On The Dialectics of Man and Nature
Professor Moshe Zuckermann
One of the clearest expressions of the repressive foundation of the human condition (conditio humana) is embodied in the ways human civilization appears in natural surroundings, and, more generally speaking, in man’s control over nature. This problem is one of the key issues of modern thought in its entirety, an issue that reached its most compact and polished formulation in Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis, “Dialectic of Enlightenment.” Man’s control over nature, it is argued, has always been a necessary condition for the existence of civilization anywhere, civilization itself being essential for the liberation of humankind from the threat of natural disaster and from inexorable dependence upon nature. Biblical myth relates to this in the story of the banishment from the Garden of Eden, banishment from a situation devoid of oppressive control, characterized by the harmonious integration of humankind with nature, to a situation in which the human being becomes lord of the land, but at the price of enslavement to arduous toil: only by the sweat of his brow shall he eat bread. In this matter, the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” converges into a fundamental trans-historical argument having three dimensions: mankind’s possessive mastery of the natural surroundings has been dependent since ancient days upon man’s control of his own inner nature, a control that necessarily brought with it man’s subjugation of his fellow man. It is this inherent connection between human control over nature as the basis of his mastery of self and his domineering control over the Other that reveals oppression as a substantive dimension in the process of civilization, and in so doing reveals the institutions of civilizations to be expressions of the oppression embodied within human practice, and in particular, in the human practice that leaves its mark on nature.
Shai Zakai is the Israeli artist par excellence whose creative oeuvre in recent years has been devoted almost entirely to wrestling with the history of this complex and problematic relationship between nature and civilization, a relationship that has developed during the last few decades into a worldwide critical discourse about what is referred to as “the severe ecological problem” (some call it the “ecological holocaust”) now confronting human civilization. Her present exhibition is composed of several artistic works that vary in character, although not in their objective: a large installation of shelves on which are placed about one hundred boxes with leaves and branches of plants accompanied by short texts. There are large photographs of forest, a silver print on metal, a video-art work lasting 4½ minutes that keeps repeating and constitutes the “sound track” of the exhibition, and also copies of Zakai’s “artist’s notebook.” The intent of the exhibition - primarily conceptual – is a general attempt to transmit a message that is not unfamiliar in many non-artistic discourses. After all, the ecological discourse is among the most widespread and influential throughout the world in recent years. Less well-known, on the other hand, is ecological art, of which Shai Zakai is one of the pioneer protagonists on an international level. The reason for this can be two-fold. First, it may be that art is not the most suitable medium for advancing ecological matters which inherently encompass political, social, and economic interests of such weight that instrumental reason (or alternatively, the moral-practical discussion of the problem) has taken over all the relevant discursive space. Second, the question arises whether unique means of artistic expression have been created in regard to ecology for the ecological discourse. This is not an inconsequential matter, since non-artistic ecological discourse is itself replete with so many bravura activities and theatrical acts that attract the media that one may wonder as to the status of art in this militant-activist discourse.
And indeed the art of Shai Zakai extends to varied and diverse artistic diapasons. With a decidedly inquisitive basis, she combines data storage, collection, lexical organization, and experiential concreteness, embodied in the installation of shelves with its profusion of boxes containing an impressive quantity of lifeless natural items along with documentation of the ecological contextual dimension of the item (and the civilizational disturbance that made it problematic), additional details (date, place, and the like), but also, and no less important, words of personal interpretation in the realm of experiential subjectivity – a kind of emotional counterpoint to the dry practicality of the act of documentation. Here is what is written on one of the boxes:
770.19 Israel/Nov. 2000/Damage/Park Britannia/Breaking a new road through a forest/the discovery/2-3
a. The Jewish National Fund, well known for its numerous successful environmental projects, does not transplant the plants, nor does it organize rescue operations to remove thousands of cyclamen, asphodel, narcissus, and iris bulbs that were found on the path of the road. Not to mention the common thorny burnet (Sarcopoterium spinosum). If we multiply this by the number of new roads paved over the years, the result is clear.
b. The Jewish National Fund does not take into consideration the seasons during which it would be best to build roads.
c. Attempts at activation of a slumbering community to what is happening under their noses, to save the bulbs, are met with indifference. (Only one was recruited.) I gather cyclamen before the D9 arrives to crack apart rocks, and the lone recruit plants several of them in a public park.
d. Afterwards – the roots project upwards, facing the sky. The Syrian woodpecker is already familiar with this; he extracts beetles from inside the tree. He rescues the forest that remains.
e. Gathering broken branches with living lichens – a sign of clean air?. They have been here for thousands of years, slowly crumbling the rocks. They are the artists.
“They are the artists” is how the text concludes, and it would seem that these words may serve as a paradigm for the sum total of Shai Zakai’s artistic endeavor. Shai Zakai intervenes in nature in order to rescue from it what has been afflicted by alien intervention, intervention that is civilizational, sinister. The dialectic of the artistic act, artificial in its essence, that seeks to accord to nature its own voice by documenting its death and the cruel disturbances it faces, and by revealing its “history” (“They have been here for thousands of years, slowly crumbling the rocks”), this dialectic at the same time echoes the longing for unblemished nature (and to be precise – the intention to act against this foreign affliction: “Activation of a slumbering community to what is happening under their noses”) and the sober awareness that it is a utopian act after the fact that is spoken of - civilization can of course not be restored to some pre-civilized state; and even arousing interested parties to take action against the concrete affliction is not a foregone conclusion (attempts “to save the bulbs are met with indifference. [Only one was recruited]).”
This element of “blending into nature” with the knowledge that it is impossible to do so except as a secondary derivative through rational reflection or by means of the artistic endeavor, also finds expression in Shai Zakai’s other work. Her broad panoramic photographs dotted with human figures appear as a kind of echo of the man-nature dialectic: Man himself is still a part of nature, but his other part has also become a “second nature,” his social nature, the one that abuses nature in pursuing civilization, and in so doing, abuses his very own nature. This matter finds even more impressive and salient expression in the video-film included in the exhibition: the combination of nature’s sights and sounds and amorphous images of human beings attempts to impart to nature its own language. And it turns out that this pre-human voice is not free of anthropomorphic images, from the over-humanization of nature. This might be interpreted as a “flaw” in the artistic endeavor. But that would be a mistake: the “flaw” is only an artistic expression of that from which the man-nature dialectic cannot – and indeed also need no longer - be freed: from the civilizing transformation of the human experience into “second nature;” this and only this is capable of providing an escape from what has been perpetrated: destruction of nature, whose devastation will return eventually to human beings themselves and bring about their annihilation, if they do not reconsider while there is still time.
Professor Moshe Zuckermann is affiliated with the Cohen Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas in Tel Aviv University. Until recently, he served as head of the Minerva Institute for German History, also in Tel Aviv University.