Eden as a Verb: Utopia and Emmanuel Osahor’s In Search of Eden

By: Brittany Gergel, Curatorial Assistant.

An image featured in Emmanuel Osahor's In Search of Eden, originally from the artist's series The Valley

An image featured in Emmanuel Osahor's In Search of Eden, originally from the artist's series The Valley

In the first season of Mad Men, an episode features ad man Don Draper listening to client Rachel Menken as she rhapsodizes on the concept of utopia. “The Greeks had two meanings for it,” Rachel says; “‘eu-topos,’ meaning ‘the good place,’ and ‘u-topos,’ meaning ‘the place that cannot be.’”

Though being discussed in the context of advertising in the 1960’s, the complexity of utopia proves relevant in our continued fixation on the concept. The current development of Downtown Edmonton, for instance, is evidence of how much value is placed on producing ‘the good place’ as an end product. However, our urban spaces are hardly equal-opportunity Edens. In Downtown Edmonton, critical, compassionate address of socioeconomic inequality is frequently cast aside in favour of flashy infrastructure and exclusive programming—twofold moves which, in the name of progress, neglect the vulnerable and cast them away from the city’s core. The latter half of Rachel Menken’s etymology of utopia unfortunately seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy—sealing an ambivalence of good and bad, and possible and impossible, which exposes even more ambivalence and tension in its midst.

Artist Emmanuel Osahor explores these and other utopic ambivalences in the installation In Search of Eden, for The Works Art & Design Festival. Edmonton’s River Valley proves a compelling object of study for this work, as while conventionally utopic and Edenic in its own right, the River Valley also exists as a haven for Edmontonians ousted from urban spaces and experiencing homelessness.

In Search of Eden is a large structure with a scaffolding exterior—imposing, yet not out of place in a Downtown environment. Concealed within the structure is a towering, living wall of River Valley-native plant life. As viewers enter the installation, they view its additional walls, which bear large-scale photographic images of camps and similar signs of human activity in the River Valley. Through this reverent juxtaposition, viewers are forced to consider the River Valley as a space in which Edenic lushness is inseparable from the realities of poverty and homelessness. This tension is already familiar to the Edmontonians who use and consider the River Valley differently, and is further complicated by issues of safety and sustainability. ‘The good place’ and ‘the place that cannot be’ hang in precarious balance.

In this ambivalence, In Search of Eden embodies and asserts the significance of the active search. Though utopia or Eden as an endpoint has proven itself to be not-yet-obtained, the process of striving for different forms of sanctuary in complex spaces like the River Valley continues on. Osahor cites the collective yet differential search for utopia in spaces of hardship as a testament to the persistence of hope. Perhaps the best way to face the ambivalence of utopia is to remain critical, variable and mobile in this hope, constantly searching and striving for something bigger than both good and too good to be true.

Experience Emmanuel Osahor’s In Search of Eden at The Works Art & Design Festival, June 21 - July 3.

About the author:  Brittany Gergel is a student currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in the History of Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Alberta. Her accomplishments include publication of art interpretation in the Faculty of Art & Design’s 2018 collaboration project, Anthropocities, and presentation of research-creational work at Mile Zero Dance’s 2018 Eco-Dirt Buffet. She is interested in eros, affinity and accountability as they are navigated through artistic forms.