The Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth and known for its high concentration of salt, has inspired an array of artists. Sigalit Landau submerged a fishing net into the Dead Sea, left it there for several months and exhibited the ensuing salt-encrusted object as part of her presentation in the Israeli Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Her fascination with its natural resources has also led to her submerging objects like a violin, trainers and a black Hasidic garment that was transformed into what resembled a salt-layered bridal dress.
Meanwhile, British artist Simon Starling cast a canoe in magnesium extracted from the Dead Sea, which borders Jordan, Israel and the occupied West Bank, and had the intention of crossing the Dead Sea in the boat, titled 'Project for a Crossing (2015/2016)'.
Another creative to use the Dead Sea and its salt is the Israeli designer Erez Nevi Pana. Much like Landau, he decided to dip three side tables – made from discarded materials recuperated from a carpenter's trash bin – into the Dead Sea and observe on a weekly basis how they became crystallised with salt.
“The objects grew slowly and when I got the result I searched for, I pulled them out of the water,” Pana says. The stools are the first pieces in his ongoing 'Bleached' series and form part of his exhibition, 'Consciousness' at Friedman Benda Project Space in New York.
Pana views the salt-embellished stools as being “a beautiful collaboration between myself and nature”. As he says, “I keep discovering new possibilities with every single 'Bleached' object I create and my relationship with the sea is stronger. I learn a lot about myself and respecting nature, and the difference between a collaboration with nature and its exploitation.”
Bleached. Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Erez Nevi Pana. Photography by Claudia Rothkagel.
But do the pieces constitute “a collaboration with nature”, or is the Dead Sea being harnessed to fulfill artistic ambition so that objects can be showcased in an upmarket gallery? It seems that the two intertwine. Pana won the innovation award in the second edtiion of PETA Vegan Homeware Awards 2018, which commended his use of vegan materials, including salt, soil, and clay, and his unique “unconventional creations” that were presented during Milan design week.
Pana explains that he wanted to “bring a statement regarding the state of the Dead Sea today” through the 'Bleached' project. “This made me think of other life forms that live underwater, which resulted with the concept of the bleached corals that implies their death. [...] We are in a specific point in time in which the Dead Sea is exploited but I'm sure the next generations will overcome this as the solutions are getting clear now." Asked about what the project expresses about the politics of the Dead Sea, Pana replies, "I’m not interested in politics or borders. I’m spreading a message of unity and oneness. We named my solo show at Friedman Benda 'Consciousness' as it unifies us all.'
Pana's interest in using salt from the Dead Sea harks back to 2012 during his student days. After earning a BA in Design from the Holon Institute of Technology in Israel, he attained an MA from the Design Academy Eindhoven. It was while on holiday in Israel that he saw “a white mountain in between the brown dunes of neglected salt, which is a byproduct of the manic production of potash and bromine.”
For his graduation project, 'Recrystallizing the Desert', Pana made a series of tiles and blocks from 100% pure molten sea salt resembling an architectural surface. The project was included in his 2016 exhibition, 'Beating Salts - Salt Design Lab' at Design Museum Holon, which acquired three of his objects for its collection.
“I interviewed Sigalit Landau for my thesis project; she was so kind, powerful and inspiring – I love, love her work and speak about her in most of the lectures I give around the world,” Pana says. “As a designer, my work is always related to problem-solving and a specific question: 'What can you do with 20 million tons of salt every year?'”
Born in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish city Bnei Brak, east of Tel Aviv, Pana spent much of his childhood in his parents' plant nursery, which he describes as “a green bubble in the middle of an industrial area”. His early experiments building structures on trees and furnishing them led him to design a bench inspired by Jurgen Bey's 'Tree-trunk bench' (1999).
Pana takes a holistic approach to life and design, an ecological concern driving his practice. Also included in the Friedman Benda show are pieces from his 'Wasted' series – darkened, amorphous sculptures which developed from a trip to India. After collecting his own rubbish in India in his travel bag, Pana worked with local crafts and artisans on weaving cotton and rubbish in Rajasthan and making basket-weaving around a mould made from rubbish.
Wasted. Courtesy of Friedman Benda and Erez Nevi Pana. Photography by Daniel Kukla
Whilst in India, Pana began another project, 'Ahimsa', which embodies a reflection on the silk industry. In contrast to how silk worms are usually boiled alive inside their cocoon, for his 'Ahimsa' pieces Pana allowed the moth to hatch from the cocoon and produced yarn from the cocoon when it was empty. This “vegan yarn”, as he calls it, was then woven together with unravelled baskets that had been used in the usual process of growing silkworms in order to create hanging textile pieces.
“My fascination with textiles is related to my ancestors who had a textile factory in the Middle East, while trading yarns with the Indian village NabiPana which is the origin of my last name,” Pana explains. Indeed, Pana draws on this ancestral history in his manner of collaborating with artisans and experimenting with materials, whether it's silk, trash or salt from the Dead Sea.