For Jerusalem-based artist Li Lorian, puppet shows are not just for kids. “When I say to people that I do puppetry, I know what they’re thinking,” she said, demonstrating her suddenly animated right hand. “But for me,” she continued, “puppetry and object theater are really about the materials telling a story. If I have a wooden puppet, its story is entirely different from a puppet made of paper, or of stone. There is drama in the material, a story that we can feel immediately, as soon as we look at it.”
It’s that kind of dramatic potential that comes to the fore in Lorian’s latest work, “South Hebron Hills: Projection,” a puppet show using everyday objects that is perceived as a one-woman performance. Lorian begins with a self-made map of the South Hebron Hills region of the West Bank, complete with a color-coded legend that charts a familiar geography: Israeli settlements, Palestinian villages, access roads and military firing zones. However, Lorian’s map is also inhabited by photographs, playing cards, stamps, matchbooks and other objects as fantastic as the dragons in any medieval atlas… or puppet show.
A graduate of Jerusalem’s School of Visual Theater, Lorian’s “South Hebron Hills: Projection” drew on her experience with the Israeli organization Ta’ayush, which works with Palestinian communities in the South Hebron Hills to help them maintain control over their agricultural lands in the face of expanding Israeli settlements. After two years spent accompanying Palestinian farmers and shepherds, and facing opposition from the IDF and settlers who try to prevent the Palestinians from accessing their fields and grazing areas, Lorian, 25, is firm in her political opinions: opposed to Israel’s control of the Palestinian territories and to the Jewish settlements. While her politics are unmistakable, “South Hebron Hills: Projection” is far from a partisan rant. In a precise, minimal, and captivating show, Lorian has brought Israeli political theater to her stage.
The map she constructed has not gone uncontested. Lorian recalled one audience member who responded angrily after a performance that her map was inaccurate; the Israeli settlement of Susiya, this viewer complained, has been in existence for 3,000 years, but Lorian’s map gave it no special importance, showing it like all the other villages and settlements.
“I think what angered him was my subjective perspective,” she said, “which challenged his narrative of a uniform and uni-dimensional Jewish people.”
Lorian was born in Itlit, not far from Haifa. Her father worked in shipping, and in her childhood the family would join him on long sea voyages. She lived abroad for a period in Germany. Lorian moved back permanently to Israel when she was in her early teens.
Lorian’s theatrical exploration began at the School of Visual Theater, which combines training in puppetry, dance, music, and other arts. The school’s self-directed pedagogy suited her independent sensibility.
“It’s a place where they don’t try to make any kind of model student,” she said. “For me, that was the best environment; I can do a lot and learn a lot. But if someone is telling me what to do, then I just stop listening.”
Lorian’s entry into political activism proceeded in tandem with her artistic development. At her first demonstrations against the separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bilin, and later at solidarity protests with the Palestinian families evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, Lorian would arm herself with a camera, taking pictures. While she used some of these photographs in school assignments, the camera itself was more important than the pictures it produced.
“In a way, the camera protected me,” Lorian recalled. “The camera said, I’m with you, but I’m also outside; I’m here, but not entirely.”
“South Hebron Hills: Projection” also began with photographs. During the days spent in the South Hebron Hills, Lorian would take pictures with single-use film cameras. While activists often carry camcorders to document activities and record interactions with the IDF, settlers, and police, taking pictures with film was unheard of.
“In a place where documentation is so important,” she explained, “suddenly to have this tourist camera — it was really a footnote, almost unfelt. Soldiers whom I photographed would laugh at me. It was the artistic part of my activism: something very modest, and I didn’t know what I would do with it.”
After completing her degree, Lorian was awarded studio space at the Mamuta Project, housed at the Daniela Passal Art and Media Center in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ein Kerem. Sitting with hundreds of pictures and her favorite objects, Lorian began to play.
“Stamps, playing cards, and maps — it’s hard for me to express in words, but it’s a material environment I swim in,” she said. “There is something that causes me to feel when I take them in my hands. This was exactly the process: to engage, not to think, not to say it in words.”
Looking now at the finished work, it’s hard to imagine that it came about so haphazardly. Throughout the show, Lorian stands on stage behind a large, wooden desk. The desk’s surface is neatly stacked with photographs, bottles, pens, boxes, and the other objects that make up the performance. Lorian precisely draws the map — the lines of roads, the names of villages, and the municipal boundaries of settlements — and delicately manipulates the objects in a circle of light cast by a lamp, while a camcorder fixed above the desk projects her actions onto a screen to her left.
The “projection” of the performance’s title refers both to the cartographic term for representing — and distorting — the earth’s spherical surface on a two-dimensional plane and to the projection of the map onto the screen as it takes shape on her desk. This projection infuses Lorian’s performance with a cinematic quality: watching the objects move on screen feels like watching a good movie. From this perspective, even the most fantastic moments seem uncontrived, such as when Lorian removes a match from an El Al Airlines matchbook and makes it fly over the paper, or when an old Cuban stamp is pulled through the bars of a papercut photograph of soldiers and a jeep.
The fantasy of “South Hebron Hills: Projection” is, for Lorian, precisely what makes it political. “One of my biggest fears is that things will seem banal,” she said. “Oh, the occupation, I know it, it doesn’t move us anymore. Inserting fantastic elements brings reality even more to the surface, precisely because you’re adding something alien, and making it accessible to this ‘known’ reality. You transform it and can see it from the other side.”
Now, Lorian is back in the studio hard at work on her next performance. While “South Hebron Hills: Projection” focused on small spaces, her newest work is on a much larger scale. Taking its cue from the mass demonstrations that have captured headlines in recent years, the as-yet-unnamed performance will be staged on a soccer field and will tackle individual, collective and institutional violence in contemporary society. Lorian has also taken time to respond to the latest war in Gaza, making ephemeral anti-war fliers that she posted on the Internet.
“This situation erases individual expression and silences,” she said, “but I felt like I had to say something of my own. It was my way to protest, but inside this chaos, it felt so small.”
“South Hebron Hills: Projection” will be performed on Thursday, December 20, at The Israel Museum as part of Jerusalem’s Hamshushalayim Festival.