"Have you brought a leaf with you?" asked artist Shai Zakai as I entered the installation "Forest Path in the Library" at her studio in Moshav Leon. On display in the bookcase in the center of the room are dozens of black cardboard boxes, like small tombstones, and in them, leaves from different places in the world that were gathered over eight years. Inside the boxes, along with the leaves, are informative notes on scraps of paper, some of them phrased very poetically.
In the box of leaves from the redbud tree that once stood at the entrance to the moshav, it says: "They are constructing a commercial building at the entrance, without the participation of the public. At the edge of the plot stands the redbud - trucks scrape up against it, workers harm it, it was planted in '59-'60 and one day it is altogether not there. How many people noticed? How many followed its decline? How many did anything?"
On the note in the box that contains remnants of the banana plantation uprooted in 1996 at Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, it says: "Like flaked skin, a hidden, quiet, common drama." In another box, under the heading "Pulling buried leaves from under construction waste," Zakai writes: "Leaves that were buried under construction waste. I document, bite my lips, how pathetic ..."
And, indeed, her obsessive documentation and the compulsiveness with which she documents the small, seemingly marginal details, might look pathetic. Zakai studies the environment with intensity. Each of her projects is preceded by thorough research, whether the topic is esoteric - for example, the question of when the redbud tree was planted at the entrance to the moshav and how old it was at the time of its demise (39) - or whether it is more a matter of principle, like Zakai's battle with the regional council, which has already been going on for seven years.
Zakai says that the reason for the war, which has earned her the nickname "Jean d'Arc of the Ela Valley," was the council's intention to build housing units in places that have ecological value. During the years of the war Zakai managed to learn ecology, to enlist activists and experts from various fields in the fight, and even to convince the inhabitants of the region to help fund a regional master plan.
Did this war do any good?
Zakai: "Seven years ago the head of the council said: `I'm going up on [conquering] the hill.' He spoke in military terms because after all, everyone here is conquering the wasteland. But he has still not succeeded in doing it."
Because of your activity?
"Yes. We're glad that there are a lot of committees that have to be gone through, and for this purpose I became an expert. The residents of the place also shunned me for a while because I did not agree with the majority position that development equals progress. In fact I am offering a different formula. I'm not one of those Mohicans at Neve Shalom who propose not doing anything, but I'm saying that alongside the formula `development equals progress,' it is necessary to use other words like `preservation,' `rehabilitation' and `environmental awareness.'"
But perhaps there is a real need for additional lands for housing?
"We did thorough research in cooperation with experts and we discovered that there are innumerable houses here up for sale and people are really in no hurry to buy. We took stock and prepared a forecast for 2025, in which we also examined what is needed for the region to maintain the right range of ages. We created awareness that not everyone can do anything he pleases here."
Zakai has also adopted the model of work with various experts, which characterizes her activity as a fighter for environmental quality, and for her art, which is unusual on the local scene. "It is urgent for me to talk about and research environmental issues because before we know it, there won't be any environment to research," she says, "and since I come from art I don't do this by means of a scientific article, but rather in the language of art. My process resembles that of a scientist, but the final product is different. He writes an article and I come out with an exhibition or article."
Zakai works in teams that include, among others, ecologists, scientists, engineers and architects, some of them members of the Forum for Ecological Art that she founded a few years ago. She chooses the professionals according to the environmental issues that she is investigating. For example, in the Concrete Creek Project, she worked with a botanist and a hydrologist, "to know more about the creek's flow," and with an ecologist who is a specialist in animal behavior. "Working with ecologists is an amazing experience," she says. "They understand that there is a disjunction between the very specific articles in the field and the public. My collaboration with them enables them to reach the public."
But art, too, doesn't really manage to reach the general public, does it?
"I believe that art has the possibility of mediating. If you check out the writings of American artist Robert Smithson or Yitzhak Danziger, two artists who engaged in environmental art, both of them spoke about art as a kind of mediation. Danziger spoke in the 1970s about the artist as a flowing creek inside the society and Smithson saw art as the best mediator between ecology and industry - that is, between the preservers and the polluters.
"Suzi Gablik, a well-known art critic in the field of art and the environment, wrote at the beginning of the 1990s an article entitled `The Ecological Imperative," in which she calls upon artists to leave the studio and go outside, to start to get involved in the society in which they live. This article stirred a very interesting awakening and marked the transition from earth art to ecological art. Abroad, her influence is great, in Israel - not so much yet."
The work in teams also includes work with inhabitants of the place and focuses on the causes of the hazard itself - quarries and industrial plants. The Concrete Creek Project was carried out under the sponsorship of the plant that had polluted the creek and in cooperation with the drivers who dumped the waste in it. Zakai found the disappearing stream behind her home. The hazard with which she dealt - a layer of concrete that did not allow rainfall to penetrate to the aquifer - was created by the dumping of waste from the nearby quarry. After a thorough investigation, Zakai came to the conclusion that the most effective way of solving the creek's distress would be to drill holes in the cement rather than clear it away.
"The usual, establishment way to rehabilitate is the slogan `To return nature to its original state,'" she explains. "The significance of this phrase is to bring in a large tractor to lift out the concrete, destroying along the way all the plants and reptiles that did manage to survive. I proposed a somewhat subversive solution, which has become a model that is studied throughout the world - of drilling holes in the concrete itself, so that the rain water can go through and thus solve the ecological problem. For half a year, together with the workers from the quarries, we drilled scores of holes in the concrete, in the shape of two flags. This was in fact a social project."
At the end of the project an event called "Concert for Cement Mixers" was held, in which the drivers of the cement mixers took part along with a dance troupe from the surrounding locales and many visitors.
But apparently this work of art will not remain on the site for very long. The holes weakened the concrete, cracks began to emerge in it and it separated from the wall that held it. "As opposed to earth art or environmental art, in which the artist puts his seal on nature, here nothing remains of the work of art and that's fine as far as I am concerned. I also love the modesty in this."
Currently Zakai is working with a group of professionals and inhabitants on three new projects: the rehabilitation of the Hava stream at the entrance to Mitzpeh Ramon, the rehabilitation of a creek at the entrance to the Bedouin locale of Houra and a proposal for the Acre Festival.
"I looked into it and I discovered that there is a severe problem of pollution in the Na'aman Creek," says Zakai. "It starts out clean at the Afek Springs in the north and gets polluted by the time it reaches Acre. There is another problem in Acre, that there is no access to its stunning beaches because of the military bases that turn them into a closed military zone. I intend to put visitors into a boat, take them for a tour along the beaches and along the way to screen on the floor of the boat a video that explains the damages. Currently I am busy checking out the industrial plants polluting the region."
In fact you are collecting enemies for yourself.
"I think that the owners of the industrial plants are beginning to appreciate this. I did the Concrete Creek in cooperation with the owner of the quarry, who was very proud of this. He gave the machinery and the workers, and took responsibility for the creek that had been damaged for 10 years. He realized what many others don't realize yet. Look at the Haifa Bay. It is easier for them to continue to pollute and pay fines than to find long-term solutions to the pollution. I'm in the middle - between the establishment and the very large processes, and I am trying to create layers of awareness."
According to Zakai, the establishment has already recognized the potential inherent in her work. The project for rehabilitation of the Concrete Creek, of which the Ministry of the Environment was one of the sponsors, led to a revolutionary proposal from the ministry - to bring artists into the creeks' administration. Since then, there have been three different ministers and the proposal has not yet been implemented, but Zakai has been called upon by the ministry to express her opinion about the Kishon River. There, she says, they were not yet prepared for her revolutionary ideas, and instead of using her abilities they proposed that she set up a sculpture park on the banks of the river.
Zakai's next target is the quarries: "There are more than 400 abandoned quarries in Israel with a budget of $4 million for rehabilitation. I think that artists need to take part in this, and I have already applied to the fund for rehabilitating the quarries."
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