Shai Zakai: Cleaning Worker, Art Worker
Art critic and free-lance curator. Lives and works in Tel Aviv. Teaches and lectures about different issues in and aspects of contemporary art.
In the olden days everything was simple. If you were an artist, you would go out to the landscape and paint pictures of the mountains, fields, trees, sea. Nowadays everything is much more complicated – being an artist does not necessarily mean taking an easel and pallet and painting outdoors, and the landscape is not what it used to be either. What hasn't already been polluted and destroyed, is probably infected, processed, cultivated, tamed, or engineered in one way or another. In the age of the end of innocence, when an artist like Shai Zakai harnesses her creative powers for preoccupation with the landscape, she takes into account an entire history of landscape painting and earth art, channeling her activity between factories, organizations, economy and market forces, exploiting her dissonant presence as a woman in a world of men – all this in order to ask, ostensibly with the utmost innocence and politeness, but in fact with tenacious persistence: Have you cleaned a creek today?
To clean a creek? When was the last time we saw one of those? Shai Zakai cleans streams; she does so under the canopy of eco-art, a very general term encompassing a wide range of activities, motivations and people. When is a person who deals with pollution issues considered an artist? A scientist? An environmentalist? Zakai comes from the field of art; she thinks art, and even if her practice, to an outsider, may seem like that of a Green activist, her activity – including the most prosaic aspects, such as negotiating with factory owners and workers, fund-raising, and producing events – is artistic in essence. A called-for archetype in the context of such practice is an artist such as Christo, who has been wrapping buildings, bridges, islands, and beaches for decades. The technical production of large-scale environmental happenings is an integral part of his artistic practice; for him, having moved in 1972 from one ranch in California to another, and talked to the ranchers (namely, people who are very far removed from contemporary art and its underlying notions), asking for their permission to run a fabric fence through their land in order to fulfil his fantasy of a “running fence” – it was all part of his activity as an artist.
In the past two years Zakai has conducted countless conversations and discussions – with workers, factory owners, representatives of the local authority, scientists, ecologists, administrators in the Ministry of the Interior – as part of her activity for reclaiming the stream, as part of her activity as an artist.The point of departure for the large-scale project she has been promoting for more than two years now is a seasonal stream whose watercourse had been lined with concrete. The stream is located not far from Zakai’s place of residence, in the center of the country, not far from Beit Shemesh, in an area where you can still find occasional enclaves of nature, nature of wild expanses that convey an illusion of something relatively untouched. Ever since accidentally discovering the concrete creek flowing there, she has gradually become an expert on ecological issues of the area. Her commitment to this matter is manifested on several levels: in addition to artistic expressions, Zakai founded the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art; she has introduced the ecological discipline into the academic curriculum and teaches the subject in several art schools. Her artistic practice itself begins with fieldwork – tracing the sources and causes of pollution, researching environment protection laws, as well as the intricate interrelations between factory owners who are supposed to abide by these laws and those who are supposed to enforce them. During the past two years she has persistently documented the stream and its changing degrees of pollution. In a superficial glance from afar, the stream appears, at least in part, like any “natural” wadi. The untrained eye of someone who has momentarily gone to the open fields outside the city can hardly differentiate between slightly dirty gravel and a gray concrete current which ultimately blends in quite well with the surrounding rocks. But Zakai can tell them apart perfectly well: this is soil, and that – concrete washed off from the piles of waste dumped by quarry employees from their cement mixers on their way to or from their destination; once upon a time there used to be a waterway here, and now there are only deposits of concrete, asphalt and industrial waste. The concrete mixers leave the quarry with concrete and return on an (almost, but not quite) empty stomach. The leftovers are discharged at the side of the road. Zakai dubs these large concrete heaps “cutlets”, a word that ridicules the industrial waste, rendering it an element taken from the woman’s domestic, kitchen-minded world. The “concrete cutlets” slowly transform into a source of pollution, whether they remain where they were dumped or are washed off into the riverbed. Pollution, says Zakai, has a strange quality: it doesn’t disappear of its own accord.
Zakai operates in several concurrent channels: on one hand, there is an attempt to negotiate with the owners of the polluting factories, with the workers, and with the functionaries in charge of keeping the cleanliness on behalf of the regional council. It is an activity which, as aforesaid – in terms of the stereotype associated with the (heroic, romantic, larger than life) act of creation – has ostensibly nothing to do with art. Phone calls, meeting coordination, technical explanations, endless conversations, gaining the trust of people who initially regarded the peculiar young woman who calls herself an “artist” as an enemy who comes to intrude upon their work routine.
On the other hand, there is an attempt to create objects that would, more or less, live up to the definition of “artistic objects”. Following a prolonged dynamics, the “enemies” have become collaborators – Zakai managed to convince the concrete factory owner to join forces with her enterprise and to occasionally provide her with manpower and technical resources. Together with the workers – those who only a week or two earlier were still dumping the “concrete cutlets” on the side of the road – Zakai outlines forms within the concrete. She carves the contours of flags in the concrete deposits created in the stream, drilling holes in them which allow infiltration of rainwater into the ground, and installs an impressive sequence of concrete flags that emerge from a palette-like base mounted on high masts, creating along the road a route parallel to the winding stream. An avenue of concrete flags leading to the factory form a buffer between the trucks and the stream. The eyesore has become aesthetics, the pollution - recycled into art. Environmental solutions have been spawned out of the language of art.
On the third hand, her activity is typified by an educational-informative aspect – striving to prevent future pollution and raise awareness of the problem. It is within this framework that the open day by the stream is held, which is akin to a mini-festival for the environment. It is a day of activities, some educational, others more artistic in nature; both types of activities, as aforesaid, are part of the totality of Zakai’s work as an ecological artist. The public is invited to the concrete creek. For the majority of those attending, it is a first encounter with the issue, with the problem, with ecological concepts and concerns. They may be unwittingly making a little history: inaugurating the first artistic-ecotouristic route in Israel.
However, in terms of the order of affairs, the Concrete Creek project’s debut exposure to the public occurred several months before the open day in the creek, within the framework of the Environment fair held in Tel Aviv’s Exhibition Grounds in April 2001. This was the first exposure of Concrete Creek, and it happened outside the area itself, outside its natural habitat. One must forthwith add that the word “natural” in this context obviously acquires ironic overtones, for the concrete creek’s “natural environment” was conceived in pollution, waste and corruption of “nature”.
The exhibition in Tel Aviv’s Exhibition Grounds was entitled Have you Cleaned a Creek Today? It functioned as an external extension of Concrete Creek; at the same time, given its location within a commercial show of factories specializing in technological solutions for solid waste disposal, its presence in the Exhibition Grounds was at once called-for and – due to its anomalous character – tantamount to a subversive bubble. In many respects, a fair comprising ecologically-minded and ecologically-active organizations seems like Zakai’s called-for environment, but her way, via art, proposes a totally different option than the conventional commercial-practical-pragmatic mode.
The installation itself created a maze covering an area of over 180 sq. meters in size. It was constructed from pollutants gathered from the infected concrete-lined stream. The public found itself moving along paths covered with a red carpet, flanked on the left and right by dust, concrete, and asphalt, and straight ahead, on the wall – a large photograph of the site from which the waste piles were extracted. As aforesaid, the impressive photograph, almost unwillingly, glorifies the site of pollution, thus reinforcing one of the paradoxes intrinsic to Zakai’s practice: since she works with the concrete cutlets, admitting the rubble into her studio, imbedding it into the table, photographing the wound and enlarging it to make a huge blow-up – at some point one cannot ignore the dimension of seductive beauty emanating from these acts. A concrete cutlet is, ultimately – at least in the context of art – a lump of matter which certainly possesses aesthetic qualities and can be ascribed to various trends in modernist art. Is it possible to momentarily neutralize the significance of its being a polluting material in the specific context of the creek? It seems that Zakai’s attempt to show the “beautiful” side of things as well is her very strategy: taking the slow, pleasant route, rather than conducting herself in an aggressive of militant manner; befriending the transgressors who inflict the pollution, and recruiting them into the reclamation enterprise; becoming familiarized with the eyesore and gradually dissolving it, gently, as happens in slow natural processes, through acceptance rather than destruction, total eradication or decisive, drastic measures.In the background of the debris maze at the Exhibition Grounds, the voice of American choreographer Meredith Monk was played, talking about how she had forgotten what seashells were, what a forest was, mumbling words in German. Words in German have a surprising, even disconcerting effect. In this specific context – of pollution and destruction, ruin and corruption – they may even have generated an analogy to the penetration of human evil.
The culmination of the show was the presence of polite stewards that mingled with the audience and asked in all seriousness: “Have you cleaned a creek today?” – a surprising, as well as an embarrassing and funny question, which sounded like a current incarnation of the scout’s honor of doing a good deed on a daily basis – “Have you helped an old lady cross the street today?” As in the scoutesque question, in Zakai’s question too there is something tedious and nagging, but simultaneously, there is, of course, also an awareness of the archaic tediousness and the scout-like spirit arising from the question, and thus an undeniable dimension of irony in the age of the end of innocence.Those who happened to answer positively to the question “Have you cleaned a creek today?” were entitled to pick a gift from a tray carried by the polite stewards: on the tray, wrapped in paper, were small concrete lumps, lumps of concrete masquerading as colorful cookies, and thus dubbed “concrete cookies” as part of Zakai’s kitchen jargon (on which I will soon elaborate). Those who promised to clean a creek in the future, or at least perform an equivalent act, were also given a concrete cookie. The “cookie” distribution act is ironic in terms of the desire to generate some artistic object at all cost, yet its true charm lies in the very act of giving. A spirit of generosity and giving characterizes the project as a whole. This is also the case in the event taking place in the creek:
Zakai sets a long table for a meal, and all the participants are invited to take their place around it. A 16-meter long iron table constructed in collaboration with the quarry workers, the tabletop was made out of concrete into which waste collected from the stream during the two and a half years of work are imbedded during the event. People insert essays on ecological issues under transparent saucers??, so that the table becomes a monument for putting a stop to the pollution. Visitors are invited to taste a (real!) hot stew served in plates made of leaves, and at the end of the meal they are asked to throw away the leaf-plates in nature for the goats to eat. Thus they mimic natural, environment-friendly, economy modes of eating customary in various places in the non-capitalistic, pre-industrialized world. Leaf tea is served for dessert.The very invitation for a meal creates a stratified associative context, from Plato’s Symposium to the Christian “Last Supper” – two key meals in western culture, both distinctly male. However, it is clear that the long table installed by Zakai in nature (albeit at the entrance to a polluting factory), a table set for an expendable meal, invokes a more immediate association to Judy Chicago’s 1978 Dinner Party, a pioneering piece in the field of feminist art. Just as Chicago set a table for all the women excluded from canonical history, so Zakai offers an alternative for the heroic and romantic acts in nature performed by male artists. All the associations to food and nurturing, cleanliness and cultivation, render her a female eco-artist, someone whose social statement is rooted in feminist thought.
Caring for the creek's cleanliness is housewife-minded - the act of setting the table, the concrete cutlets, and the concrete cookies, are tantamount to a subversive dislocation of notions drawn from the world of kitchen and nurturing into the male industrial world, which in this context is also a source of sabotage and destruction. In reference to the traditional binary identification made by western culture – man=culture / woman=nature – Zakai creates a new place of her own within polluted nature on one hand, and vis-à-vis industry, which is the source of both pollution and technological (male) solutions for that very pollution, on the other.On one hand, she operates within nature, within the landscape, from a place usually preserved for mythological landscape artists – Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Richard Long. However, while Smithson pours black asphalt on the side of a deserted quarry in Rome (1969), transforming the mountain into a painterly surface and creating an expressive abstract painting on/within the landscape itself, out of a heroic, romantic act of creation, Zakai performs within the landscape acts of an industrious housewife, or alternatively – a nurse. She cleans, gathers, compiles, strokes, uses whatever is at hand, economizes, and mainly – forgives. From the perspective of time, Smithson’s act seems disputable: On one hand he speaks out against environmental pollution, and on the other – leaves traces in nature with an aggressive substance such as asphalt. His famous photograph featuring the truck pouring a big wave of black asphalt on the mountainside is inscribed in consciousness as a moment that glorifies the industrial act, lending a heroic aura to the boiling black spillage.In this sense, Zakai’s ecological stand is clear and unequivocal, whereas her tactics are entirely nonmilitant – in her encounter with the concrete factory owner and workers she takes the path of understanding and reconciliation, thereby obtaining communication, the results of which are indeed slow and unassuming, yet deep-seated and profound. Similarly, she shows forgiveness towards the eyesore itself – not necessarily calling to uproot the concrete lumps from the creek and pass them on. The damage has already been done, the wound has been opened; now it is time to understand, treat, bandage, maintain, minimize the damage, try to render the wound decorative, and mainly, raise public awareness to make sure things like that won’t happen (or happen less, to be realistic) in the future.
The romantic dimension attached to 20th century landscape artists’ act of going out to nature is replaced in Zakai’s case with prosaic female laboriousness, gray in many respects, which was not intended to survive in a grand manner.The creek’s reclamation becomes a metaphor for a good deed, an act possessing an ecological dimension not only on the level of the site’s pollution, but also on the level of interpersonal relations, relations within the community, with one’s self, between man and his environs.
One of the questions with which Zakai is concerned as part of her work in the creek is how to generate something that conforms to the definition of artistic object, which would not be an intrusive presence. During the event held in the creek she invites others to take part in the happening, throwing down the glove of ecological challenge to them: Nine dancers who form stations of motion along the stream (naturally leaving only footprints which immediately disappear), and four artists, comrades in concept, were recruited to create works pertaining to recycling and cleansing. Ultimately, none of the works – neither Zakai’s nor those of the other artists – were meant to survive in the long run. They are all designed to dissolve, be consumed and become extinct in the course of time.The public is invited to take a 30-minute hike along the concrete creek. Along the route they come across various degrees of pollution, cleansing and artistic intervention. Subsequently they feast on stew served on leaf plates, read manifests on ecology, and go back home. But in the meantime, until we do clean a stream, or at least perform a similar good deed, we can help ourselves to a concrete cookie and contemplate art per se, artistic practice in and of itself, as a paramount act of cleansing, purification, cleaning; a first rate ecological act.