THE BARGAIN OF EDEN (2017)
For decades the Garden of Eden has been a fruitful theme in arts. The earthly Paradise and the fall of Adam and Eve as depicted by old masters like Michelangelo, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jan Brueghel the Elder immediately spring to mind. The nude Adam and Eve have been represented so often they turned into Warhol-like commodities. Yet even though these archetypes are so well-known, the themes contained in Genesis about the storied paradise where it all began can still capture the imagination of contemporary artists like Tamura de Lempicka, finding new echoes, meanings and insights in the theme. An iconic exhibition revisioning ‘Paradise in a fallen world’ was Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden (Museum of Biblical Art, New York City, 27 June – 28 September 2014). The show included Barnaby Furnas, Jim Dine, Naomi Reis, Fred Tomaselli, and Adam Fuss. Each in their own way used the mythology of Eden to explore ongoing human themes like innocence, loss, and temptation, as well as environmental concerns.
Like many contemporary artists, Tom Herck draws on Christian elements and rituals –alongside a multitude of other reference systems – as universal symbols detached from their original context. With the usual wit and satire the artist surprises and stimulates his audience. As the title The Bargain of Eden already suggests, he re-imagines Adam and Eve, placing them in the refreshing setting of a Monopoly game board. Tom links Eden to game and trade.
Biblical stories contain lots of bargaining, arbitration, provocation and negotiation. Adam and Eve try to negotiate with God in how much blame they should take for their actions and how much they think He should accept. Three conflict stories from the Bible are well-known: those of the brothers Cain and Abel (the sons of Adam and Eve), Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. In these narratives, we see a clear pattern: for one party to win, the other must lose. This zero-sum mindset is similar in games. Bible stories aim to teach us how to make choices, and separate good from the bad. Tom Herck however puts aside all moral judgement, showing us in an airy way how a well functioning trade has managed to unite mankind for centuries without detriment to identity, values or social and political life. The artist accentuates how trade makes society more humane and strengthens coherence. Trade brings people closer together.
Monopoly is the ultimate bargaining game. Just like the cards, the Monopoly board brings a feeling of nostalgia. For The Bargain of Eden a Monopoly board of 200 x 245 cm is executed in stained glass. The creation of this work was done according to traditional craft, and took over 3 months time. Tradition and modernity go hand-in-hand in this work. Adam and Eve are depicted on a human scale, allowing them to relate closely to the present and the spectator. The artist often makes his scenes 'explode' to extraordinary dimensions. Blown up symbols run like a common thread through Tom’s work. The Decline (2016) shows a concrete house of cards literally as big as a house. The Collector (2017) is a life-size collector’s item: a death’s-head hawkmoth painted on a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter.
In the centre part of The Bargain of Eden we see Adam and Eve in an idyllic, heavenly setting, naked by a tree full of fruit. From one of the tree branches, a snake viciously speaks to Eve. Adam wears a top hat, a token often considered as the most recognizable icon of the Monopoly game. Adam, Eve and the serpent negotiate on the apple; a scene that’s all about monopoly. Questions arise. Does Adam want to buy the apple? On the left side of Adam and Eve a box of apples is placed as merchandise. Considering how the story continues, Adam might use them to try to buy off Eva’s original sin. Or Adam could try to buy sex from Eva, knowing prostitution is the oldest form of trade in the world. Herck leaves it to the imagination of the beholder.
Different symbols are depicted around the Eden scene. Some are classical Monopoly symbols, such as GO, other symbols are clearly adapted to the theme Garden of Eden, like the apple, the house instead of the prison (possibly referring to an auction house), a luminous pear instead of a light bulb. Below we see an auction clock, referring to trade. The clock resembles a roulette game, again a connection to gambling and trade. The number 33 (the age of the artist) is marked in yellow on the clock. The artist often uses this kind of subtle, funny referrals. To the left and right side a tractor is displayed. The vehicle usually found on the upper left side is now replaced by horse and carriage. The question mark is unaltered. In the upper centre we find a coat of arms depicting a tree from the Garden of Eden with a red bush on both sides. Upper right we find the artist’s logo. Placing his logo upside down, Tom demonstrates his fascination for Vanitas and vanity, and his ability to put things in perspective. To the upper right the policeman is replaced by a judge, possibly symbolizing God.
© Text by Lara van Oudenaarde.
© Photos by Tom Herck.