I imagine a man in his thirties. A third-generation bread baker, Jewish, operates his grandfather’s boulangerie in Paris. He is arrested while there is bread still baking in the oven. On the deportation train, he overhears a German soldier say “macht zu!” –make closed. In his pocket is a small piece of pâte fermentée –old dough, to leaven the subsequent loaves. He is brought to Birkenau and assigned the tasks of the Sonderkammando. This position requires him to stand before the crematoria ovens, to maintain them, to add fuel and to add bodies. With access to  fabrication machinery used for repairing the crematoria, he makes these bread-baking tools. He imagines a Four Banal –a French communal bread oven– in the middle of this agrarian, desolate camp. He names this impossible placeBoulangerie ZU –closed bakery. At night he dreams of these tools touching ash and dough and bread and he dreams of again having an oven to bake in and in the morning he awakes knowing that with these tools he may also commit murder.

Barak Levi Olins – Tools of the Banal
A very special exhibition at 45 York Street

September 19 – November 3, 2007

Artist Reception: First Friday, Oct 5 5-8 PM

While Barak Levi Olins has used the word “haptic” to describe elements of his work, the term “synaptic” also seems fitting. Firing across associative junctions that link bread to the body, utensils to weapons, and his own baking oven to the crematoria of the Holocaust, Olins’ work is at once visceral, poetic and neuralgic.

His installation at Whitney Art Works consists of three separate pieces in diverse media. Together a video, sculpted tools, and Olins’ homage to a baking oven express aspects of the physical and mental space in which the artist-baker himself labors every day. Olins’ own bread oven has come to represent an inevitable and inextricable connection between himself and the Holocaust, an extraordinary link that at first took him by surprise:

“The realization came from when I was building my bread oven and realizing that if I ever had to repair that thing I would have to climb inside of it. And then I had this incredible reaction, almost like a sense of suffocation or something. I didn’t realize right away why I had that reaction. I’m not inherently claustrophobic. Then I started to put it together.”

At the York Street site, Olins has hung a translucent, varnished nylon, cedar-plank “oven” that floats at optimum baking height. An inverse Rachel Whiteread, Olins’ oven has an interior space that, like a “delicate mattress,” appears as a luminous solid, both comforting and disturbing in its human scale. Nearby is the baker’s unexpected taxonomy of tools—breadmaking equipment whose constructed form and shape is given an ambiguous reading as both “plowshare” and “sword” by the artist.

In contradistinction to these sculpted, allusionary works, Olins screens Emil’s Bread, a documentary video based on his many conversations with Emil, a Damariscotta resident who survived the Holocaust as a bread baker in the concentration camp of Theriesianstadt (Terezin).

As Olins probes Emil’s memory of baking, the uncomfortable bond between the artist and the elder becomes more intimate as they continue to explore a shared knowledge of the trade across radically different contexts. Olins’ incessant questioning calls forth responses from Emil that are deeply personal; the baker’s responses haptic and synaptic in a way that the artist both fears and desires as a motivation to continue his own troubling explorations . Olins takes a deep breath before he admits, “There are moments where Emil is talking about the smell of bread and then, in the next breath, he is talking about the smell of burning flesh.”

Olins acknowledges the “poetically dangerous” territory that his work circumscribes. His determination to make conscious and make tangible the unthinkable leap between bodies burning and bread baking is disturbing precisely because it is so raw, so purely possible. Barak Levi Olins lives with this possibility every day he bakes. As he says of his bread oven “that’s the space—the distilled space of my enquiry is right there.” –Rebecca Duclos, 2007

Barak Levi Olins is a bread baker and teacher who lives in Freeport with his wife and daughter.

Whitney Art Works
45 York Street
Portland, Maine 04101

gallery hours: Wed-Sat 12-6 PM or by appointment