Ecological-artist Shai Zakai believes balance is the key for a healthy ecosystem

The Israeli artist uses photography, video art and public art in her projects to reiterate the importance of balance between the human mind and environment.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Jul 30, 2020

Wishful thinking - if we could find the ‘balance’ between our heart and mind, the world would be a better place. Easier said than done, the unachievable balance pushes us to strive for a larger good, to have aspirations in favour of the community, harmony in nature — that would inadvertently allow us to build a sense of oneness around us. Finding a silver lining to the dark clouds, the current times of lockdown and isolation due to the pandemic have heightened the pertinence of balance. The ecological-artist and founder of the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art, Shai Zakai, with her green art practice leads the way to the creative processes that promote environmental awareness.

The Forest Keeper | Forest Walks | Shai Zakai | STIRworld
The Forest Keeper Image Credit: Courtesy of Shai Zakai

The advent of the digital camera, if on one hand has let go of the worry about the availability of the films, then on the other hand, the unlimited bytes have, to certain extent, compromised the art of processing and conceptualising the frame. Reversing these affects, Zakai with her project Presencehood developed the slow photography technique that allows the audience to realise the presence of the third space between the awareness of being fully alive in the landscape that has once been culturally active but now harbours the liminal space of an abandoned site. The thread that runs to define the physical-social-spiritual journey embodied in these photographs demands a visual language that lays importance to the environmental policy.

Presencehood, Cyprus | Presencehood by Shai Zakai | STIRworld
Shai Zakai’s Presencehood, Cyprus Image Credit: Courtesy of Shai Zakai

Zakai, in an interview with STIR, explains her artistic practice saying, “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 programme rather than to jail; or to a philosopher who would always explore multiple versions and variations before he finds that singular insight”.

The series Forest Walks, Small Happenings, which was later published in the book Forest Tunes-The Library, saw Zakai practising photography every day like a daily routine. Interestingly, the eco-artist shifts the emphasis from the subject of the photograph to the act of photography. For Zakai, the existence of the forest is dependent on her frequency of taking its photograph. In all likelihood, the practising photographer and theorists have long argued for the need to lay spotlight on the subject rather just on the act of pressing a click button. The reversal espoused by Zakai opens new avenues to build critical vocabulary. 

Presencehood, Orange Wind | Presencehood by Shai Zakai | STIRworld
Presencehood, Orange Wind Image Credit: Courtesy of Shai Zakai

For Zakai, nature is synonymous with femininity. To elaborate further on this, she says, “Nature is a feminine force, and I am part of her. Every artwork I made is a result of this consciousness. For instance, the 17 years' photographic walks, one area in the forest next to my studio, is in fact, daylighting feminine identities within nature, in every rock, tree, soil and root. These are the basic elements of our being here, on this planet, which were forgotten for so many years, on many levels. One can see examples from the project here with Forest Walks, Small Happenings".

The Cement Dress, Self Societal Portrait, colour photograph on archival photographic paper, 180x90cm | Forest Walks | Shai Zakai | STIRworld
The Cement Dress, Self Societal Portrait, colour photograph on archival photographic paper, 180x90cm Image Credit: Courtesy of Shai Zakai

As an artist and activist, her works, especially Concrete Creek, is a collaboration with a diverse set of creative minds. A public art project, Concrete Creek raised people’s awareness towards the high pollution levels of streams in Israel. The reclamation plan of cleaning the stream not just aimed to retrieve the purity of the streams, but was shout out for a collaborative responsibility towards our environment. The project, directed towards the documentation of the hikes along the stream, and locating the root cause for the pollution, saw coming together of ecologists, botanists, hydrologists and political representatives’ green activists.

Photobook titled Forest Tunes- The Library, The Photography & Eco-art Center, 2008| Forest Walks | Shai Zakai | STIRworld
Photobook titled Forest Tunes- The Library, The Photography & Eco-art Center, 2008 Image Credit: Courtesy of Shai Zakai

Taking about the importance of the collaborative efforts, Zakai says, “More and more during these times, when it comes to the public ecological art, I always call scientists and institutions to collaborate. I think it is a must, they still do not think of inviting an ecological artist to their team, but we, the artists, do. In the last 10 or more years, I have developed a different kind of collaborations, I do not have the urge anymore to find all the answers in science. I have also developed certain abilities to ask and get the answers from nature itself.”

Forest Walks’ documentation in a photobook titled Forest Tunes- The Library, The Photography & Eco-art Center, 2008| Forest Walks by Shai Zakai | STIRworld
Forest Walks’ documentation in a photobook titled Forest Tunes- The Library, The Photography & Eco-art Center, 2008 Image Credit: Courtesy of Shai Zakai

Zakai’s art practice – photography, video and public art - addresses the alternative way of thinking when it comes to ecological issues. To further dwell on it, Zakai says, “Unless we dig into the environmental issues, we cannot see the big picture, just the symptoms. It is strange to write about it for 25 more years and give lectures about it and now see the results, like corona(virus) epitome. When I investigate interference in nature or go to a place under ecological threat, I come with a set of tools, not just the ecologist, politician, historian, or an archaeologist, local clerk's tools, to name a few stakeholders, but at the same time, I come with the ecological artist's tools, with the people's interest, and the healer's eye and tools. Part of the actions is called - unseen art”.

Flags' Avenue, public art | Concrete Creek - reclamation of a stream as an artwork | Shai Zakai | STIRworld
Flags' Avenue, public art 2008 Image Credit: Courtesy of Shai Zakai

With her works, Zakai expects her audience, “…to recognise a shift in the dialogue between my inner subconscious and the collective one. Secondly, recognise my personal (and everyone else’s) power to create an environmental and social change, guard our environmental surroundings, investigate more, and do not take for granted every industry's initiatives, ask more questions. Lastly, but importantly, understand we are all a network of interconnected beings”.

When the scale of the expressions ‘on the go’ punctuate the everyday life, Zakai’s works seek a moment to pause to draw home the meaning of the inner self-aligned with the outer worlds. 

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