Daniel Rothbart has a thing for water and with good reason. Water can be many things. But one thing is undeniable: life here on Terra firma is unsustainable without it.
We can happily wash our cars, hose down the pavement in front of our house or shop, and water our lawns and other vegetation that really shouldn’t be growing here in the dry Middle East, but we simply cannot survive without the precious liquid that accounts for about 60% of the human body mass.
57-year-old Jewish-American multidisciplinary artist Rothbart expresses his respect for water in his inimitable way in RamleAnthropocene the installation, currently open to the public at the underground venue steeped in history, Pool of the Arches in Ramle, under the auspices of the Ramle Contemporary Art Center (CACR) and curator Dr. Smadar Sheffi.
There is often a significant thought-provoking subtext in Rothbart’s work, which has stretched this way and that in subject, style and discipline over the past three-plus decades. Water has often appeared along the way, as have other components of this planet’s fragile ecology. His installation creations have appeared in bodies of water across the globe, with the raw material often consisting of whimsical glass and aluminum sculptures.
A few years ago, he learned about Arch Basin by researching ancient reservoirs online. RamleAnthropocene is the culmination of three years of research – and the development of artworks that feed into the history, dynamics and unique aesthetics of the 1,200-year-old former cistern.
Rothbart has many previous aquatic artistic endeavors. A large-scale thematic exploration saw him submerge some of the artefacts that appear in Ramle’s work at a site near his home in New York. Water Clocks: A floating sculptural installation on the Hudson River featured aluminum arabesques that swirled almost amorphously around glass spheres that he caught in his hoops, creating a meandering affair that constantly changed shape with the currents of the bifurcating river.
Rothbart has a portfolio of unorthodox water works
It and a number of other water-related works, among other things, were created to draw attention to burning ecological issues and try to connect us to the evolutionary continuum here on Earth. The strange-looking forms created by Rothbart for this occasion also allude to the distant prehistoric past and provide an opportunity to ask questions about where we come from and where we are going.
Creations seem to be out of step with the actual dynamics of life. In an age of digital communications and multiple television channels, our attention spans are increasingly fading and our ability to focus on an image, especially one that doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere interesting or exciting, for more more than a minute or two. is severely challenged.
In Air de Venise, which Rothbart put together for the famous Italian seaside town in 2015, nothing terrible seems to be happening. The now-familiar composite of aluminum and glass is just there, semi-floating on the northwestern edge of the Adriatic Sea, not doing much. It is the same in Ramle. But if we can catch our breath and let our pulse relax a little before we head off for another breaking news or social media article, we might find ourselves thinking about strange-looking shapes, what they’re doing there, and how they got there.
The latter is not only a geographical issue. There is also an important timeline here. Morphological aesthetics suggest some distant time when the Earth was inhabited by very different life forms. Chronological and geographical continuities are strongly referenced in RamleAnthropocene, such as the stage we are currently in in terms of how human intervention is affecting the world around us. This is front and center in the “Anthropocene” part of the work’s title, referring to the current era in which human activity has become the dominant influence on the climate and environment.
Rothbart is seeking to connect the scattered dots across the ecological and human scene in more ways than one. This duly informed his choice of physical base material, which, he says, includes flotsam that was torn from nets in the Sea of Japan and carried by tides, currents and storms onto beaches on the West Coast of the United States. Glass floats were all used by Japanese fisheries.
This suits the water theme and substance. After all, if it is unobstructed, water flows in every direction and will eventually find its way to the next stop on its continuous fluid journey. Of course, the water in Ramle’s cistern isn’t going anywhere, but as Rothbart and I make the short but delightful circuit around the vaulted, pillared pool, I get a sense of continuity and that somehow the coiled water of cistern is really united by an umbilical connection with all water bodies, worldwide. This is a fascinating idea that implies a sense of unity, but also of a shared destiny – for better or worse – and that we really need to get our collective act together if the planet is to survive as a habitable entity.
This, as Rothbart sees it, has particular significance in our Middle Eastern home. As we have made aliyah in our millions, we have worked feverishly to adapt the physical extent of the land in order to accommodate the increasing growth of the local population. David Ben-Gurion famously spoke of “making the desert bloom.” This was a tempting prospect as the Zionist state flourished, but the ecological aspects of imposing unnatural conditions on Mother Nature and adapting her to our modern human demands have undeniable consequences.
Rothbart also dives immersively into historical, traditional, and mystical climes. “[The raw materials of the installation] are associated with the glass industry that was prevalent during Muslim rule in Eretz, Israel. From that time many glass vessels were found in Ramle. The glass balls are bound together, evoking broad associations from marine life and the Kabbalistic sephiroth,” he explains.
of RamleAnthropocene The sensory spread also includes textual elements with some poets reciting from their own works and other works – in Hebrew, Arabic, Italian and English – focusing on relevant natural subject matter. The cast of the poetry presentation – displayed on a cistern wall – includes Israeli poet Agi Mishol, Ben-Gurion University lecturer Marwa Saabni reading “To a Cloud” by the late Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein; American art critic and writer Carter Ratcliff; and fellow poet, critic and curator Richard Milazzo.
RamleAnthropocene it is simultaneously a powerful, poignant, yet soothing work that calls for contemplation and action.
RamleAnthropocene closes in October 2024. For more information: en.goramla.com/