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Thinking Ecoart Through the 3rd World Water Forum in Japan


Kyoto. Beautiful, mysterious, a 1100 year old city, where one thousand shrines call you every morning, on the way to the convention hall. Some hard decisions had to be taken each morning, during the week of the most important conference on water in the world, held last March. Even though the war with Iraq caused some tensions and cancellations, 180 states participated, sending many ministers and representatives from different organizations, including NGO groups, altogether about 24,000 people, 6,000 of them from outside Japan.

As part of the debate on "Water as Public Good", the organizers produced an art festival alongside the conference and a two day session under the title - "Water & Cultural Diversity" and "Water in Art". The sessions included mostly indigenous presentations of water problems.

3rd World Water Forum logo.
"Every artist should be deeply concerned with regard to the condition of water. The fact that they can reach areas where policy makers can't, in terms of people and communities is something to acknowledge." -- Shai Zakai

Among endless papers and booklets in that session, I fished out one abstract which seemed close to some ideas that relate to ecoart; Jeanette Armstrong, an ecological author and artist from Canada, was invited by UNESCO because of her involvement in "advocating indigenous rights, a healthy environment and social change..." She was selected as one of seven indigenous judges to the First Nations Court of Justice called by the chief of Ontario.

In our conversation she was surprised to hear that ecoart is in fact a world movement. She defines her art as such, and knew of only one other ecological artist. Art has served as a powerful force in her community, and she claims, "can influence on a deeper level, make the shift into raising consciousness, reaching the source that touches everyone".

"The Basic core of art is to be able to pronounce the profound connection between us and Nature, not just according to my tribe, but in contemporary art as well," says Jeanette.

We both agreed that it is a pity that UNESCO obviously is not aware of the ecoart movement and its power to impact local communities, and that there should have been at least an ecoartist session as part of this conference.

I asked Jeanette - how do you explain the fact that ecoart is still not known enough, in a sense that it is still unable to influence through its unique approach, in this conference?

"The people from UNESCO, who organized the panel, invited me as a social activist and as a writer. But not as an ecological artist. This term is still not known. The only other artist whom they invited, showed slides of her sculptures on water. Nothing to do with ecological thinking. Ecoliterature, for instance, has started penetrating as well. People use quotes from songs, or stories and I started collecting them, but it is not organized as movement and I do not recognize any formal body of work."

- What kind of message we should carry from the World Water Conference for other artists?

- Every artist should be deeply concerned with regard to the condition of water. The fact that they can reach areas where policy makers can't, in terms of people and communities is something to acknowledge.

Koichiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, sent a message for the World Water Day in 2002: "... Water is probably the only natural resource to touch all aspects of civilisation - from agriculture and industrial development to the cultural and religious values embedded in society- and that the need and demand for water have been a driving force of social, economic and cultural development throughout human society".

David Haley, image from \
David Haley, image from "River of Life 3000", 2003. Described as "A dialogue for the beginning of time", this project involves celebration of the Severn River and education about the impacts of climate change on local flooding.

In the art festival, held in the Stakeholder Hall in the conference area, there were ongoing performances, video-art, and lectures by different artists. Among them was the interesting lecture of the English ecoartist David Haley, who presented the ecoart movement around the world by showing specific artworks like those published in the "Ecovention" exhibition and catalog, and talked about the ecoart discussion group through the internet, in which we are both partners. I felt that David managed to convey the huge and unique contribution of ecoartists to shorten the ever-widening gap between humans and the environment. That there is, in fact, a completely different and fascinating approach to issues such as reclamation of damaged areas and new connections which help people become involved and aware of what already exists under their own backyards and a beyond. David also shared with the audience his River Life 3000 project, and read some poetry from a project he did in England that questioned the relationship between people and the Severn river given the accelerating effects of climate change.

I was invited by the Japanese to show two videos from the project - "Concrete Creek 1999-2002", a stream reclamation via ecoart, which took place in Israel, and I gave a short presentation about the interdisciplinary work I have initiated with the artists and scientists - members of the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art, the quarry workers and cement truck drivers; Palestinians, foreign workers, people from the community around, and people from the Israeli establishment, to create a model for cleaning streams around the world by emphasizing not only the physical level, but also the social, cultural and spiritual levels at same time. One film, "Have you Cleaned a Creek Today?", a 15 minute video, dealt with the lack of intrinsic responsibilities towards the environment.

I also presented a call, as I did in the Earth-Summit conference in Johannesburg, for all artists around the world, to dedicate their next artwork to an environmental issue. I also suggested to the public who sat in my lecture, to use visual language as a way to raise environmental awareness. I believe that this track is still not exploited enough, and people should recognize its power to communicate beyond language.

Thanks to the support of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Amos Ganor Foundation, I was able to come to Kyoto and exhibit a panel of the projects of the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art and show parts of the Concrete Creek project. There are some 80 Israeli environmental NGOs and our small ecoart, non profit association was the only one represented at the conference. Beyond that, it might sound like a paradox, since the visit also allowed me to meet some of the finest Israeli scientists and water specialists. Only there, so far away from our streams and our rivers' problems, I got familiar with the vital and profound work that Israeli scientists are doing in Israel and around the world concerning water treatment in desert areas and groundwater issues.

Ichi Ikeda, a 60 year old Japanese ecoartist, exhibited in the main hall of the conference. Ikeda has devoted his life and art to water issues for many years. A former chemist and engineer, he was part of a team that helped develop plastic materials such as vinyl and nylon. When he realized those materials pollute the environment he became a green activist and decided to influence and reach people through art, concentrating on water as his medium.

Ikeda creates installations and uses photography. In the World Water Forum he exhibited a big collage of close-up photographs of hands from people of different countries, holding water. On the middle of the wall was written - "80 liters a day or less?", a fact he collected from The UN reports, regarding the "quantity one person needs per day, to maintain a Standard of life to some degree". According to the report, however, three fourths of the world population use only 50 liters of water, because of low water supplies.

I saw part of the same artwork in a group exhibition in Honen-in Temple, where a Japanese/English art seminar took place, under the title "Crossovers", dedicated to water in art. Through his projects, Ikeda shows other "uses" of water. He created "Water Senders" involving communities, "The Water Market", and "Water for the Future", which included a huge installation of water boxes from different oceans around the world - a conceptual artwork exploring water issues.

Other English artists also showed in the temple gallery, and addressed water issues in a more environmental and traditional art manner using metaphor through three dimensional art and paintings. Stephen Turner, for instance, drew the contaminated river of his childhood with mud on canvas, Brigitte Jurack created pieces of rivers out of black ink painted paper.

As I walked with Shinsho Kajita - the chief priest of Honen-In temple - in the temple water garden, photographing his portrait among some old trees and moisture, I asked him why he agreed to host the art exhibition in the temple, and what role art had in environmental issues today especially with such a political conference?

Mr. Shinsho, 46 years old, has lived his entire life in the temple, and is very active in the community around Honen-In. He said that art and politics should not be separated and that art should serve as a mediator between the community and its environment.

He spoke about HIGAN, which in the Buddhist tradition is a time for training. He saw the art exhibition and one day seminar as part of this training. "Through art we can make better connections with the earth".

Art historian, Bariton Singer and poet Nozumu Hayashi, presented interesting research they did counting the times water appear in old wooden prints and what kind of water source it came from. He specifically looked for the way Japanese people see the various functions of water through the woodprints of artist Hasui Kawase who lived between 1920- 1954.

He discovered that the most popular overall theme was water. Out of 389 old wood prints, 114 works depicted a stream, 56 - lakes or ponds, 136 prints showed oceans, 19 prints - puddles, 11 - canals, 9 - hot baths, 1 - irrigation canal, 43 depict rain. Hasui Kawase chose unknown and ordinary places for his wood prints. His water scenes show how the Japanese see the functions of water; purifying, cleaning, bathing, and as a means of getting rid of sins. The rice/water fields form a basic landscape of everlasting swamps. Water also symbolized harmony between man and woman and was always used in landscape wood prints. The Japanese landscape is always full with moisture. The term 'dripping beauty' is used in relation to this landscape so it is no wonder that 80% of the wood prints depict water, said Nozomu Hayashi.

The seminar was a side event organized by a Japanese woman who lives in England, Ms. Tomomi Iguchi, director of organization "Crossover UK", and was not part of the formal conference. Beside ecoartists David Haley and Ichi Ikeda, I could not really find contemporary ecoartists investigating ecological and environmental issues through their art. Despite that, I felt it was a unique and enlightening day and a good dialog between Japanese and English artists which I can only hope would happen more often and in more countries if possible. I believe that visual language can offer different views and solutions to water issues and cross boundaries while looking for unconventional ways to treat, reclaim and raise awareness about water problems around the world. As earth artist Anna Mendieta said in 1972, "The struggle for life today is a cultural war".

Another creative approach to purifying water was demonstrated at the water conference by author and researcher Dr. Masaru Emoto, in his "Project of Love and Thanks to Water". Dr. Emoto claims that our consciousness has power to change the quality of water. He investigates the Hado - "The intrinsic vibrational pattern at the atomic level in all matter. The smallest unit of energy. Its basis is the energy of human consciousness".

He showed macro photographs of a tip of frozen water from different sources. A natural spring water had a perfect hexagonal crystal structure while tap water had no visible crystaline structure at all. Furthermore, he found that "good" thoughts, music and words turn the water into beautiful and delicate shapes but "bad" ones deteriorate crystal structures. In his presentation he actually showed those effects and others on water. Based on these results he concluded that " By producing different Hado through written and spoken words, as well as music and literally presenting it to the SAME water samples, the water appears to "change its expression". Currently he started the "project of Love and Thanks to Water", by calling people of the world to send their "love and thanks" to all the water on Earth.

Fujino is a small town, an hour and a half from Tokyo. Since the population has declined there, the people of the town have decided to turn it into an artist town, building artists' residencies and creating art workshops for the local kids. The Austrian government for instance, fell in love with this town and rented an old traditional Japanese house in which Austrian artists can live and work for certain periods of time during the year. Art patrons, Mr. and Mrs. Murata, created a warm gathering in Fujino, inviting local and guest artists to introduce our work, and to honor my participation in the world water conference.

With Israeli red and white wine, courtesy of cultural attache of the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, Mr. Ziv Nevo, I gave a lecture in Fujino on the reclamation process, the "Art Talks" with the cement truck drivers, and showed the two videos from the Concrete Creek project. Austrian, Israeli, English, and Japanese artists all sat together in Fujino, to discuss the Echo of ecoart. I felt a lot of curiosity to the new art-field that Ikeda and myself presented there. I have called them, and invite every artist who reads this article, to participate in "The 1st Ecoart Biennale" in Israel in 2005, by creating and documenting interdisciplinary processes to solve or reclaim damaged areas next to one's backyard and sending it to be presented in a marathon of ecoart processes.

(For more details email: shai-stu @

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