Jane Burton Taylor
Several years ago I was travelling in the region of Puglia, in the south of Italy, to visit friends. I had been interested for a while in the olive groves of the region, and how their close plantings - made closer the older the trees were - formed a curious, combined natural and man-made landscape, a kind of human-made forest. To me they seemed an archetypal landscape, one with strong mythic and Christian overtones. In the Jewish Cabbala, for example, the olive represents the grist for the mill of life; the olive’s transformation into oil representing the potential turning of tough life experiences into wisdom, productiveness and a fulfilled life.
(Spatially for me, in Australia, the equivalent space for the mood and feel of an olive grove is the bush directly behind a sand dune. It has a similar quietness and sense of protection that you experience when standing deep in a long-established olive grove.)
While visiting Puglia, my friends took me to their favourite olive grove about an hours drive from their home. It is just outside the town of Alessano on the Salento peninsula, the farthest point of Puglia, itself the heel of the boot of southern Italy. The grove we visited is estimated to have been planted 1000 years earlier and is now officially listed as a site of cultural heritage by UNESCO. I met the farmer who owns the grove, and it is my understanding that UNESCO now protects the grove and its maintenance, that is: it is not allowed to be cut down. Certainly the farmer and owner, who I met to ask his permission to work in his grove, was very protective and proud and delighted too, when I started to photograph it.
After some initial time photographing here, I started to drive around the Salento. I chose half a dozen olive groves that I felt drawn to, and then decided to return to photograph and film them through the four seasons. Partly to witness and experience the trees in their different stages, including their annual pruning and harvesting, the latter when nets are thrown on the floor of the olive grove and trees are shaken to catch the ripe olives.
In my art practice I am very interested in space and often, I find I am drawn strongly to either a place or a structure, and then I will evolve works around this place or space. This was the case with my last photographic exhibition which explored one particular mountain range. It also fits my most recent work, which explored the domesticity of death and the healing power of grieving by using an iconic Australian hills hoist; in a sense it became the structure and the landscape for the artwork. It is also relevant in a body of work currently in progress, which employs archetypical architectural elements as the basis for artworks, metaphorically linking past and contemporary civilisations and universal human drives.
I have chosen to present the works in triptychs because it gives a greater feel for the panorama and sense of complete absorption you have, when you are standing in one of these groves. Also, the triptychs are not sequential, they are made up from different viewpoints within the same grove. I did this to give an idea of the dreamlike
feeling of remembering, perhaps in an idealised way, the spaces of these groves. Often it is in memory or imagining that we picture something, the reality is usually different of course, but the former is arguably more essential and more potent for the way we add our own passion and interpretation.
Its my hope that by immersing themselves in these subjective images of olive groves, viewers will be prompted to consider human beings ancient connection with the land. Olive trees prosper by being pruned and harvested, so there is a natural and productive interdependency between these groves and human beings. In an era when the natural world is under massive pressure from human activity, they are a symbol for the potential rewards for humans if they act as responsible and thoughtful stewards of the land.