Shai Zakai – Forest Tunes – The Library

Past Exhibition

03.11.2005 - 16.12.2005

On The Dialectics of Man and Nature
by Prof. Moshe Zuckermann

One of the clearest expressions of the repressive foundation of the human condition (conditio humana) is embodied in the ways human civilization appears in natural surroundings, and, more generally speaking, in man’s control over nature.  This problem is one of the key issues of modern thought in its entirety, an issue that reached its most compact and polished formulation in Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis, “Dialectic of Enlightenment.”  Man’s control over nature, it is argued,  has always been a necessary condition for the existence of civilization anywhere, civilization itself being essential for the liberation of humankind from the threat of natural disaster and from inexorable dependence upon nature.   Biblical myth relates to this in the story of the banishment from the Garden of Eden, banishment from a situation devoid of oppressive control, characterized by the harmonious integration of humankind with nature, to a situation in which the human being becomes lord of the land, but at the price of enslavement to arduous toil: only by the sweat of his brow shall he eat bread.  In this matter, the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” converges into a fundamental trans-historical argument having three dimensions: mankind’s possessive mastery of the natural surroundings has been dependent since ancient days upon man’s control of his own inner nature, a control that necessarily brought with it man’s subjugation of his fellow man.  It is this inherent connection between human control over nature as the basis of his mastery of self and his domineering control over the Other that reveals oppression as a substantive dimension in the process of civilization, and in so doing reveals the institutions of civilizations to be expressions of the oppression embodied within human practice, and in particular, in the human practice that leaves its mark on nature.

Shai Zakai is the Israeli artist par excellence whose creative oeuvre in recent years has been devoted almost entirely to wrestling with the history of this complex and problematic relationship between nature and civilization, a relationship that has developed during the last few decades into a worldwide critical discourse about what is referred to as “the severe ecological problem” (some call it the “ecological holocaust”) now confronting human civilization.  Her present exhibition is composed of several artistic works that vary in character, although not in their objective: a large installation of shelves on which are placed about one hundred boxes with leaves and branches of plants accompanied by short texts.  There are large photographs of forest, a silver print on metal, a video-art work lasting 4½ minutes that keeps repeating and constitutes the “sound track” of the exhibition, and also copies of Zakai’s “artist’s notebook.”  The intent of the exhibition – primarily conceptual – is a general attempt to transmit a message that is not unfamiliar in many non-artistic discourses.  After all, the ecological discourse is among the most widespread and influential throughout the world in recent years.  Less well-known, on the other hand, is ecological art, of which Shai Zakai is one of the pioneer protagonists on an international level.  The reason for this can be two-fold.  First, it may be that art is not the most suitable medium for advancing ecological matters which inherently encompass political, social, and economic interests of such weight that instrumental reason (or alternatively, the moral-practical discussion of the problem) has taken over all the relevant discursive space.  Second, the question arises whether unique means of artistic expression have been created in regard to ecology for the ecological discourse.  This is not an inconsequential matter, since non-artistic ecological discourse is itself replete with so many bravura activities and theatrical acts that attract the media that one may wonder as to the status of art in this militant-activist discourse.

And indeed the art of Shai Zakai extends to varied and diverse artistic diapasons.   With a decidedly inquisitive basis, she combines data storage, collection, lexical organization, and experiential concreteness, embodied in the installation of shelves with its profusion of boxes containing an impressive quantity of lifeless natural items along with documentation of the ecological contextual dimension of the item (and the civilizational disturbance that made it problematic), additional details (date, place, and the like), but also, and no less important, words of personal interpretation in the realm of experiential subjectivity – a kind of emotional counterpoint to the dry practicality of the act of documentation.