Statement for The Boat is a Circle

Early in March 2020, I was on my way to Sweden with my partner Ben, and then onto Iraq, for a year of projects. Three days after arriving in Norkoping, we were told to stay inside. The Swedes locked down all over 70, while everyone else went about their business outside, unmasked, and in groups. After 5 months of this, we decided to return to New Mexico, to keep working virtually. No sooner had we returned, then New Mexico also locked down everyone. So, we spent, like so many, a very long time without much contact with others. At least here in the New Mexico countryside, we could go outside.

In Sweden, I began an epistolary collaboration with an American artist and old friend, Joanne Grune-Yanoff, who now lived in Stockholm. She took me under wing to get me out of my double isolation, of knowing hardly anyone in this foreign country, as well as the isolating fear that permeates a lockdown situation. We talked weekly by phone and emailed letters back and forth with little image studies, generated from what we were saying. The only trouble was I had no photo images for me to work with, so for the first time I had to make things up. I was such a novice with photoshop, it was awkward. 

Because of my longtime making work about the idea of Eden and working on the ground in the Mesopotamian Marshes of S. Iraq, I had been reading a remarkable book by British archaeologist Dr. Irving Finkel, The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. Possibly this flood story could expand my work in Iraq, since it appeared that Noah’s place of origin was the marshes where I was working. Here I have an environmental water remediation project ( making a wastewater garden/environmental art and cultural heritage site to help clean the marshes of sewage pollution. 

As I read passages from the book to Joanne, it quickly became apparent that we were in the midst of our own flood story. Covid was raging around the planet mirroring so many extinctions, already in process because of rampant growth, unstable democracies, and climate change. We made an artist’s book of our own process: The Boat is a Circle, with hope of enlarging the ideas we traded back and forth, as future artworks.  We are currently in the process of making extended works individually and together for a large- scale exhibition by 2023. Our ongoing collaboration has been life-affirming.

The artworks in this exhibition have put into image form so many of the things Joanne and I talked about and wrote about. They will be part of this larger work, The Boat is a Circle. The boat in the Mesopotamian Flood story is a coracle, a circular boat, still made in the Marshes, called a “gufa.” PBS made a film about Finkel’s book, The Real Noah’s Ark, in 2013, and had a boat made in India. It was scaled to about a 1/3 of the size that the god Ea/Enki described with exact dimensions to Utnapishti (Noah) to build, over 3700 years ago (in the epic of Gilgamesh). Blink Films kindly has given me a high- resolution image file to use of the coracle. After a dream during this time about needing to clean out my closet of black ice, I realized our contemporary flood is being caused by melting glaciers. My dear friend and wonderful photographer Joan Myers, bravely went to Antarctica almost 20 years ago. She kindly gave me permission to use parts of some of her photographs containing glaciers and ice flows. Most important, these images could not have been realized without the incredible support and instruction of Marcia Reifman, photoshop wizard, brilliant professor, and consummate assistant.

Of course, the approaching floods are only half of the story. Where there’s melt, there’s also fire. The increase in moisture traps heat, so as temperatures rise, we also see the oncoming drought in at least half of the world. For many, the deluge is a drought or fire.  In order to make these images, I’ve had to devote myself to my “dragon of the abyss” — Photoshop — to learn more detailed ways of compositing images. These images have brought me back to much earlier compositing work in the darkroom so many decades ago as well as montaging in videoworks e.g. Oppenheimer’s Chair, Eleemosynary, and Trees at Sea. In addition, many years of teaching Art and Ecology have helped me understand what’s happening to our planet: the key being to look at ever-changing ecological systems in nature, in culture, in the galaxies over time. Compositing or montaging is a fitting strategy to represent the enormous changes, both fluid and abrupt, that are afoot for all living things. Once realized, can we act?

Meridel Rubenstein
February 2022