by Mario DiAcono
According to the Bible, a Book which still informs major structures of the Western imagination, the foremost cosmic war the one between God and Man, Light and Darkness, Repression and Desiretook place in Eden, and humankind has been following that model ever since. This is probably why major Modernist artists have at least once, in their quest for meaning, revisited the iconography of that event, deeply embedded in the Euro-Asiatic figural tradition. Few works, however, seem to be approaching the candid and dazzling explicitness of Justen Ladda’s Tree of Knowledge (2000, Swarovski chandelier crystal on stainless steel wire frame, 84x72x72 inches). Already in some of his (mostly ephemeral) sculptural installations constructed in the ‘Eighties, the artist had coalesced mass-reproduced religious imagesDürer’s Praying Hands, Michelangelo’s Pietà and Moseswith basic consumer objects, either bought at the nearest supermarket or carefully scavenged. But these had been direct quotations from art-historical sources and, even if he had associated in them “art, fashion, and religion” (which was the title of his 1986 installation at MoMA), their most immediate aim was to create a surreal collision and a magical convergence of the sublime with the banal. In the process, Ladda was devising a novel, illusionistic typology for sculpture, one that aggregated Baroque anamorphosis, Duchampian ready-made, PopArt-ish imagery, Arte Povera’s conceptual materialism, and a nod to American consumerism into a tightly structured, hybrid compound where flatness and three-dimensionality coexisted to great effect, and the image originated from an act of visual prestidigitation bordering on pure magic. Grafting, in those irretrievable post-sculptural installations, the monumental, if ironic, iconography of a mass-diffused sublime onto the strategy, latent at the time, of breaking down the hyperspatial, virtuous geometry of Minimalism into organized sequences of consumer objects devoid of any social mystique, he both implemented the memory and avoided the return of “style”.
The tree of the knowledge of Go(o)d and (D)evil, and the eating of its fruit by Adam and Eve, have been for two millennia an emblem of the birth of Modern Man, lusting alternately for sublimation and degradationboth concepts however mostly a result of the Christian doctrine of sin, that the ancient Greeks and Romans were lucky to unknow. Ladda’s re-enactment of this archetype, embodying the opposite but complementary notions of the sacred and transgression, seems to hark back to the pristine, delectable Paradise (this term a Greek translation, of Persian origin, of the Hebrew word for garden), where “the tree was good to eat, and it was pleasant to the eyes, a tree to be desired to make one knowledgeable” (Genesis, III, 6). In a certain sense, his sparkling crystal trunk and apples and serpent conceptually are not dissimilar from Koons’ vacuum cleaners encased in Plexiglas, for these were also meant to enjoy some immortality in their own Paradise of Consumer Objects. What makes Ladda’s Tree of Knowledge different, however, is that this is not an impeccable, impersonal, industrial-aged and sublimed visualization of an aesthetic (aestheticizing?) intention but, being the product of a lengthy, intense manual factura, thus constantly open to chance, where only its basic components, the glass beads, were ready-made, it is “fashioned”precisely like fashionto make a religious icon into a wunderobject which doubles as a symbolic representation. For one might, indeed, be intellectually shocked yet sensually excited in gazing at an image, once embodying the foundational myth of multiple religions and cultures, and now magnified into a gigantic Renaissance-like jewel. And that at a closer scrutiny is revealed as the quite fragile fabric of hundreds of crystal beads: an accumulation of components that one usually sees hanging from the ceiling of a middle-class dwelling, but that transposed on a chandelier tree soon imply the light blinding a mass of utilitarian sinners. For all his ideological incorporation of a vast and specific subtext of mass-oriented industrial products, generally recognizable as home accoutrements that denote the lower, anarchical or nihilist levels of his oft precarious constructions, Ladda insists, in fact, in developing, at the higher level, slowly and selectively his work as singular macro-images signifying the hyperreality of the real.
Being not just a glorious fruit tree but also an eventful portent, a try-me symbol, the tree that was placed at the center of Eden must have had some mysterious special features, which no archeo/theological find will ever be able to unveil. Therefore, also the shape of Ladda’s piece, while far from presuming any kind of resemblance to its myth, further reinforces its look of man-made sculptural icon by taking as model a bonsai, thus appearing as a tree with no roots (just like the god-made, original one?), a curvaceous trunk well suited for a snake to climb on and up, and an abundant cascade of branches. On a frame made of stainless-steel wire (a three-dimensional metal stretcher), the piece has been constructed by individually stringing on surgical stainless-steel wire hundreds of crystal chandelier beads and drops: clear white for the trunk, branches, leaves; red for the apples hanging from the branches; blue and aquamarine, with the addition of black purple emerald yellow and sapphire, for the huge serpent coiling up, over, and down the trunk. God, the tree, the primordial couple, and the snake were the actors playing out our destiny (so the Book says) in the terrestrial Paradise, but here God, Adam, and Eve are absent because there is no narrative intent in Ladda’s work, but only the quest for a marvelous born out of the conflation of irony, metaphorical materiality, color symbolism, and icono- graphy. Climbing around the phallic, masculine white trunk, whose dazzling glitter embodies both the light of creation and the myth of an original innocence, the snake’s feminine blue rises and descends in accordance with the alchemical imagery of the python entwining a cross (as in plate 2 of Abraham Eleazar’s Uraltes Chymisches Werk, Erfurt, 1735). The branches’ canopy seems agitated by an incumbent punitive storm, strangely resembling a swimming octopus in reverse teeming with dozens of tentacles, and from them hang a crop of red-ruby round apples, the hot prize and price of human naked self-consciousness. Ladda presents the Source of Knowledge as after the First Couple ate the revealing fruit, for here the apples number eight in all; since the ninth must have been plucked by the Serpent and carried away by Eve, initially there must have been nine, like the celestial spheres in ancient astronomy, with the tree thus coming full circle to signify the cosmos.