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Unique eco-art center to open in Israeli desert

The soon-to-be-created Art Laboratory for Future Ecologies in the desert Arava region in southern Israel was envisioned by Israeli international artist Galit Eilat.
 Hatzeva field school.

Writer and curator Galit Eilat is a busy woman. She is currently preparing the fall opening of a unique eco-art center in Israel, to be called the Art Laboratory for Future Ecologies. The center hopes to draw both local and international artists. It will deal with ecology and earth art and will serve as a platform for research, education, residency and exhibitions. More precisely, the project aims at disseminating knowledge and values of sustainability and nature protection through ecological art. It is set to be located in an already-existing structure that belongs to the Israel Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI).

The already-existing structure is a unique and groundbreaking architectural creation, constructed in the 1970s by architect Israel Goodovitch. It was commissioned to house the Hatzeva field school, including dormitories for teachers and students, classrooms, offices, a small clinic, a common dining room and even a basketball court. The architectural elements were designed in the shape of hexagons reminiscent of a beehive, integrating poetically into the desert environment. 

In a 2014 interview, Goodovitch recounted, “As soon as I was at the site in Hatzeva, I noticed that the whole area was full of saddles. The natural landscape consists of surfaces with edges falling to the ground. So I said: Here you are the Society for the Protection of Nature. I am making nature for you from concrete.”

When constructed, the complex was hailed as outstanding and received international coverage. But over the years it became partially abandoned. Currently, only a small part of it is used by instructors of the SPNI. Eilat had visited the site many years ago. Returning to Israel after several years of working in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and other countries, she decided to revive the place.

In her years in Israel and then abroad, Eilat worked on a large spectrum of art forms, always seeking to encourage collective encounters and experiences. She served as the director of the Dutch Meduza foundation, founded the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon, and curated small and big projects all across Europe and the United States. She collaborated with artists from war-torn Kosovo and was engaged in Israeli-Palestinian art projects in Ramallah. Having grown up in the southern town of Omer near Beersheba, she is no foreigner to the desert, which explains this new initiative.

Eilat told Al-Monitor, “Many people see the desert as a void where there is nothing. For me, the desert is the most amazing place where our senses are sharp and alert.”

She said that “people do not really understand what ecological art is. Western or modern perception says that everything is divided into categories. We see it in the university, where faculties are divided by disciplines, and we see it in the divide between humans and animals. Instead of divisions, ecology means seeing the whole, with a balance being created between the parts. I strive for connections, for creating art that contains, to consider our surrounding as an ecosystem, where all parts operate simultaneously. This ecosystem includes nature, art and culture."

Eilat recounts that the new center will research the culture and art of the ancient Nabataean tribes that used to live in the region. The Nabataean trade route stretches out all the way from Israel of today to Saudi Arabia, and Eilat hopes to collaborate with museums and similar eco-art centers around the world, such as one now being constructed in the desert in Abu Dhabi.

Eilat had another interesting idea. "Many of the great land-art artists, such as Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt and Ana Mendieta, did not manage to carry out all their projects and artworks. Some of these works stayed on paper only, but several museums acquired the rights to create them according to exact plans the artists left behind them," she explained. "I would like to suggest to these museums to build these unfulfilled works here in the desert."

I asked Eilat how she convinced the SPNI to turn its buildings into an art center. “When my father got sick, I came back to Israel. I rented an apartment in [the southern city of] Arad and could see the Dead Sea from my windows. I always had a fantasy about constructing an art project with the Dead Sea, but then I found out that such a project is already underway. It was at that point that I rediscovered the Hatzeva field school complex. I went there, took pictures and started asking around to whom it belonged. For a whole week, I kept calling the SPNI, hoping to talk with its CEO Iris Hanh, to expose to her my idea."

Eilat said that Hann was surprised as the SPNI has no competencies in art, but she really liked the idea. Six months later the two women signed a contract, and the project of the Art Laboratory for Future Ecologies was on its way. “The goal of this center is to promote contemporary creations while preserving nature and ecological sustainability values ​​and assimilating them into the community. And so, we have a common objective," said Eilat.

The center will be inaugurated in December with a multiparticipant international exhibition and will then undergo a two-year renovation. The beehive-like hexagon cement units were built on very fragile soil, thus without real foundations. Over the years, the structures moved and were damaged in several places. Renovation is quite a huge task.

Still, Eilat is determined to have an opening before the center becomes dormant for the period of the renovation. Momentum must be created quickly, she said. The December opening exhibition aims to dissolve the anthropocentric assumption that there is a dividing line between humans and nonhuman species. It will include artworks that adopt the perspectives of animals in the world, and works of artists who project on human relationships and the interaction of other species.

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