It's a striking image --- large, glossy, vibrantly colored. A young girl stands in the lush greenery of a tropical forest; her black skin contrasted against the extreme whiteness of her dress. Punctuating the green is a purple-y pink phallic flower just to the right of the girl's shoulder, and in her right hand she holds a stem of pale orchids.
Attached to a tree on the right are several more phallically reminiscent plants. A spider crawls on the underside of one of the leaves, while on another a dragonfly arches. And just a tad to the left of the girl's leg is a turtle perched on a protruding stick.
It's beautiful, although disquieting, and not only can you seen it in Picturing Eden, an exhibition at the GEH, but also outside on banners waving atop lightpoles in the street, enticing us to come and see the exhibition, to re-imagine our prelapsarian state.
The title of said image is World #1, and it's the work of Dutch artist Ruud Van Empel. And although everything in the image looks photographically real ("picture perfect," even), it isn't. The image is an intentionally almost-flawless construction by computer manipulation.
Van Empel has seven images in an exhibition with more than 130 pieces by 37 artists from six countries. The collection offers the viewer some extraordinary images by both established artists like Michael Kenna, John Pfahl, Mike and Doug Starn, and Sally Mann, as well as relative newcomers like Greta Anderson, Maggie Taylor, and New Zealander Michael Parekowhai.
The emphasis of Picturing Eden is on how artists working in the photographic medium represent the concept of paradise --- or, how we culturally relate to stories of the mythic garden. Not all the artists address the issue of a Garden of Eden in a direct way, but all of them seem to focus on plants and how they are framed by our culture as well as how they are framed by art. Although there is an undeniable connection to landscape photography, this exhibition and the artists within are more interested in a circumscribed version of the landscape --- one that is modified and one that exists on a more intimate level.
For example, Michael Parekowhai's work consists of three 59-by-47-inch color photographs of large funeral-like flower arrangements presented in white vases against white backgrounds and within white frames. Somehow, these photographs of flowers are more like portraits than still-lifes. The arrangements, which in Western culture may be seen as decorative and feminine, are for the artist, who is Maori, an authentic badge of masculinity. His family name means "Garland of Yellow."
But Parekowhai's flowers are much more than just pretty pictures. They also commemorate a Maori battalion that made a contribution in WWI: the title of each print is the name of a place in Europe where a battle was fought. They are beautiful works that also consider history, sadness, and cultural pride.
While not of flowers, Masao Yamamoto's photographs seem to be arranged like plants in a garden. His photographs are small images reminiscent of old postcards found in antique stores and then arranged poetically in a space of a white board contained by a black frame. The empty space resonates with mysterious meaning as much as the images themselves do.
The images, however, were actually taken by Yamamoto himself, which he then toned, stained, tore, marked, and creased. This manipulated aging process used in conjunction with the Zen concept of "emptiness" surprises you with subtle humor. At the same time, the photographs have a sense of spirituality and refer to Western surrealism and modernist sensibilities.
It is also interesting that in our post-photographic digital world several artists have opted to return to older processes. (Maybe a kind of photographic paradise?) Mark Kessell makes daguerreotypes that he then re-photographs and enlarges. Jayne Hinds Bidaut brings back the tintype and photogram in her darkly beautiful and ethereal world of shadowy plants and animals. Adam Fuss, JiriSigut, and Susan Derges also make camera-less images (or photograms) that recall some of the earliest experimentation with light-sensitive materials.
Still, there is plenty of "traditional" photography, including a series of black and white photographs by J. John Priola depicting backlit "window gardens" framed by the dark richness of gelatin-silver black. And there are 21st-century manipulations, such as the scanned collages of Maggie Taylor, which have the look and feel of 19th-century scenarios, and the eerie, almost sinister constructions of Van Empel. Which brings us back to the image of the little black girl constructed by the Dutch white man: just what is the reality presented?
In her essay for the catalogue, curator Deborah Klochko points out that we can reverse the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were not expelled from the Garden but escaped. The Garden wasn't paradise, it was a prison. And, in a truly humanistic and ultimately heroic act, Eve became self-aware. She allowed us to taste knowledge and escape the drudgery of the same and the secure.
But then again, maybe there is value in the myth of the Garden as a cautionary tale. In the name of knowledge and exploration, the West has colonized, exploited, and enslaved. In that image by van Empel hides not only the uneasiness of paradise lost but all the stereotypes of race, place, and primitive sexuality as were and are seen through the eyes, and fixed by the lens, of the white master who is in the position of writing, re-writing, and naming the text.
You should go if you want to consider what your own Garden of Eden would look like.
Picturing Eden through June 18 | George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue| Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p. m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays. Special hours in May are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 7 days a week. | $3 to $8 | 271-3361, www.eastmanhouse.org