On Feb. 20, Vancouver-based artist Dina Goldstein’s Snapshots from the Garden of Eden opened at the Museum of Jewish Montreal (imjm.ca). The exhibit will be on display until May 17.
A collection of 11 large-scale black-and-white photographs, Snapshots re-imagines modernized versions of characters and passages from Jewish fairytales, folk stories and legends collected in the book Leaves from the Garden of Eden by award-winning folklorist Howard Schwartz. Drawn from Jewish oral and written traditions across the centuries, the stories span the Jewish world – from Italy to Afghanistan – bringing to life the diversity and vibrancy of this overlooked area of Jewish storytelling and heritage.
Renowned for her reinterpretations of cultural symbols, Goldstein’s Snapshots reframes Jewish lore both famed and forgotten through the eyes of the 21st century. “The resonance of Goldstein’s work stems from her ability to weave intricate visual narratives,” said curator Alyssa Stokvis-Hauer, “where the history of Jewish folklore is catapulted into the modern era with a cast of characters and film noir-esque scenes that are provocative, imaginative and layered with meaning.”
Playing with visual and narrative archetypes, Goldstein creates new connections and relevance by merging the traditional and whimsical with contemporary themes of technology, desire, justice and identity, exploring and reinvigorating the history and role of Jewish folk narratives in broader cultural memory.
Artist Dina Goldstein is a proven storyteller, so it’s not surprising that she was asked to take part in the exhibit Jewish Folktales Retold: Artist as Maggid, which opened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on Sept. 28. Metro Vancouverites will also have the chance to see her photographic interpretations of 11 “classic Jewish tales” – Snapshots from the Garden of Eden – at the Zack Gallery this month.
Jewish Folktales Retold was inspired by the book Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales by Howard Schwartz (Oxford University Press, 2008). As CJM executive director Lori Starr explains on the exhibit’s website: “Schwartz elucidates four varieties of these tales: fairy tales, folktales, supernatural tales and mystic tales. Fairy tales, he writes, are ‘fantasies of enchantment.’… Folktales ‘portray the lives of the folk as they imagined them, with … magical and divine intervention.’… Supernatural tales portray fears about the powers of evil entities and, finally, mystical tales are teaching stories of the great rabbis.”
“I was asked to participate over a year and a half ago,” Goldstein told the Independent. “At first, I discussed this with the curator, Pierre-François Galpin. At that time, I was planning on starting another series and I told Pierre-François that I just couldn’t take this on, as I saw it as quite an ambitious project.”
But, Goldstein was curious enough that she asked Galpin – who worked with CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin on the exhibit – to send her Leaves from the Garden of Eden so she could take a look.
“After receiving it,” she said, “I found that I really enjoyed reading these ancient stories. I told him that I could possibly photograph a few pieces as a contributing artist.
“I became intrigued by a few specific characters in the book and proceeded to take on more than I had anticipated at the beginning. I continued to photograph 11 pieces for the exhibit. I also decided to photograph the series in black-and-white large-scale tableau.”
Goldstein had free creative rein. “The museum did not give me any direction at all,” she said. “In fact, I came back to them with the chosen characters and ideas that I had for the retelling of these folktales. They did not see the work until it was completed.”
The characters Goldstein has reinvented for contemporary audiences include Lilith (from the story “The Queen of Sheba”), Elijah (“The Cottage of Candles”), Golem (“The Golem”), King Solomon (“The King’s Dream”), the Princess in the Tower (in the story of the same name), the positive spirit Ibbur (“The Soul of the Ari”), the malicious spirit Dybbuk (“The Dybbuk in the Well”), the Tree of Life (“An Apple from the Tree of Life”) and Ashmodai (“The Bride of Demons”). She has also created an image inspired by the story “The Hair in the Milk.”
“I selected characters that were relevant and reappear throughout many of the tales in the collection,” Goldstein told the Independent. “I chose characters from each of the four types of tales: folktales, fairy tales, supernatural and mythical tales.”
She created two images for Ashmodai.
“I very much enjoyed this narrative, ‘The Bride of Demons,’ with relevant themes of desire and retribution,” said Goldstein. “The story is quite long, so I wanted to create a diptych to illustrate and interpret it in my own way.”
The Snapshots catalogue explains, “A devil king, Ashmodai is mentioned in talmudic legends and Renaissance Christianity. He is regarded as the demon of lust and is responsible for twisting people’s sexual desires.”
In one of the Ashmodai images, a woman in a bridal dress looks happily at herself in a half-length mirror; there are other mirrors in the room, which show her from different angles. In the second image, we see what looks like a garden, with the woman, buried, screaming, only her head and bridal veil above ground. The quote accompanying this disturbing scene is, “… And he longed to look at her … but he remembered the words of the rabbi and did not turn his gaze away from the king of demons. If he had, he would have seen his bride buried in the earth up to her neck, for she was almost lost to the Devil.”
All of Goldstein’s tableaux are striking, fascinating to explore and contemplate.
“I very much enjoyed uncovering these richly textured ancient tales and short stories, which include magnificent characters: kings and queens, princes and princesses, witches, mystics and malevolent wandering spirits,” she said. “Each of the characters face extraordinary challenges – placed in front of them by fate – that they must overcome. Every society is replete with myths and legends that transform and bend into parables that attempt to make order of life. It is this impact on culture, old and new, that led me to create a body of work that plays with satire, metaphor and irony.”
Goldstein’s photographic creations challenge viewers’ perceptions, asking them to reconsider the stories they’ve been told. Her collections include Fallen Princesses, which imagines how 10 of Disney’s princesses would face the challenges of real women; In the Dollhouse, which focuses on Ken and Barbie’s not so happily ever after; Gods of Suburbia, which brings various deities down to earth; and Modern Girl, which looks at consumerism in Western culture using the imagery of Chinese pinup girls from the 1930s.
The creative process for Snapshots from the Garden of Eden was similar to that of these previous works.
“I do my usual research online and then I hit the library for historical references,” said Goldstein. “I like to get a sense of how these characters have been depicted in art throughout history, what has been written about them from various sources. Many of these characters are actual historical figures. Others are supernatural and exist in various forms throughout the stories.”
It took her eight months to produce and photograph the series, she said. “Much of my work is in preproduction, organizing the cast and crew, the locations, and collecting all of the props and costumes and details that are germane to the final result of the piece.”
She concluded, “I am very fortunate to live in the city which has so much talent to utilize. All of the cast and crew are from Vancouver. I reached out on Facebook and social media to find all sorts of strange items – people pulled together to help out. I am thankful to Gordon Diamond, who has been a great supporter of my work throughout the years. Gordon will donate the series for viewing at the Jewish Community Centre in December.”
And, because of that, local community members will have the chance to see Goldstein’s work at the Zack. Snapshots from the Garden of Eden opens Dec. 14, 7 p.m., and runs until Jan. 20.
You have to speak more than one language if you want to read all of the articles on Vancouver photographer and Pop Surrealist Dina Goldstein’s art. English, of course, but also French, Italian, Spanish and Greek, for starters. Among other places, her work has been exhibited in Canada, of course, but also Poland, India, Colombia and, most recently, Holland.
She attended the Oct. 11 opening of In the Dollhouse at Rize Gallery in Amsterdam. “I try to get to all of my openings,” she told the Independent in an email interview. “Traveling and experiencing other cultures is the perk of being an artist. I enjoy being at the exhibition in person and seeing the reactions to my work. The galleries also like it when the artist is there to offer more perspective.”
In the Dollhouse is the second of three large-scale photographic series that Goldstein has created. The other two are Fallen Princesses and Gods of Suburbia. All three have been, or are being, exhibited in various places. About whether galleries pay artists to display their work, Goldstein explained, “The agreements vary from gallery to gallery, sales from the show are split between the gallery and the artist. There are some festivals that cover travel and accommodation in order for the artist to attend. I currently produce my own large-scale projects with the help of print sales and grant awards. These are print sales of my limited edition pieces from Fallen Princesses, In the Dollhouse and the Gods of Suburbia series (displayed on LED light panels).
“There are also art competitions that award cash prizes. This was the case for me when I won the Prix Virginia in 2014 and was gifted 10,000 euros.”
Goldstein has been a photographer for 25 years. “I started out quite young and worked very hard in my 20s and 30s to create a career for myself,” she said. “I was a photojournalist and traveled to war-torn regions. I freelanced, shooting covers and feature stories for magazines. (I was a staff photographer at the Jewish Western Bulletin.) I also photographed some cheeky ads with some brilliant art directors. People within the Vancouver Jewish community will remember me photographing weddings and bar mitzvahs; alongside, I created my own projects. Usually concentrated on the study of sub-cultures within society, I termed the work ‘photoanthropology.’ These images were documentary, photojournalistic.
“In 2009, I released my tableau series Fallen Princesses, which was an internet success and brought recognition to my personal work. I went on to realize more ambitious projects like In the Dollhouse in 2012, and Gods of Suburbia in 2014. I am now fully concentrated on producing my own large-scale conceptual series and have become a full-time artist.
“Storytelling has always been central in all of my work past and present,” she continued. “Documentary photography allowed me to create and share the stories of Palestinians in Gaza, gamblers at the racetrack, East Indian blueberry farmers in B.C., dog show dogs, bodybuilding state championships and teenagers dirty dancing at a bar mitzvah.”
Readers can see many of those images at dinagoldstein.com. They can also see images of her three large-scale series, all of which challenge viewers to question their beliefs, some of which were instilled in childhood. Is there an ideal body, an ideal marriage, an ideal anything? Can we rest assured that good ultimately prevails and evil is punished?
“Much of my work investigates the myth of perfection and the collective perception influenced by pop culture,” said Goldstein. “Western society today is influenced by pop culture, which informs us how to look, what to like, what to buy. Most people don’t even realize the effects of the unconscious collective that drives us to behave in certain ways. Perfection is not stable or sustainable in nature and in life. Also, there is an individual perspective about what is ‘good’ or ‘perfect.’ This is mainly the reason that I work with archetypes and stereotypes to relay my messages and offer some social critique. By twisting the storylines of beloved characters, I am able to provide some insight into the human condition, and expose the many flaws in the nature of humankind.”
Fallen Princesses takes the Disney version of 10 fairy-tale women, including Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine and others, and “creates metaphor out of the myths of fairy tales, forcing the viewer to contemplate real life: failed dreams, addiction, obesity, cancer, the extinction of indigenous culture, pollution, war and the fallacy of chasing eternal youth,” reads the description on Goldstein’s website. Goldstein’s Snowy, for example, is pictured in an unkempt living room, holding two kids in her arms, with one child pulling on her skirt and yet another playing on the floor, where a dog eats potato chips that her beer-drinking, TV-watching prince has let fall.
In the Dollhouse also features an iconic couple long into their marriage: Barbie and Ken. In Goldstein’s version, Ken begins to understand and accept his homosexuality, and he seems to flourish as the narrative progresses, while Barbie “breaks down and confronts her own value and fleeting relevance.”
But why doesn’t Barbie take her dream car and leave Ken? And the princesses? Granted they likely haven’t been taught the life skills needed to deal with illness, raising a family, etc., but do they just accept their unhappily ever after, or do they rail against it? Are they victims or survivors, both or neither?
“Throughout history, the focus in storytelling has been on men and their outlook of this world,” said Goldstein. “Women’s desires and interests have mostly been marginalized. I feel lucky to live in a free Western society where women’s roles are now more prominent. As a woman experiencing this transformation, I take full advantage by creating art that fully expresses my thoughts and opinions. I create art with fictional characters that has elements of real life. What you see within a work is a moment in time (within the fictional life or these fictional characters). As Barry Dumka pointed out in his essay, yes,
Barbie has lost her head, but she is Barbie and that head can pop right back on. Unfortunately, humans don’t have that luxury. In my tableau, the princesses are thrust into everyday life within realistic environments. They, too, have to figure out how to function and thrive within a complex world.”
Goldstein’s website is fascinating. Not only is her artwork displayed there and her many interviews, but she has a section called Dig Deeper. There, visitors can spend hours reading intelligent, thoughtful analyses of her work, including the aforementioned essay by Dumka.
Despite the grim situation of the princesses, of Barbie, there is humor in Goldstein’s work – there’s something sardonic about seeing Ariel, the Little Mermaid, in an aquarium, Belle of Beauty and the Beast undergoing plastic surgery, or Ken wearing Barbie’s high heels, for example. In Gods of Suburbia, she portrays Satan as a tow-truck operator, Darwin is watching people play the slots at a casino, and Buddha is shopping at Wholey Foods.
“I try to keep everything in perspective,” said Goldstein. “Let’s face it, life can get overwhelming and too serious. I use humor to cope with all that the world throws at me. Also to create conversation about modern society and how we perceive it. I utilize satire, which is intelligent ridicule, and irony, because it creates a situation that differs radically from what is actually the case.”
In a Times of Israel interview, when asked if there was a particular God of Suburbia that moved her most, Goldstein said Ganesha.
“The Ganesha piece was inspired by personal memories,” she told the Independent. “My family moved from Israel to Canada in 1976. At that time, Vancouver was a small town and it had not yet experienced the mass Asian population that you see today. My first few years here were very difficult and, as a young child, it was hard to comprehend.
“Learning a new language whilst dealing with schoolyard bullies. Even in high school, and after many years of integration, I felt different somehow. Most of my family remained in Israel, so we would visit every couple of years for the whole summer. There, I got recharged with chutzpah and the realities of war. So, I became an Israeli/Canadian hybrid. Israeli in many ways and not the typical Canadian. However, these days I know that I’m fully Canadianized because I listen to the CBC radio all day!
“Ganesha is naturally odd, as he has an elephant head and a boy’s body. He is different because of his appearance (I didn’t have that problem) but also because of his unique culture. He is judged for how he dresses, what he eats and even what he believes in. He faces the same cruelty that I encountered in elementary school.”
While all of Goldstein’s art can be seen on her website, there is nothing that can compare to seeing it in person. Gods of Suburbia will travel to Montreal in February to be shown by Art Souterrain. And there also will be at least one local opportunity to see the exhibit next year.
“The Diamond Foundation has generously donated the whole Gods of Suburbia show to appear at the Capture Festival [in April],” said Goldstein. “The exhibition will take place at a new gallery on East 6th Avenue in Vancouver called SOMA.”