A Leviathan of colors: Israeli artist opens new exhibit

Meeting the eco-poetic art of Beverly Barkat, whose solo exhibition opens on Sunday.

 BEVERLY BARKAT: Plastic waste is a global issue, and must be solved globally. (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON)
BEVERLY BARKAT: Plastic waste is a global issue, and must be solved globally.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON)

Earth Poetica, a new solo exhibition by Beverly Barkat, will open on Sunday, February 6, at the Israel Aquarium. Currently being completed at Barkat’s two-floor Jerusalem studio, the impressive sphere is suspended in air among meticulously arranged heaps of various wrappers and plastic waste, all arranged according to their respective colors and functions. The 180 panels are constructed from iron, with sliced bamboo rods passing through them. The clear, glass-like material coating them is actually soy-based resin. The colors and shapes that form the continents and oceans of our world are, if you poke your head inside the globe and look, made from garbage. The crumbled or cut stained-glass-like effects are enchanting, until one considers what they are actually made from.

“A Slovenian 16-year-old sent me Greek yogurt wrappings that she picked up in the woods,” Barkat said. “I used them to form one of the plastic islands which is floating in the ocean,” that spot of Earth Poetica is named after the teenager, Iza’s Island.

Another part of the work, an underwater current, is made from a fisherman’s net. Such used nets and other discarded commercial fishing objects are routinely dumped in the sea and are the biggest cause of plastic pollution in the ocean, The Guardian reported in 2019 citing a Greenpeace report.

At this time, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches from Kuroshio to California, the Western Garbage Patch is near Japan and the Eastern Garbage Patch is near the United States. National Geographic points out that the usage of the word patch in this context is misleading, the garbage does not create a floating island of junk. It is composed of tiny bits of plastic which make the water look like cloudy soup. Most marine debris (70%), it reported, sink to the bottom of the ocean.

The usage of a real fishing net to depict sea currents is realistic (Barkat hung many maps of the world on the walls of her studio as part of her working process to ensure her work is exact) and poetic. This usage of an artistic variant of sympathetic magic, using one relatively small thing (a fishing net) to represent and transmute an extremely large thing (the plastic pollution of the oceans), is not new for Barkat, the wife of Likud MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat.

 ‘EARTH POETICA’ by Beverly Barkat. (credit: OREN BEN HAKOON) ‘EARTH POETICA’ by Beverly Barkat. (credit: OREN BEN HAKOON)

To create her 2018 work After the Tribes, presented at the Boncompagni Ludovisi Decorative Arts Museum Rome, she went to the Golan Heights to pick up basalt. She ground it with a pestle and mortar to create the paint used in the abstract painting, which in this context represents the tribe of Naphtali and its territory. If Marc Chagall used the snake motif for the stained-glass window depicting the tribe of Dan in the 1962 Chagall Windows series now on display at the Hadassah Ein Karem synagogue, Barkat used onyx for the tribe of Ephraim, not the horned bull it is usually associated with.

This shift from the visual language employed in traditional Jewish folk art is significant. From the grand stained glass windows at the Mishkan Shilo (Shilo Tabernacle memorial) synagogue, Shilo, to a cheap eight shekel print of the tribes of Israel purchased online, the tribe of Naftali is represented by a ship and the tribe of Judah by the temple, when Barkat diverges from that, what is she doing?

It’s suggested that in the making of After the Tribes, Barkat connected with the Zionist ideology of walking the land as a means of reclaiming it. The poetic, almost magical power of the gesture comes from the fact that she went there, picked the rock and ground it. It hints to the 1974 art-action Touching the Border (Negia BaGvol). Created by Pinchas Cohen Gan, four people were sent to walk, with a lead bar on which a Time article on the Jewish state was pressed, to the four borders Israel shares with its neighbors. When the four were stopped by security forces from progressing, that spot was where the bar was buried. These spots also became, poetically, the practical ends of the Promised Land.

The round shapes of each tribal artwork invokes the 2017 work Perfect Form by Filippo Berta. In it, a round shape upon the water is discovered to be the result of a collective group effort by a small band of people blowing into tubes in unison. Raffaella Frascarelli, the art curator of Earth Poetica, refers to Berta as one of the artists who is exploring the concept of living commons. In an email, she explained that what appealed to her in Barkat’s recent work was her desire to try to translate her experience into the world without making separations, partitions or distinctions, but rather expressing conjunctions and inclusions.

In that sense, if After the Tribes took on the mythical as well as the actual land of Israel, then Earth Poetica takes on the entire world and the whole of humanity. From an artist deeply focused on doing everything by herself, Barkat needed to include others to complete this project. At first, she collected garbage on her own, then she asked others like Iza to help. Soon she was explaining to customs officials why she was taking boxes full of junk home, and recruited friends and relatives to help wash, clean and sort the various items so that they could be re-used for the project.

This communal aspect is not unusual for craft-based art. For example, Danish artist Marianne Jørgensen created her 2007 anti-Iraq war piece Tank-Cozy with the help of a knitting collective and volunteers. Sarah Ross created Archisuits, special full-body wears that allow homeless people who wear them to sleep on public benches, with the help of volunteers who wore them and proved they work. Jørgensen wanted people to think about the war, Ross wanted them to consider the homeless and Barkat is thinking about our entire planet and how to get the people who have the power to save it to consider what they are doing.

“The art in the World Trade Center,” where Earth Poetica will travel to after Jerusalem, “needs to be important art,” Barkat said.

“Plastic waste is a global issue,” she said, “and must be solved globally.”

Alon Levy, the director of the Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium, Jerusalem, welcomed the artwork, noting that “since The Gottesman Family Israel Aquarium was established, we have been working to increase awareness of the damage that is taking place to the marine environment and our need to reduce the amount of waste we produce, which harms tens of thousands of marine life and animals every day.” In my own visit to the aquarium, I was struck by the limbless sea-turtles the staff looks after and presents as evidence of the harm done to sea-creatures tangled in the waste humans heap on their heads.

When Agnes Denes created Wheatfield in 1982 in Downtown Manhattan to give people a chance to reflect on our warped sense of real-estate priorities, world hunger did not end, sadly. But it would be wrong to view environmentalist art in such terms. Earth Poetica is powerful and took hard work to realize. Like Revival Field by Mel Chin, which uses hyperaccumulators (plants that accumulate particular metals or metalloids in their living tissues) to clean tainted soil, the efforts to ensure human life on this planet continues just a little bit longer is still ongoing. Now, Israelis can do their part too, thanks to Barkat.