Savyon, Israel 2001-02, 2005


An extended project, over the course of many months, in the remnants of an old olive grove, now the backyard of a suburban home outside Tel Aviv. Activities include treatment of the trees (such as knitting sweater around the trunk, covering bark with chicken soup powder), taking rubbings from bark, and more direct actions on the site.
The political, the cultural and the historical issues, musings on land, entitlement, justice, along with personal and ecological concerns, all exist as a context/backdrop to the multiple activities.

The project produced performance documentation, several video shorts, a photograph series, drawings, and sketchbooks, and an artist’s book/catalogue.
*(available through  artist or through Vtape (

An exhibition of the project took place at the Artists’ House, Tel Aviv, 2005.

"Backyard with Olive Grove", a conversation with Lezli Rubin-Kunda
Meirav Shen Ben-Alon in conversation with Lezli Rubin-Kunda
*(included in artist's book in Hebrew and English)
Meirav Shen Ben-Alon: Several years ago you launched a project which consisted of a series of activities carried out in the backyard of a home in a suburban town near Tel Aviv. The activities took place over an extended period of time and yet were never presented before an audience. Why did you decide to work in this specific yard?

Lezli Rubin-Kunda: The yard is a strange combination of two elements - a large expanse of green lawn and within it, olive trees that are the remnants of an old olive grove. The house, built in the early 60's in the style typical of the time, stands with its back to the yard, and the life of the house unfolds with little connection to the yard.

M: What interested you in this disconnection?

L: The yard, which belongs to my husband's family, is a kind of microcosm of the conflicting realities here, a juxtaposition of different worlds, represented by the original olive grove and the western-style suburban lawn. I felt a need to actively engage with this dichotomy, to understand my connection to it. To look at what is taken for granted and what remains unresolved.

M: The work was carried out between the fall of 2001 and the summer of 2002. Did the beginning of the Intifada in October of 2001 influence the timing of the work?

L: The project had been ripening for a long time. The outbreak of the Intifada was not the determining factor, but the difficult events crystallized and brought into sharper focus some of the issues with which I had been engaged. I do not see this as a political work; it's not a declaration of any particular position but rather the expression of an inner necessity to clarify for myself my relation to the yard. While carrying out the simple tasks at the site, I conducted an inner dialogue on the gnarled questions and conflicting notions of history, justice, ownership; not through observation but through physical engagement.

M: It seems to me that only someone who did not grow up here would see in this juxtaposition of olive groves and lawn something out of the ordinary. Do you think that your particular perspective and the search for a connection stems from the fact that you did not grow up here?

L: My involvement with questions of land and a sense of place didn't begin with my arrival in Israel in 1989. Growing up in Canada, exposed to the lakes and forests of Northern Ontario, I was already conscious of the complexity that existed for me in issues of land and culture, questions of my sense of entitlement -- as part of a culture of 'new Canadians' with Eastern European Jewish roots -- to this wilderness. And just as this grove is the remnant of an Arab village which itself is built on the remains of earlier settlements, there too there is a history of earlier inhabitants.

M: What was the first action that you performed in the yard?

L: I bought red wool and began to knit a sweater for one of the trees. I stood over the course of many hours, in the sun and in the rain, and knit directly onto the tree. Knitting is a mechanical and repetitive activity that leaves the mind free for reflection.

M: Knitting also contains within it empathy and care. As if the tree was a living body, a live being.

L: This was my way of nurturing the tree, just as farmers take care of their trees. The sweater connected the interior life of the house to the outside. Coming from a cold country, knitting sweaters is also a link to my childhood and my mother. And to my mother-in-law, and to the whole generation of knitting mothers.

M: After this work, you continued with other kinds of actions. Did you have an overall plan or did one thing lead to another?

L: After I had knit one sweater I felt that I had had enough of that particular activity. But I did feel strongly that I wanted to continue to work in the yard. I looked for different ways to relate the house to the yard, the inside to the outside world. In one instance, I took chicken soup powder from my mother-in-law's kitchen. This familiar homey substance, used here extensively for cooking, is in fact almost completely synthetic. I then bought industrial quantities of the powder and proceeded to cover the tree until its contours began to change, until the powder was choking the tree.

M: Domestic activity, like familial relations, can shift from care to suffocation. Are you trying to warn us of the over-consumption of chicken soup, or, in other words, of the excessive care of the Jewish mother?

L: An interesting point, but actually what interested me here was the ecological perspective: materials that are understood as domestic, motherly, providing nourishment and care, yet in fact have become removed from their original natural source. In other activities, I used white flour and white bread, also common, basic food substances that have become over-refined and raise questions about the meaning of the concept 'natural' in our relation to the environment. In fact, like the lawn, even the olive grove, is ultimately not 'natural'.

M: Your practice is very tied to nature and natural materials. How did this connection develop?

L: My desire for contact with the natural world is deeply ingrained, through formative childhood experiences. I grew up exposed to and overwhelmed by the pristine, seemingly endless wilderness of Canada. I was also influenced, in my youth, by the 'back to the land' movement of the early seventies; but for me that outlook was too narrow and unrealistic. With time I saw that even nature that is more confined and cultivated, that is distanced from that primal wildness, is still 'nature' in which organic processes of disintegration and renewal occur. In my work I enter into that cycle and these become my materials.

M: Some of the actions you performed with the olive trees seem peculiar or even violent.

L: I'm not interested in violent acts per se. I am looking for points of contact between the materials and my body. It is this bodily involvement that sometimes leads to situations that may appear extreme, but are really more absurd than violent -- for instance, swinging through the night in a chair hung precariously from a tree. Although I am attracted to 'body' artists, like Marina Abramovic, who take their art to extremes, I don't feel that going to extremes is the essence of my own practice.
In another work, I took linens, kids' clothing and water bottles from the house, and placed them in the crook of a tree branch. I created a kind of storehouse or temporary shelter there. The fact that this action too was carried out in the middle of the night enhanced for me the feeling of flight, of taking refuge.

M: Where does all this lead? Or, in other words, what do you consider to be the product of your art-making?

L: While I express myself in different mediums such as installation, performance, video or photography, the activity in a specific place is the kernel from which the other works grow. This book itself, with its endless revisions in the process of preparing it, is a form of activity, and not primarily a product, which is why I chose to leave it in an unfinished, untidy format.

M: To what exactly do you refer when you use the term 'activity'?

L: The activitybegins by being present, inhabiting a place and entering into a dialogue with it. Some of the activities are planned ahead of time and some develop spontaneously out of this interaction. The activity is investigation, experience, play. It is a framework within which I can allow myself the freedom and space to be attentive and responsive to the environment in any way that arises.

M: You have participated in quite a number of projects in Israel and abroad that incorporate site-specific performances.

L: True, I am attracted to this kind of work. For example, in a work I did in Germany in 2000, 18 Short Ceremonies for a Building of Emptied Rooms, the site was an abandoned building in a military camp in Potsdam (near West Berlin). I gathered materials from the site and from the surrounding woods and created performances in the different rooms, referring both to the site's dark past and my own presence as a witness. In other works, I use local materials to speak to a more general relationship of body and environment. In a collaborative work called Branching (performed in gallery settings in San Francisco and San Jose, California), I tied branches to my forearms which acted as extensions of my limbs. Pencils tied to the tips of the branches created a drawing as I dragged my arms along the walls.

M: The manner in which the image fuses with the bodily act becomes the heart of the matter for you. Nature, body and drawing become one unit.

L: Sometimes that's the case. In some of the performance activities that I did in the olive grove I was trying to find a place for myself, points of contact or of equilibrium, using whatever materials presented themselves -- a wide rubber band, a plastic chair from the garden.

M: In the work you did for the exhibition Home Sick which took place in a studio building on Herzl Street in Tel Aviv in the fall of 2004, you chose to plant trees in the stairwell. It seems that in this case, rather than bringing the house outside, to the yard, you were in fact trying to bring the trees into the interior space.

L: I called the work Reforestation, a term which refers to the kind of planned forestation carried out by the Keren Kayemet (The Israel Land Fund). I began the piece after returning from a summer visit to Canada. Working in the sweltering heat in the disintegrating stairwell of a building situated on a street that carries so much historical significance from the beginning of the Jewish settlement and the founding of Tel Aviv felt like a sort of desperate and comical action. Here I planted the miniature fir trees and brought in the sound of the calling of the Canadian loons. I colored in the cracks in the peeling walls with deep blue, transforming the walls into maps of lakes and rivers from the canoe country of northern Ontario. An attempt to somehow bring together the two kinds of forests, the different worlds I am a part of.

M: In the olive grove at some point you tied the olive trees to one of the columns of the house. Was the column anchoring the trees or did you hope to cause the house to stop turning its back on them? Metaphorically, to fuse the two worlds?

L: I would like the house to become more relevant to the trees and the trees to the house. And I would hope that 'home' could contain the disparate and conflicting elements of living here, and of my own life in this place.