“The casting of a 2000-year-old olive tree is a memoriam of condensed time. By casting an olive tree, the passing of time can be profoundly experienced – frozen in its ephemeral state. Time becomes a living abstraction, showing how the figure of an ancient olive tree is formed by the accumulation of time and the forces of air, water, wind, and fire.”
Right in the heart of Zurich, a giant olive tree stretches its arms up in the air. Bald, bony, and chalky white, it looks like a ghost hurling lightning bolts – an uncanny creature from a dream or fairy tale. Yet this apparition is a sculpture, cast in aluminum and covered with white lacquer. In a certain sense, it is the counterpart of its original: a gnarled tree that Ugo Rondinone copied in Basilicata in southern Italy, not far from Matera, the oldest city in the world, where his parents were born. Today, the tree still stands on a piece of land the artist acquired in 2006 – its olive trees between 1500 and 2000 years old.
“If nature is my religion, the tree is my friend.”
“The world must be romanticized. This yields again its original meaning. [...] By giving the common a higher meaning, the everyday, a mysterious semblance, the known, the dignity of the unknown, the finite, the appearance of the infinite, I romanticize it.”
As a Secondo with Italian parents, this cast of a 2000-year-old olive tree is also a memorial for the uprooting of Italian immigrants. The tree stands at Paradeplatz, not far from Zurich HB Main Station; terminus of 300,000 Tchinggen, who in the 1960s arrived in Switzerland to live in inhumane conditions in barely heated wooden barracks. Without rights and cut off from social benefits, Italians were treated like serfs by Swiss patrons. I remember well the Schwarzenbach Initiative from 1968 and the turmoil my parents felt before the vote. Schwarzenbach saw the ‘brown Sons of the South’ as ‘foreign plants.’ Before the vote, restaurants were marked with signs saying: ‘prohibited for dogs and Italians.’