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Return to: Shai Zakai

Art & politics at the Earth-Summit and beyond


(2002)

Abstract - our initiations at the Earth-Summit
1. My chapter at the NGO report presented in Johannesburg
2. Visual Report - an exhibition of Israeli artists from the Israeli Forum for ecological art
3. Call for artists of the world - in Earth-Summit. (inc. biennale for eco-art, international presentation of eco-art)
4. Project Red-Dead - Israeli-Jordan initiation to protect the dead sea.

I knew that eco-art would not be a main issue, or an issue at all, at the most important conference (and certainly the biggest) on environmental issues recently in Johannesburg. My mission was to make it at least one of the topics, however, a theme to remember, to get inspired by.

I started this mission a year ago, when I was asked - being in the board of directors of the umbrella organization of environmental organizations in Israel - to contribute an essay to the shadow report which will be presented by the Israeli NGO in Johannesburg. I did not know then that I would be invited to attend the conference as part of the environmental coalition group.

The chapter I wrote, under the title - Cultivating interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues, raising environmental awareness through art, received a lot of attention in Israel, being the first time in the world that a chapter about art is a part of any environmental shadow report. I also knew that if we will have to choose which of the chapters will be presented at the conference, it certainly will not be the first one. Air and water pollution and global warming would be among the main issues, of course.

The Idea that an eco-artist will join an NGO organization in his/her country is a necessary step, in my opinion, if one would like to influence and be part of decision making in all levels. The problem is that it is usually not clear - to say the least- to both the NGO and the governmental clerks, how art can cause social change and what its relevance is to environmental issues. It is consequently up to the artist to raise and promote those issues everywhere. It seems that even the ones who selected me to join this journey, did not really know what I was talking about.

My language is a visual language, which makes me different from other environmental leaders. My work can begin at the point where we feel words cease to make a difference. The need for a different approach is common to all, but will they try to include artists in decision making, in official planning and in reclamation projects and teams? This is yet to come. It is a hard work from our side, if we want to regain the influence which art had, until some 150 years ago.

Being the director of a small non- profit organization it was very exciting to see our Visual Report, an exhibition initiated by our board of directors, curated by three women of our organization, relate to the main issues discussed in the official government's report presented at the conference. The art work was accompanied by abstracts from the shadow NGO report, creating 15, 1 X 0.70 meter posters, which we showed at the global people's conference in Nasarec, Johannesburg. It was planned to be shown for one day while the Israeli shadow report presentation took place, but stayed there practically for the whole conference.

The artworks indicate a growing interest on the part of artists in Israel in environmental thinking. The incorporation of a visual report alongside the written one is in itself a call for collaboration and dialogue between artists, scientists and the community.

I wrote all the above in order to explain my third step, preformed occurred about ten days before I left to Africa. I felt I had to talk about the ability of eco-art to cause people to see reality in a different way, to connect humans to their environment, to raise feelings of the same excitement as if you stood on a high mountain peak and whistled with a thrill.. and wonder. That is provided when the work of art is profound, revealing and unexpected.

So I sent an email to the organizers of all the NGO shadow reports' presentation from different countries at The Heinrich Boell Foundation, under the title - "Vision For Sale", and shared my thoughts, beliefs and intentions of what I would do if I could conduct my own discussion. I received an answer saying I had a hall and one hour to myself! In that discussion I called all artists around the world to devote their next artwork for investigating an environmental issue, and invited ecologists, artists and farmers to be involved in the 1st biennial of eco-art in 2005, in Israel. I also presented a booklet, which included two definitions of eco-art, quotes and web resources, edited by Ann Rosenthal, Sam Bower and myself. This booklet also included details about our forum and a letter of intention about the Biennale.

Walking towards the hall to conduct my discussion, I saw a poster on the floor, a quote from Peter, a ten year old boy from Johannesburg, saying: " Mother earth is a bit tired of all that talking ". I used Peter's quote in my session, to open the politician and environmentalists' eyes to the power of ecoart, as a concrete replacement for all that talking. I have showed the video -art from "Concrete Creek project", and it seems to me people were more friendly afterwards. Some came to me and ask, "are there other ecoartists?, I have not heard of such a discipline". I talked about the eco-art dialog, and how much knowledge and courage I received from my ecoart family around the world. There was a true curiosity towards what we had offered together that afternoon, believe me.

Outside, Palestinians protested. Only because It was an Israeli speaking, nothing to do with art. They tried to enter and to interfere. I thought I came to speak about art, but found myself in a middle of a completely different issue.

I called Palestinian artists and Israeli Arab artists to join us in the preparations for the Biennale, to take an active part. The Palestinians divided their people during the Summit to interrupt in any Israeli session that was published in the program . A Palestinian woman came to me before my session, demanded to see the responsible of the hall. She wanted material on "that artist". I gave her some material and asked where she is coming from. She said Palestine. Where?, I asked - she said - Ramahlla. I shook her hand warmly and said how happy I was to meet with her, and that I hope we can cooperate where politicians failed. Then I introduced myself. She was embarrassed. It was clear she meant to sabotage the event but my warmth towards her interfered. We have Israeli-Arab artists in our association, and we came with an Arab Israeli delegation, ate and slept together as a group. But the hatred was very clear outside the hall. Inside, when it was time for discussion I asked people to react upon eco-art only.

The Red - Dead project is a joint effort between Jordan and Israel, to save the Dead Sea by bringing water from the Red Sea which is about 200 km away, by mixing different levels of salt water, different aquatic life and different temperatures, and other ecological problems. I was present in the impressive declaration of that project at the Earth-Summit. I had mixed feelings about it. Are we creating peace projects here, or saving the environment? On behalf of peace, sometimes a lot of damage is being done to the environment. How do we make sure this is not one of them?

I made contact with the former minister of water in Jordan. I do not know what I saw in him, in a full room, that made me go and present myself, and the Biennale. His response made it clearer - he is an artist too, he will send me his book and yes he is interested in collaborations. I have received an invitation to Aman.

The next day I was interviewed for the local radio, and the title of the interview was - "The artist has found the way for a dialog between Israelis and Palestinians through art..." I am not deluding myself that this is true, but it is a good beginning. I remember the words of artist Betsy Damon in one of her letters - "...Anyway I'm for the get out there, make a difference in every way and don't worry if it is art..."

This involvement takes so much time and energy that an artist's fear will obviously be the limit to creation as before. For now, I am telling myself (as has been said in the past ) that everything we artists do, including a discussion at Earth-Summit is a form of art. ecoart.

(Learn more about Shai Zakai in the Artists Section)

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