(Shai Zakai: Self portrait 4X2 m. photograph on canvas purchased by Ministry of Environment.)
Since nature can’t speak for itself, Israeli artist Shai Zakai has appointed herself as the human moderator. For more than a decade she’s been working as an ecological artist, to communicate and record humankind’s impact on our fragile world.
Her most recent installation, Forest Tunes-The Library: A Visual Alarm, travelled to Philadelphia last October, as Zakai took part in an international exhibition with 15 other artists, each with a unique specialty that leans in the environment’s favor.
Called “Global Warming at the Icebox,” the event intended to showcase hot artists who are working in the context of climate change. Devoting more than a decade to the subject — and even founding her own center and national forum — Zakai as a photographer, poet, writer, sculptor, installation artist and educator, was a natural choice.
Her contribution, Forest Tunes, is a catalog of Zakai’s journey to 19 different countries, where she’s collected leaves, seeds, stories, images and surprises. There are 167 different little black boxes, she says, for the curious to explore.
Despite her large body of work, most of all Zakai sees herself as a social worker, and a steward for the environment.
The journey began when Zakai first moved to the Ellah Valley, Israel’s last stretch of natural greenery wedged between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Meaning Valley of the Goddess from the Hebrew, she says, Ellah Valley is home to great biblical stories, such as King David and Goliath.
Revered for its rolling hills, natural greenery and wildlife, Zakai saw environmental tragedies unfold left and right: “When we moved there, I saw a pristine area that is so amazing and felt like wilderness. Then I saw the lack of awareness of people here,” she says.
People were throwing construction waste into the forest and neglecting the land, calling on Zakai to create a new discipline in Israel for ecological art. “There is a difference between environmental and ecological art,” she points out.
Ecological versus environmental art
“Ecological art investigates and responds to ecological issues through various media and the power and beauty of it, and artists can come from all kinds of media: Poets, photographers or sculptors. Whereas, environmental art uses the environment as a background,” she says. Sometimes this approach is in harmony with sound environmental practices, but sometimes it actually harms the environment more, she explains.
Usually ecological artists have a background in ecology, Zakai says, and react to the environmental damage they are investigating: “Some see themselves as social workers on behalf of the environment. It’s much different than doing their own art in the studio.”
Founding the Israel Forum for Ecological Art, Zakai also connects to like-minded groups around the world. She sees ecological art as a language that crosses borders, to stimulate and instill wonder in the observer.
While people are normally presented scary and threatening information about global warming, Zakai hopes to educate in a softer way: “The art in my multi-media installation is inviting people to a experience… they enter a different world – a feature film they are invited to be in. If one digs deep enough, they will come out with a new curiosity for environmental issues.”
Holding conferences in the forest
When she’s not on the road, or creating her art, Zakai is leading workshops in the artist community Lion Srigim where she lives, inside the studio and outside. Her conference room, she says, is in a special place in the forest.
Americans met this remarkable woman when she presented her work: “It’s a kind of mosaic of the world’s indifference towards the world’s damages inflicted daily,” she says.
Zakai also showed 20 photographs taken in one forest over 14 years. She’s attempting to “daylight,” she says, the hidden knowledge that no one sees.
(This story first appeared at ISRAEL21c).