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.