Kathy Ruttenberg: Twilight in the Garden of Hope
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Kathy Ruttenberg: Twilight in the Garden of Hope

Apr 26, 2024

The courtyard of Chinatown gallery Lyles & King is a brick-and-concrete panopticon of apartment windows looming five stories high. AC units pump stifling exhaust into the air, combatting a July in which global heat records were set. But the machines’ buzzing is broken by a babble of cool water, which streams from a spout-like branch in the face of an anthropomorphic tree. It is the centerpiece of Kathy Ruttenberg’s fountain installation, which turns this glorified air shaft into a paradise garden. Water falls from the tree onto the breasts of a life-size nude who lies in a pool below. She is surrounded by an unlikely coterie of animals—wolf, rattlesnake, skunk, salamander—suggesting an idealized harmony of human and nonhuman life. The sweetness of the hand-built ceramic figures amplifies a sense of fantasy; the animals could be made of icing, the resin flowers of sugar glass. In another context, the woman’s pose would recall the drowned Ophelia, but in this afternoon’s distracting heat one is inclined to envy her submersion in a moment of private bliss. Residents of the apartments above might also gaze wistfully into her walled sanctuary.

There has been a fountain at the heart of paradise for at least three thousand years. Of all the innovations of the First Persian Empire, most miraculous was the qanat, or underground aqueduct, which connected mountain watersheds to arid highlands of Iran and Iraq. This technology enabled the expansion of agriculture—and thus the growth of civilization—beyond the fertile river valleys of its birth. Where the qanats surfaced, emerging from hand-dug tunnels many miles long, spectacular walled gardens were built. These gardens embodied vital ecological knowledge: life in the desert is a miracle; water is a priceless treasure; beyond these walls, the earth is hostile to humanity. The term “paradise” itself comes from an ancient Persian word for the walled garden, and it is from such historical enclosures that the concept of Eden likely emerged.

On the back of Ruttenberg’s enchanted tree, Adam and Eve are depicted in relief. They are posed after Dürer’s iconic engraving, in the moment that Eve propositions Adam with fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. But in contrast to the masterwork’s sculptural gravitas and obsessive detail, Ruttenberg’s figures are rendered with a toylike charm—one could call them cheap imitations. They suit the cheeky tree on which they are “carved,” which, with its tree-branch nose, toothy mouth, and pointed shoes, looks like it could be possessed by the spirit of a garden gnome. One of the artistic powers of kitsch is to convey degrees of skepticism, and Ruttenberg almost certainly does not share Dürer’s faith in the Myth of Paradise. Like all creation stories, it can neither be fully trusted nor dismissed as a codex of meaning.

The concept of paradise looks different in the light of ecological consciousness, as the earth withers in the wake of millennia of civilization’s designs for a more perfect human habitat. There is more than an inkling of this loss in the title of Ruttenberg’s installation, Twilight in the Garden of Hope. It imparts conceptual backspin to the sculpture’s precious style, propelling the work to the highest realm of kitsch, where poles of irony and sincerity are electrically charged. Hope itself has become a garish ideal. But we need our idealisms.

Paradise is a paradox. Eve’s expulsion from Eden was a punishment, but also a liberation. Only for a work of art, confined in timelessness, can innocence in the garden last forever. In our world, as in the ancient Persian water gardens, paradise is something we devise. And it is always circumscribed, bound by walls or points in time. We must seek and recognize the exquisite instants, temporarily rediscovering our harmonic resonance with the earth: Paradise is now. Paradise is here. This is the moment of reconciliation in which the woman in Ruttenberg’s fountain lies. Finding the refuge between cynicism and longing, she surrenders to ecstasy.

Alex A. Jones is a writer currently based in Brooklyn. Her project “Art and Ecology in the Third Millennium” is supported by the The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

Lyles & KingAlex A. Jones