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Shai Zakai: Cleaning Worker, Art Worker

(April 2001)

Concrete Creek, 1999-2002.

"Have you cleaned a creek today?", at "Environment" exhibition, Tel-Aviv, Israel.

In the olden days everything was simple. If you were an artist, you would go out to the landscape and paint pictures of the mountains, fields, trees, sea. Nowadays everything is much more complicated - being an artist does not necessarily mean taking an easel and pigments, and painting outdoors, and the landscape is not what it used to be either. What hasn't already been polluted and destroyed, is probably infected, treated, cultivated, tamed, or engineered in one way or another. In the age of the end of innocence, when an artist like Shai Zakai harnesses her creative powers for the sake of preoccupation with the landscape, she takes into account an entire history of landscape painting and earth art; she mobilizes the resources of the capitalistic-industrial world, channeling her activity between factories, organizations, economy and market forces, exploiting her deviant presence as a woman in a world of men - all this in order to ask, ostensibly with the utmost innocence and politeness, but in fact with tenacious persistence: Have you cleaned a stream today?

Shai Zakai cleans and reclaims streams; this type of activity is called eco-art. The point of departure for the big project she has been promoting for two years is a seasonal stream whose watercourse had been lined with concrete. The stream is located not far from where Zakai lives, somewhere in the center of the country, in an area where you can still find occasional enclaves of nature. During the past two years she has persistently documented the stream and its changing degrees of pollution, gradually becoming an expert on ecological issues: the sources and causes of pollution, environment protection laws, the intricate interrelations between factory owners who are supposed to abide by these laws and those who are supposed to enforce them. Her eye gives vigilant diagnosis: this is soil, and that - washed off concrete; here there used to be a waterway, and now there are only deposits of concrete, asphalt and industrial waste. Zakai dubs these large concrete heaps dumped at the side of the road "cutlets", a word that ridicules the industrial waste, reducing it to the level of a kitchen-oriented element. The concrete cutlets slowly transform into a source of pollution, whether they remain where they were discharged or are washed off into the riverbed. Pollution, says Zakai, has a strange quality: it doesn't disappear of its own accord.

Following an ongoing dialogue with the owners of the polluting factories, with the workers, and with the functionaries in charge of keeping the cleanliness on behalf of the regional council, the "enemies" have become collaborators - together with the workers (those who only a week or two earlier had dumped the "concrete cutlets" on the side of the road) Zakai creates artistic objects with and within the concrete. An impressive avenue of concrete flags mounted on high masts is now installed along the road leading to the factory. The eyesore has become aesthetics, the pollution - recycled into art.

The project currently on display in Tel Aviv's Exhibition Grounds within the framework of Environment is a debut exposure of the Concrete Creek activity outside the area itself, outside its natural habitat; the word "natural" in this context obviously acquires ironic overtones, for the concrete creek's "natural environment" was conceived in pollution, waste and corruption of "nature". The project Have you cleaned a stream today? functions as an external extension of Concrete Creek; at the same time, given its location within a commercial show of factories specializing in technological solutions for solid waste disposal, its presence in the Exhibition Grounds is tantamount to a subversive island. The installation itself creates a maze covering an area of 180 sq. meters in size. It is constructed from polluting materials gathered from the infected concrete-lined stream. The public finds itself walking along paths covered with a red carpet, flanked on the left and right by dust, concrete, and asphalt, and straight ahead, on the wall - a large photograph of the site from which the waste piles were extracted. Almost unwillingly, the photograph glorifies the site of pollution; it is hard not to be tempted by its beauty. The voice of American choreographer Meredith Monk can be heard in the background, talking yearningly about trees and birds; mumbling words in German, which are possibly surprising and disconcerting, possibly creating an analogy to human contamination. Actors-stewards ask the incidental audience: "Have you cleaned a stream today?" - a surprising question, no doubt, which sounds like a current incarnation of the scout's honor of doing a good deed on a daily basis - "Have you helped an old lady cross the street today?" There is something tedious, nagging about this question, but simultaneously, it is, of course, aware of its archaic tediousness, and thus ironic and defiant.

The polite stewards offer the public small concrete lumps, cookies more than concrete cutlets, still in the spirit of generosity and giving, characterizing the project as a whole. Just as caring for the creek's cleanliness is housewife-minded, so the concrete cutlets, and now the concrete cookies, are tantamount to a subversive dislocation of notions drawn from the world of kitchen and nurturing into the male industrial world, which in this context is also the source of sabotage and destruction. In reference to the traditional binary identification made by western culture - man=culture / woman=nature - Zakai creates a new place of her own within the polluted nature on one hand, and vis--vis the industry, which is the source of both pollution and technological (male) solutions for that very pollution, on the other. Like an industrious housewife, or alternatively a nurse, she cleans, gathers, compiles, strokes, uses that which is at hand, economizes, and mainly - forgives. Her ecological stand is clear and unequivocal, but her tactics are entirely nonmilitant. In her encounter with the concrete factory owner and workers she takes the path of understanding and reconciliation, thereby obtaining communication, the results of which are indeed slow and quiet, yet deep-seated and profound. Similarly, she shows forgiveness towards the eyesore itself - not necessarily calling to uproot the concrete lumps from the creek and pass them on. The damage was already done, the wound was opened; now it is time to understand, treat, bandage, maintain, minimize the damage, try to render the wound decorative, and mainly, raise public awareness to make sure things like that won't happen (or happen less, to be realistic) in the future.

In the meantime, until we clean a stream, or at least do a similar good deed, we can help ourselves to a concrete cookie and contemplate art per se, artistic practice in and of itself, as a paramount act of cleansing, purification, cleaning; a first rate ecological act.

Ruth Direktor, Art Critic April 2001

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