JERUSALEM — When Jerusalem artist Beverly Barkat began creating artwork for the lobby of a building in the new World Trade Center complex overlooking Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, she wanted to come up with something architecturally site-specific and impactful, large enough to connect. to do with space, but not so huge that the connection with the observer is broken.
Barkat had a grim message to deliver. Years earlier, she said, she had been struck by an image of children searching for a once-beautiful beach overrun with plastic waste.
“I remember it,” she said. “We are suffocating the earth.”
Barkat, 55, came back to her studio in Jerusalem and started experimenting, stuffing plastic waste into various kinds of clear containers, looking for a way to connect people with nature and the world that is not border-oriented, unlike the vast , floating islands – or continents – of waste plastic that forms and circulates in the oceans.
Finally she came up with a method of casting pieces of plastic waste in crystal clear epoxy resin. Seen from the outside, the sphere has a kind of stained glass effect. “It went from a crumpled 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 with a diameter of four meters, composed 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 viewed closely from the inside, through a pair of panels that will remain open like peepholes, an ugly truth is revealed: Like the rough back of a carpet, the inner surface revealing 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 central West Jerusalem over a three-week period as some of the final panels—a tip of North America, some final parts of Asia, and the South Pole—were taking shape. One side of her airy, double-storey space is filled with bundles of plastic bags and other waste.
She has been collecting plastic from all over the world for the past three years. When the coronavirus outbreak hampered international travel, people who had heard of the project started sending her plastic waste from abroad. She collects discarded fishing nets from Jaffa and other places along Israel’s Mediterranean coast.
And the pandemic has only increased people’s understanding of the project. “People physically felt the concept of what I was talking about,” she said, because like plastic waste, the virus doesn’t respect any boundaries.
She’s certainly not the first artist to work with plastic waste, and she said she’s seen a lot of work by artists trying to tackle climate change and the environment. But it was important to her, she said, to create her own way of doing it.
“If I already know, or someone else has done it, why should I do it?” said Barkat, who is small and gentle. “When I surprise myself, I surprise other people.”
In addition to 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 different media and disciplines that Barkat has included 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 a one-year tenure 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 opposite her current studio.)
“My native language is clay sculpting,” Barkat said. She went on to study jewelry design and eventually married Nir Barkat, a childhood friend who she began dating as a student. He became mayor of Jerusalem and is now a frontrunner to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu as the 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. In those years, she invested more time in raising their three daughters.
She threw herself into architectural projects, including bringing libraries to schools, and, at about the age of 40, began three years of intensive study of drawing and painting with the Israeli master Israel Hershberg. Along the way, she learned glassblowing in the Czech Republic.
Her husband’s years in Jerusalem on the city council and as mayor gave her the opportunity to develop her voice, always 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.” (While he was mayor, he opened a waste recycling plant in the city and called it a leader of a “green revolution” in the country.)
Much of her past comes together in ‘Earth Poetica’. Inspired by a conversation in Taiwan, the bamboo element brings nature inside, and each segment is molded, or “painted,” as Barkat puts it, in a soybean-based epoxy she ships from Canada.
In a faithful representation of reality, Barkat’s Pacific Ocean contains plastic waste patches. Different shades and layers of blue and green create sea eddies and thermal changes. Much of Asia is a lush paradise. Chips of white, turquoise and translucent plastic, some sharp, some feathered, form arctic icebergs, frozen snow caps and glaciers.
Here and there a logo from the plastic packaging peeks 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 others. The Rome-based Nomas Foundation, an art and research institute that researches contemporary art in the public sphere, provides curatorial support for ‘Earth Poetica’. The foundation’s president and scientific director, Raffaella Frascarelli, will conduct workshops with the artist while displaying the work, which the foundation calls the Biosphere Project.
Frascarelli and Barkat first met in 2018 when Barkat exhibited a previous project, “After the Tribes”, in Rome.
In a telephone interview, Frascarelli described Barkat as humble and shy, but driven by a powerful artistic language and an inner desire to play 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 feminine form because, she said, it is “deeply feminine and regenerative.”
On a collective level, Frascarelli said, “Earth Poetica” can also be considered a kind of self-portrait of humanity that encapsulates “the individual and collective material and spiritual challenges we face.”
Frascarelli noted that “Earth Poetica” bears a resemblance to the Renaissance rose windows often found in cathedrals, giving the work an air of sanctity.
Before arriving at its permanent home in New York in about a year, “Earth Poetica” will be installed at the Israel Aquarium in Jerusalem for at least six months beginning in early February. Dedicated to preserving Israel’s marine habitats, the Aquarium is building an educational program for children around the artwork. There are also plans to tour the installation.
Once the artwork is installed, visitors can climb up and view it from above, peek inside, or sit and contemplate. Barkat’s hope is to break down the barriers between humans and nature in a way that will change perceptions and perhaps habits.
With today’s information overload, she said, the brain forgets easily. “When you see something that moves you physically, your body remembers it,” she said, describing the power of art. “You have to experience it physically.”