Israeli artist turns plastic pollution into 'Earth Poetica'

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Israeli artist turns plastic pollution into 'Earth Poetica'
In Beverly Barkat’s quest to connect people with nature, she found that environmental waste could be a powerful medium.

by Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM.- When Jerusalem artist Beverly Barkat began to create an artwork for the lobby of a building in the new World Trade Center complex overlooking ground zero in lower Manhattan in New York City, she aimed to come up with something architecturally site specific and impactful, large enough to connect with the space but not so enormous as to disconnect from the observer.

Barkat had a stark message to convey. Years earlier, she said, she had been struck by an image of children scavenging on a once-beautiful beach awash in plastic waste.

“It stayed with me,” she said. “We are suffocating Earth.”

Barkat, 55, came back to her studio in Jerusalem and began experimenting, stuffing plastic waste in various types of clear containers, seeking a way to connect people with nature and the world that is not border-oriented, not unlike the vast, floating islands — or continents — of waste plastic that form in the oceans and circulate.

Eventually, she settled on a method of casting pieces of plastic waste in crystal-clear epoxy resin. Seen from the outside, the sphere has a sort of stained-glass effect. “It went from looking like a scrunched-up plastic bag,” she said, “to something that looks like jewelry” or “something very, very expensive and precious.”

The resulting work in progress is “Earth Poetica,” an imposing sphere 4 meters in diameter, made up of metal-framed panels and an inner skeleton of bamboo segments filled with plastic. The outer surface of the globe, with its authentically proportioned continents and seas, glistens with breathtaking beauty.

But when it is viewed close-up from the inside, through a few panels that will be left open as peepholes, an ugly truth is revealed: Like the rough back of a carpet, the inner surface, which reveals the work, is a chaotic maelstrom of tufts and jagged fragments of plastic bags, bottles, fishing nets and consumer packaging.

We met at Barkat’s studio in downtown West Jerusalem over a three-week period as some of the final panels — a tip of North America, some last parts of Asia and the South Pole — were taking shape. One flank of her airy, double-story space is filled with bundles of plastic bags and other detritus.

Working over the past three years, she has accumulated plastic from around the world. When the coronavirus outbreak curtailed international travel, people who had heard about the project began sending her their plastic waste from abroad. She collects discarded fishing nets from Jaffa and other spots along Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

And the pandemic has only enhanced people’s understanding of the project. “People physically felt the concept of what I was talking about,” she said, since the virus, like plastic waste, does not respect borders.

She is by no means the first artist to work with plastic waste, and she said she had seen a lot of work by artists trying to tackle climate change and the environment. But it was important for her, she said, to create her own way of doing so.

“If I already know it, or someone else has done it, why do it?” said Barkat, who is petite and soft-spoken. “If I surprise myself then I surprise other people.”

Alongside experimenting with how the materials behaved, Barkat researched her subject using globes, Google maps, NASA imagery and photos posted online. As the project evolved, it brought together many of the various mediums and disciplines that Barkat has incorporated in her journey as an artist.

Born in Johannesburg to parents who were ceramists, she came to Jerusalem in 1976, at the age of 10, when her family took up a yearlong appointment at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. When the year was up, they decided to stay in Israel. (The original home of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1906, is across the way from her current studio.)

“My mother tongue is sculpting in clay,” she said. She went on to study jewelry design and ultimately married Nir Barkat, a childhood friend whom she began dating as a student. He went on to become the mayor of Jerusalem and is now a front-runner to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu as a future head of the conservative Likud party, making Beverly Barkat the partner of a potential prime minister.

Before entering public life, her husband was a successful high-tech entrepreneur and traveled extensively. During those years she invested more time in raising their three daughters.

She veered into architectural projects, including bringing libraries into schools, and starting at about the age of 40, embarked on three years of intensive study of drawing and painting with Israeli master Israel Hershberg. Along the way, she learned glass-blowing in the Czech Republic.

The years her husband spent in Jerusalem on the City Council and as mayor gave her the opportunity to develop her voice, all the time knowing, she said, “I have art as my anchor.”

Her husband “comes to the studio, he helps, he schleps, he climbs,” she said. “He is part of who I am as a person.” (When he was mayor, he inaugurated a garbage-recycling plant in the city, citing it as a leader of a “green revolution” in the country.)

Much of Barkat's past comes together in “Earth Poetica.” The bamboo element, inspired by a conversation in Taiwan, brings in nature and each segment is cast, or “painted,” as Barkat puts it, in a soy bean-based epoxy that she ships from Canada.

In a faithful depiction of reality, Barkat’s Pacific Ocean includes plastic garbage patches. Different shades and layers of blue and green create sea swirls and thermal changes. Much of Asia is a lush paradise. Slivers of white, turquoise and translucent plastic, some sharp, some feathery, form arctic icebergs, frozen snowcaps and glaciers.

Here and there, a logo from the plastic packaging peeps through — “Nature’s Wonders,” “100% Natural” — like ironic graffiti.

Barkat’s work has been exhibited in Israel, Italy, Taiwan, Japan and the United States. among other places. The Rome-based Nomas Foundation, an arts and research institute that examines contemporary art within the public sphere, is providing curatorial backing for “Earth Poetica.” Raffaella Frascarelli, president and scientific director of the foundation, will run workshops with the artist while the work, which the foundation also calls the Biosphere Project, is being exhibited.

Frascarelli and Barkat first met in 2018 when Barkat was exhibiting a previous project, “After the Tribes,” in Rome.

n a telephone interview, Frascarelli described Barkat as humble and shy, yet driven by a powerful artistic language and inner desire to have a part in changing the world.

“From the individual point of view, the work is a physical process, almost a performance that has been going on for three years now,” Frascarelli said of “Earth Poetica,” a work she refers to in the female form because, she said, it is “profoundly feminine and regenerative.”

At a collective level, Frascarelli said, “Earth Poetica” could also be considered a kind of self-portrait of humanity encapsulating “the individual and collective material and spiritual challenges we are facing.”

Frascarelli noted that “Earth Poetica” bears a resemblance to the Renaissance rose windows often found in cathedrals, which lends the work an air of sacredness.

Before arriving at its permanent home in New York, about a year from now, “Earth Poetica” will be installed in the Israel Aquarium in Jerusalem for at least six months starting in early February. Dedicated to the conservation of Israel’s marine habitats, the Aquarium is building an educational program for children around the artwork. There are also plans for the installation to tour.

Once the artwork is installed, it will be possible for visitors to climb up and see it from above, peek inside or sit and contemplate it. Barkat’s hope is to break down the barriers between people and nature in a way that will change perceptions and perhaps habits.

With today’s information overload, she said, the brain easily forgets. “If you see something that physically moves you, that’s what your body remembers,” she said, describing the power of art. “You need to experience it physically.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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