In 2011, photographer and environmental artist Meridel Rubenstein envisioned creating a garden in southern Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers cross, near the supposed site of the biblical Garden of Eden. However, unlike its idyllic predecessor – a mythical paradise in a newly formed world – this new garden would help to heal what had become a fragile, desert wasteland by cleaning existing wastewater and establishing a culturally significant green space.
To Rubenstein, her leap 11 years ago from artist/professor to socially engaged humanitarian and director of Eden in Iraq, an innovative wastewater garden project in a war-torn country, was both a natural extension of her artistic practice and the result of a serendipitous chain of events.
For over four decades, Rubenstein’s photographs and installations have presented nature (and art) as a healing force, explored the intersection of nature and culture, and referenced areas of the world where “my country has been at war,” including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iraq. Her works are dense with meaning and derive from her genuine love of the Earth and all of its living beings. In 2017, William L. Fox, the director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, referred to Rubenstein as “a photographer whose domain includes sculpture, landscape, design, architecture, and earth science systems. She does not merely document the world, but seeks to save it.”
The brief descriptions below highlighting three of Rubenstein’s earlier bodies of work, which ultimately led to her Eden in Iraq project, are only a glimpse into her powerful and distinctive oeuvre. Extensive documentation on her numerous exhibitions, awards, and publications can be found on her website and in her two monographs, Eden Turned On Its Side and Belonging: From Los Alamos to Vietnam.
In Rubenstein’s photo/text/video installation Critical Mass (1989-1993), created in collaboration with performance and video artist Ellen Zweig, with technical assistance by the Vasulkas, she visualized interactions between scientists developing the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico and Pueblo Indians whose land bordered the site of the Manhattan Project. In many of the images, the stunning high desert landscape is starkly juxtaposed on and with imposing man-made missiles and portraits. (See photo above.) In others, portraits and related objects of the Pueblo Indians are paired with those of the Los Alamos scientists.
In her installation, Millennial Forest (2000), Rubenstein used photographs of magnificent old growth trees from Vietnam and the United States with objects and video to emphasize the significant difference between the two cultures that had faced each other in war. Her work addressed the question: “Can the oldest trees from two countries once at war tell us anything about war and survival?” For Rubenstein it became clear that “in Vietnam the oldest trees endure because they are taken care of and protected,” while in America, “the oldest trees survive because they are too difficult to find.”
Rubenstein’s 10-year project Eden Turned on Its Side (2009-2019) consists of three distinct bodies of work: Photosynthesis, Volcano Cycle, and Eden in Iraq. All three explore human relationships with the environment, which have profoundly transformed the natural world. The three bodies of work also address time on three separate scales – human time, geological time, and mythical time.
In Photosynthesis, human beings interact with nature over the course of a full year as they experience the spring and fall equinoxes, the summer and winter solstices, and as they pose with the products of the seasons. In one image (see photo above), a woman wearing a respirator receives oxygen directly from a tree, the source of oxygen on a polluted planet. Photosynthesis also includes photomontages placed within a circular framework, alluding to the cyclical nature of human life on Earth.
Volcano Cycle explores deep time – the evolution of Earth over tens of millions of years. Through dramatic large-scale photographic images printed on metal of volcanoes from Indonesia’s Ring of Fire, Rubenstein emphasizes the primal power and majesty of the Earth’s geological forces.
In 2011, Rubenstein was a Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore. She was working on Photosynthesis and Volcano Cycle when she learned about a remarkable undertaking in Iraq. Against all odds, Iraq’s first and only environmental NGO, Nature Iraq, was attempting to restore the Ahwar, the immense Mesopotamian marshes in southern Iraq, which had been drained by Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1990s in order to punish the Shi’a rebels who were hiding there. As a result of their actions, what had once been the third largest wetlands in the world was transformed into a desert wasteland. For thousands of years, these rich marshlands had been the home of Marsh Arabs who depended upon the resources of the marshes for their livelihoods and ultimate survival. During its rampage, Saddam’s army murdered thousands of Marsh Arabs and forced others to flee their ancestral homeland.
Since the regime’s overthrow in 2003, over 300,000 Marsh Arabs have returned to the region but face significant environmental hazards, including sewage in the highly polluted Euphrates River spilling into the marshland. By the time Rubenstein learned of the cleaning effort in 2011, Nature Iraq had succeeded in restoring only 20% of the marshes.
Rubenstein’s desire to develop a wastewater garden in the Ahwar that would help to restore the marshland and the health of marsh communities, seemed only natural to her. She was fascinated with the story and culture of the Marsh Arabs – one of many populations of climate refugees around the world – who were able to come back to their homeland. She had previously photographed environmental remediation projects, and she was interested in wastewater gardens, especially the renowned Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona. She had also seen the disastrous results on her family farm in Vermont after a neighbor drained the wetlands there. Finally, she sensed how the project would not only transform the area but her own artistic practice as well.
A number of serendipitous pieces fell into place, helping to make the Eden in Iraq project a reality and setting Rubenstein on a journey that would consume her for the next 11 years. First, she convinced her neighbor, Dr. Mark Nelson, PhD, to accompany her on the first of her many trips to Iraq. He just happened to be an environmental engineer, chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics, and pioneer of a new ecological approach to sewage treatment. Nelson’s engagement was instrumental in the design of the project and continues to this day. Second, as a member of the faculty of the Nanyang Technical University, which just happened to be focused on the kind of work she was proposing, she received a significant research grant that enabled her to put together a project team, which includes Jassim Al-Asadi, managing director of Nature Iraq; co-director David Tocchetto, PhD, lecturer in agronomy and sustainable agriculture; and Zahra Souhail, Iraqi native living in Amsterdam and project manager. And third, as an Associate Professor of Art and Ecology, Photography and Contemporary Landscape, she was able to initiate a design process with faculty colleague/industrial engineerPeer Sathikh, PhD, and student assistants.
Between 2011 and today, Rubenstein and the Eden in Iraq team have continued to promote the creation of the garden as Iraq experienced a severe drought, an oil crisis, an unstable government that has changed its Ministers of Water Resources four times, the collapse of its economy, the presence of ISIS, and the “disappearance” of government funding allotted to the project. Eden in Iraq has yet to be realized but the team remains optimistic that it will happen in the near future.
During this same time period, Rubenstein completed Eden in Iraq, the third body of work in the Eden on its Side trilogy, which focuses on “the eternal time of religious cosmologies.” The University of New Mexico Art Museum exhibited the entire trilogy in 2018 and published a monograph on the show.
Her newest body of work, in collaboration with Joanne Grüne-Yanoff, The Boat is a Circle, is based on a pre-Noah flood story recorded in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia, written during the second millennium B.C.
When Rubenstein conceived of a lush green space in the historic home of a marshland people, she also regarded it as a symbol of hope in a land devastated by conflict and environmental destruction. The garden design, drawn from the rich Marsh Arab culture, and Rubenstein’s photographs and videos created in conjunction with the garden project, serve as a powerful source of inspiration and compassion to us all in a world sorely in need of both.
(Top image: Eden in Iraq Wastewater Garden Project (2011-present), site drawing of El Chibaish, 26,250 square meters (6.4 acres, 2.6 hectares), rendering by Bernard Du, 2017)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. She recently participated in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she focused on the proliferation of sinkholes caused by climate change.