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
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
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
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,"
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.