Orchid Designs 


Elah Valley, Israel

"The Last Supper" by eco artist Shai Zakai
© 2004 Baila Lazarus

Shai Zakai

Raising ecological awareness through art

Story and photos by BAILA LAZARUS

In the Elah Valley, about a half hour southwest of Jerusalem, a dry creek bed is garnering quite a bit of attention. What looks like an innocuous strip of sand snaking its way through grass and shrubs, is actually Israel's first ecological art project - Concrete Creek - by eco-artist Shai Zakai.

Zakai is one of only a few artists in the world who are gaining international attention by using pollution as their medium and the earth as their canvas. These artists identify environmental problems and use the creative process to bring these concerns to the forefront of people's agendas.

In the case of the Elah Valley creek, Zakai found an intermittent stream - one that exists only when there is heavy enough rainfall in the area - that had been badly polluted. It ran beside a road that led to a nearby quarry, and trucks and other vehicles that used the road would dump garbage down the sides of the creek into the water. But besides the standard pieces of metal, old tires and tin cans that one might expect to find at the bottom of a stream, there was also an area that was covered in concrete. Concrete-mixer drivers, anxious to get rid of the end of a load, would pull their trucks up to the creek and simply empty their cargo into it. The concrete would then harden on top of vegetation, killing everything underneath and not allowing rainwater to penetrate to the soil.

Zakai decided to do a major clean up of the creek but chose to leave the concrete where it was, incorporating it into a work of art.

"In my quests for visual expressions which would bring man and the environment closer together, I have conceived of a reclamation plan that operates concurrently on the physical level - cleansing the stream - and on the social and spiritual level - healing people from their environmental indifference," Zakai says in an artist's statement.

To help her in her project, Zakai brought in quarry workers, bridge builders, cement-mixer drivers, foreign workers, Palestinians, Bedouins and moshav members - anyone who was interested in participating in the artistic expression while cleaning up their environment in the process.

By transforming them into temporary or "fleeting" artists, as Zakai calls them, she gets them to think in ways they may never had before, an experience that, in the best case scenario, could change their mindset. In the least, the experience of working with Zakai could help them achieve a level of awareness they hadn't had before.

What is interesting about Zakai's work is that she didn't try to remove all the pollutants and return the stream to its natural state. Instead, by leaving the concrete and garbage in or near the stream, passers-by are forced to look at it all the time and be reminded of the ecological destruction. Hopefully, this serves as a reminder for people to consider their own habits, look around at their own environment and take responsibility for change.

"What I was asking myself is, What is nature; what does it really mean?" Zakai told the Bulletin in an interview in Israel. "Does it mean going back to what it was before or finding solutions looking at reality?"

Over the course of the three years that it took her to complete the project, Zakai went through about two kilometres of the stream. Most of the movable garbage was removed and placed on a sculpture by the stream entitled, "The Last Supper." Many of the pieces in this work incriminate the polluters, Zakai said. On the table one can see a filter from a cement mixer, iron hammers used in quarry work, and even tachometre readouts that still had on them the names of the truckdrivers who had tossed them into the stream from their cab windows.

Zakai also set up fish-shaped flags made of concrete alongside the road near the stream to draw the attention of those driving by and to act as a psychological delineation between the road and the stream.
As for the huge concrete slab that was sitting on the bottom of the creek bed, Zakai decided against using heavy machinery to remove it, as that would have caused more destruction of the surroundings of the creek. Instead, in on-site works of art she labels "Cracks I" and "Cracks II," she drilled holes through the concrete, which was several feet thick in areas, giving rainwater access to the ground below. Not only did that allow for irrigation of the soil, but the rainwater acted as a natural process of erosion that began to weaken and break the concrete, forming even more cracks.

When the project was completed earlier this year, Zakai invited all those who helped, along with other artists and politicians, to a concert around the completion of the "Last Supper" table. Dancers moved about on the table, putting the last pieces of debris in place, according to Zakai's direction. Then she invited audience members to sign "contracts" between themselves and the environment. These were put under Plexiglas and used as "placemats" around the table.

This process, she said, involved observers in the artwork, as well as in the activity of looking after their surroundings, which is what she sees as her role.

"For me, an eco-artist is comparable to a doctor practising alternative medicine, who would never offer you a painkiller, but would examine the body as a whole; or to a judge, who would send a transgressor to a rehabilitation program rather than to jail," she said.

More information about Zakai's work, can be found online at www.greenmuseum.org/content/artist_index/artist_id-18.html.

Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator living in Vancouver, Canada. Her work can be seen at www.orchiddesigns.net.

"The Last Supper" - installation
artwork made of discarded metal
found in the creek bed.

"Cracks I" shows the concrete
that has been spilled and that
has hardened in the creek.