’s snake is abstract, though, Mark Dion’s 2014 “The Serpent Before the Fall” is quite literal. Responding to commentators (e.g. Rashi) who noted that the biblical snake’s punishment in Genesis 3:14 of being made to crawl on its belly suggests that the snake originally had legs, Dion depicts the pre-sin serpent standing on all fours. The work, as the exhibit texts note, imagines the snake as a display at a natural history museum. The animal doesn’t convey pure evil, but it certainly has a smugness and slyness about it.

There isn’t much that is subtle about “Back to Eden,” but it’s still multi-layered and very thoughtful. Eden can often feel very far away in both time and space, like a Never Never Land that nevertheless serves as the measure for paradises of every sort. But the MOBIA show cuts the biblical garden down to size, and Eden’s saplings look very different in the hands of a range of contemporary artists. There’s something compelling about the diversity of interpretations in the show, as Eden’s perfection has never been nearly as interesting as the ways that it has been interpreted and misinterpreted.

Menachem Wecker is co-author, with Brandon Withrow, of “Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education,” forthcoming from Cascade Books.

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