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The Olive Story 1998, 2011

Olive trees are deep-rooted in the surrounding landscape and olives are a genuine element in the culinary habits of this area. The olive branch is an abstract symbol of peace and in time of conflicts, olive trees are uprooted and their harvest often violently hindered. The Olive Story  is a body of work done over the years 1998-2011.

Having previously created artworks with natural elements such as honey, earth, water, air, beehives and milk powder, I decided to use large amount of olives in 1998 for a project at the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art.

This sudden desire to use olives was triggered by a buried memory that reemerged from the depths of my subconscious. A memory linked to the first year of my arrival in Israel as a young student and to that of my first war trauma embodied in the First Lebanon War. In the summer of 1982, a student at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem with a minimal knowledge of Hebrew, the complexity of the conflict escaped me, but the war was a gruesome reality with soldiers of my age dying.

That summer I volunteered at the Kibbutz Beit Hashita where the rough physical work at the olive factory helped me forget the war. Motivated by this sudden recollection, I decided 17 years later to pay a visit to the olive factory. It had changed a lot, no more manual work under the burning. During my visit, I learned that the factory was exporting olives to the US in black plastic barrels. I decided to create an installation entitled ‘Correspondence’ with barrels filled up with thousands of olive pits lightened by a red dim light.

A year later during my pregnancy in 1999, I turned my gaze towards the enclosed space of the barrel, using this time my camera to grasp the essence of these red olive landscapes in the confined territory delimited by the barrel. And as all distinctions between inner/outer, micro/macro, origin/end, implosion/explosion, linear time/cosmic time, finite/infinite, collapsed, my gaze became a vehicle recording those images occurring in that confined territory delimited by the barrel. ‘Core’ was exhibited in a photo installation at the Noga Art Gallery in Tel Aviv in 2000, where I fragmented the space of the gallery with Plaster walls, inducing the viewer to stroll within the interconnected spaces.

In ‘Hidden Maps,’ tiny pictures of these olive landscapes were cut and inserted within the holes of plastics sheets, creating a link between different kinds of landscapes. This work linked together the olive landscapes and hidden roads of Jerusalem’s cartographic maps.

In the short video entitled ‘The Gaze’ created in 2002, the video shows on a double screen a motionless olive topographic landscapes suddenly coming alive thanks to the red bulb moving inside the barrel. Hovering above these olive landscapes, locked within a round circle, a single eye that becomes the manifestation of a disembodied monocular vision staring at the viewer.

In 2003 I created five ‘camera obscura’ using lids of black plastic olive barrels. At the time I was photographing the beginning of the construction around Jerusalem of the security wall. Viewers peeping through a hole inside the lids could see Palestinians villages behind barbed wires lightened in a dim red light. The lids of the olive barrels from the kibbutz of Beit Hashita, previously used in ‘Correspondence’ to view olive landscapes, now framed the sharp reality of the conflict brought about by the Second Intifada. Five years later, in December 2007, I replaced the pictures with those of a Palestinian family harvesting olive trees not far from the fence in a village called Deir El Gusun situated not far Tulkarm, in the West Bank. The combination of these pictures and the barrel lids from the Israeli Kibbutz was a way to merge within an artwork two separate worlds.

In 2004 and in 2006, I created installation works with blackened olive pits. Both the ‘Behind the Wall’ (2004) and ‘Still Life (2006) were undoubtedly the outcome to my photographic assignments as a freelance news photographer witnessing the violence of the second Intifada. In August 2006, a few days before the cease-fire of the Second Lebanon War, I strolled through a burned olive orchard, stopping in front of an olive tree ripped apart by a missile fired from Lebanon.

‘Behind the Wall’ is a personal metaphor for a landscape that had forever lost its innocence, leaving no place for romantic and picturesque feelings. It relates to a Holy Land that has become a Border Land, a land of geographic, military and cultural borders. For that purpose I created an installation behind temporary partition walls, relinquishing the main exhibition space using pits turned black, vestiges of yearly wars over olive harvests. In ‘Still Life’ (2006), the black olive barrels were now sliced up, pouring out black olive pits onto the floor. While ‘Correspondence’ gathered sensuous red olive landscapes within round barrels, now the olives black pits leaked out from black and red wounded bellies.

In July 2011 I carried a performance at the Hizma checkpoint located at the North-Eastern entrance of Jerusalem. There I bandaged a dead olive tree that had been uprooted and replanted to beautify the walled landscape but had not survived his dreary environment. The performance and the video ‘The Olive Tree‘ work I create was part of Sisyphean acts of ‘healing’ a wounded landscape.

Ariane Littman