Once in Eden, everything seemed charged with innuendo through its necessary association with the fabled Garden of Eden. But, like “utopia” and the Garden of Eden, the town of Eden is the result of a fabricated narrative intended to retroactively add (in this case, commercial) value to a location. Eden, NC is the product of the consolidation of three towns in Rockingham County: Leaksville, Spray, and Draper. The towns were incorporated in 1967 as a rebranding effort, after the once-thriving textile industry in the area all but shut down, leading to economic hardship. The choice to call the new city Eden comes from the 18th century British planter William Byrd II, who claimed ownership of the land bordering what is now Virginia and North Carolina. So impressed by the natural splendor, Byrd wrote that it was “as fertile as the Lands were said to be about Babylonn,” and named the area “The Land of Eden.”
Utopia, paradise, and Eden have always had a contradictory relationship between what they promise, and their realities. This capricious identity and the often incompatible ideas of paradise, home, and the “American dream” provide the foundation for Couzinet-Jacques’ body of work, currently on view at Aperture Gallery as part of the inaugural Immersion: A French American Photography Commission, a program launched by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès in collaboration with Aperture Foundation. In addition to his own investigation, Couzinet-Jacques invited artists Fred Cave, Thomas Hauser, Jesse Hoyle, Pat McCarthy, Ugo Schiavi, and myself to visit Eden and produce a work to be included in the exhibition. The below essay is my contribution.
It was sunny when I arrived in Eden. Clouds hung in the sky like big dollops of whipped cream as Jesse pointed to the roadside where it looked like someone had thrown a fuzzy green blanket over the trees. “That’s kudzu,” he said. “It dominates the landscape by smothering other plants with its broad leaves. The only way to kill it is to scorch or poison the earth so nothing can grow.” I imagined a blackened, desolate field and thought about the images of the GOP office that was firebombed a few days earlier in Orange Country, NC. The vandals wrote “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” and drew a swastika on the side of an adjacent building. Ivanka’s dad blamed the incident on the “animals representing Hillary Clinton,” which, at the time, was easy to dismiss as just another ridiculous fearmongering tactic. At least it’ll all be over soon, I thought to myself, with the nervous optimism of someone going in for an operation that has a 50% mortality rate.
“North Carolina used to be called ‘Klansville, USA,’” Jesse said and I realized he had been talking while my mind was wandering. “The big cities are liberal but small towns like Eden still have people who think America used to be great, and want to go back to that romanticized memory.” Three weeks after leaving Eden I went the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island for the first time. It was two days after the presidential election, and as I sat on the ferry surrounded by tourists speaking in different languages and accents, I couldn’t help being confused by their desire to visit a monument whose symbolism was now utterly ironic. The most enduring representative for the nation’s celebration of diversity and individual freedom stood there, just like any other day, as a smiling young woman wearing a shirt that read “Make America Great Again” took a selfie with the statue. Emma Lazarus’s words displayed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty echoed in my mind, but with a slight and heartbreaking revision: Forgive us, you tired, you poor, you huddled masses yearning to breathe free. “This is a country of immigrants,” a voice said over the ferry’s PA system, and I wondered how so many people can forget that crucial part of our national identity.
Humans are particularly adept at destroying that which we don’t understand, be it other humans, or animals and the environment we share. When I travelled to Eden I didn’t expect to find elements of human irrationality so neatly represented in the South’s most hated plant: kudzu. The vine’s emerald trifoliate leaves and purple flowers were once prized as a shade-providing porch adornment, but its favor has shifted over the past hundred years. First introduced to the US in the late 19th century, it has achieved mythic status, encouraging sensational stories over facts. According to some accounts, kudzu covers anywhere between seven and nine million acres, but recent surveys from the U.S. Forest Services report that kudzu only occupies about 227,000 acres. By comparison, Asian privet, an invasive bush, has taken over approximately 3.2 million acres. With kudzu’s tendency to cover everything in its path and grow about one foot per day, it’s not difficult to see why people overestimate its presence. Because of this reputation, the “vine that ate the South” is unfairly thought of as a nuisance instead of appreciated as a nutrient rich crop for humans and other animals, as well as a way to control soil erosion. References to the general disdain for the resilient vine (J.B. Dollar, a man interviewed in the 1996 documentary The Amazing Story of Kudzu, said that he poisoned the same kudzu plant for ten years) can be found in songs, poems, and literature.
On my first day in Eden we encountered a uniquely strange usage of kudzu’s allegorical capabilities. Tom Barbour, the owner of Barbour Studio & Gallery, came across a copy of motivational speaker Stephen M. Gower’s 1991 book The Art of Killing Kudzu: Management by Encouragement. “Could be interesting,” Tom said as he handed it over to us. In the book Gower uses the “pesky, obstinate vine” as a metaphor for counter-productive attitudes in a work environment. Recounting his personal struggle with the plant, Gower writes, “Kudzu is bad stuff! It grows wild; and it chokes out the good stuff. Kudzu leaves its home and boisterously breaks into vegetable gardens.”
Gower’s description of kudzu registers as eerily similar to the inflammatory rhetoric spread by anti-immigrant and anti-refugee agitators. Replace “kudzu” with “immigrants” and “vegetable gardens” with “job markets,” and you’re left with the rationale regularly cited by xenophobes worldwide. In the days following the presidential election we have seen horrifying displays of celebratory racism and misogyny. Some of the most shocking examples are those of white children threatening or attacking other children just because they appear ethnically or racially different. This is only the beginning, now that the intolerant masses feel emboldened by the new acceptability of their misplaced anger and fear. There is no benefit to the generalization that an entire identity group is wholly evil, dangerous, or less deserving of basic human rights. Displaced peoples too often receive hostile greetings instead of an open minded appreciation for the benefits of diversified cultures. In our volatile political, social, and environmental climates, we cannot afford to reject potential resources. We can and must differentiate between true danger and that which appears dangerous because we don’t yet understand it.
Sylvain Couzinet-Jacques: Eden is on view at Aperture Gallery November 17, 2016–January 19, 2017.