Feature Article

Human Nature

At Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, prominent Yemen-born, London-based artist Zadok Ben-David brings optimism and hope to environmental challenges.

Zadok Ben-David

Speaking from London in the lead up to his arrival in Perth for his show Human Nature at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery as part of Perth Festival, Zadok Ben-David bemoans the snow and murky weather. “It’s just so cold here, so I’m looking forward to your summer. I love the Indian Ocean and the sunsets you have there. They’re just incredible,” he says.

Ben-David first visited Perth early last year, exhibiting his five-metre figurative work, Big Boy at Sculpture by the Sea in Cottesloe. He is swapping the outdoors for gallery space this year, with two astonishingly labour-intensive works, The Other Side of Midnight and Blackfield. Nonetheless, sand is set to follow him to his show at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

Blackfield, Ben-David says, is an ongoing installation. It was first shown in London in 2006, at which time it consisted of 3,000 miniature plants crafted from paper-thin stainless steel. “It then toured around the world to several continents, and it’s still touring,” he says. When the work is exhibited in Perth at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Blackfield will include a field of 27,000 individually-painted stainless-steel plants, standing erect on a bed of white sand.

Blackfield, hand painted stainless steel, 2010 by Zadok Ben-David at Verso Arte Contemporanea, Turin, Italy. Photo courtesy Verso Arte Contemporanea.

More than 900 different species of plants are represented in Blackfield, all painted colourfully on one side, and black on the other. Ben-David intends viewers to move around the gallery space and experience the transformation from optimistically colourful to gloomily pessimistic. “It has a mood of burning fields, darkness and destruction, moving to something with joy and optimism.” He says the work is not about the botanical aspect of the flowers, but more about the human psyche. “The transformation from one extreme to another quite often affects the spectator in an emotional way, particularly if they have had tragedies in their lives. I first noticed this in 2008 in Sydney, at an early stage of the installation, when I only had about 6,000 flowers, and saw people in tears. Earlier when I showed it in Portugal in 2007, it struck a chord due to recent destructive fires there. The Mayoress who opened the show said the work reminded her that rain would surely follow in winter, and in spring a few new plants would start growing within the blackness. It was such a very beautiful and poetic speech I still remember it, ten years later.”

Ben-David was still contemplating the configuration of Blackfield in Perth, such as whether it will be circular or rectangular in shape. It is estimated about 20 art students will be required to assist in the installation, expected to take from seven to ten days.

The Other Side of Midnight, detail, hand painted stainless steel, 2013 by Zadok Ben-David at the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Astana. Photo Kramchaninov Gleb.

Born in Yemen in 1949, Ben-David’s family migrated to Israel the same year. He graduated in advanced sculpture from St Martin’s School of Art in London and later spent five years teaching there. In 1988 he represented Israel in the Venice Biennale, and in 2005, he was awarded the Tel-Aviv Museum Sculpture Prize, as well as the first prize in the Biennale International de Arte de Vila Nova de Cerveira, Portugal in 2007. In 2008, he was commissioned to create a sculptural work for the Beijing Olympics. Though London-based, Ben-David divides his time between the UK, Israel and Portugal - where he spends part of the year creating large-scale works.

The Other Side of Midnight, also on show at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, employs similar techniques to Blackfield. Both are inspired by Victorian-era botanical illustrations, which were painstakingly copied onto paper with the use of a magnifying glass, and transferred to stainless-steel sheets. The Other Side of Midnight takes the form of an illuminated, three-metre orb suspended in a darkened gallery space. One side consists of brightly coloured butterflies, the other of cockroaches and beetles in muted colours. Ben-David says the butterflies are a metaphor for aspects of human attitudes towards nature. “It’s a line going through all my work, which is figurative - but not figurative in a conventional way. The Other Side of Midnight is about how we treat beauty. We are attracted to something beautiful - like butterflies, yet are repelled by, and find ourselves disgusted with, insects such as cockroaches and beetles. One thing we tend to forget is that if we take the wings off the wings of butterflies, we are left, essentially, with an insect. If all insects had beautiful wings, there would be people trying to catch them as well.”

Blackfield, detail, hand-painted stainless steel, 2008 by Zadok Ben-David. Photo Rana Regum.

When viewers examine the work closely, they will observe a more poignant facet: the thousands of butterflies have human instead of insect bodies. Could we, too, be the subject of mass decimation if we had beautiful wings - and displayed, trophy-style, behind glass? In both works, Ben-David reminds us nature, in all its forms, is indeed beautiful, and has the resilience to renew in the face of disaster - just as we humans can. “I am happy if the works affect people in a positive way,” he says. “As an artist, you create work from your own perspective, but with time it finds more meaning.”

Before we finish our chat, Ben-David mentions that the ongoing aspect of Blackfield has meant an ongoing conversation with the public in numerous countries for more than ten years. As a regular exhibitor in Israel, his work was already known, but struck a chord with the war-torn population when it was exhibited at the Tel-Aviv Museum some eight years ago, breaking all records for attendance. “There were queues for three to four hours, so it was heartwarming to see so many people there who would never usually go to a museum,” he says. “People came from all over the country to see it.”

Human Nature by Zadok Ben-David is on show at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery from 10 Feb until 21 April.

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