Ilit Azoulay: Mousework

Text by Jonathan Touitou


Ilit Azoulay’s most recent project stems from an unintended change in her usual working process. Hampered by the lockdown that followed the first wave of COVID-19, she was unable to conduct the fieldwork that often kicks off her projects. Consequently, it was substituted by online research generated by the grasp of the hand on the mouse. Driven by a long-held curiosity, Azoulay examined the illness known as female hysteria. Historically regarded as an exclusively female condition (in ancient Greece, for example, it was thought to be the result of a “wandering womb,” or displaced uterus), hysteria became a widely diagnosed illness in the nineteenth century. And even though the notion of hysteria as an illness has since been discredited and discarded, the word has remained part of our everyday vocabulary, and with similar connotations.Continuing the artist’s career-long exploration of photography, the project highlights the ways in which the medium played a critical role, and acted as an accomplice, in constructing the narrative of hysteria. As part of her research, Azoulay examined the work of French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who worked and taught at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris from 1862 to 1895. Founder of the hospital’s neurological department, Charcot was a pioneer in the use of photography for scientific purposes and established a photography lab in the hospital – one of the first ever at a medical institution. As a women-only hospital, the Salpêtrière reinforced the gender-oriented perception of hysteria as an illness. While Charcot’s work and his neurological department undoubtedly lay the groundwork for modern psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud was among his students), it also, equally undeniably, played a key part in the exploitation of women in Western societies. Azoulay sought to establish for herself how this history, which has been widely discussed in recent years, affected her own identity as a woman, and as a woman photographer.Some of the numerous plates produced by Charcot’s lab have been brilliantly analyzed (along with others) by the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman. In his book, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, Didi-Huberman examines the late-nineteenth-century concept of hysteria and exposes it as a construct at the intersection of photography and the rudimentary psychiatry of that time. Although officially photography was used as a scientific tool to identify the recurring symptoms and patterns of the illness, even cursory analysis of the technology of those times reveals that the images were staged, and merely re-enactments of what Charcot had possibly observed (or not) on different occasions. While the scientific value of these images may be questionable, they are nonetheless valuable documentation of the phenomenon, and means, of male domination. Seen in this light, the staged “hysterical” bodies of women may be re-evaluated as the ultimate oppression of women stripped of all rights and social status.In the data environment in which Azoulay immersed herself, images of women as vulnerable, unstable social beings are yielded by the thousands when using the keyword hysteria to search image banks – be it in ads of insurance companies or of the pharmaceutical industry (to name but two categories). Such depictions of women and of social male domination, which present it as consensual and legitimate, either at home or in the public sphere, pervade our visual culture and continue to corrupt men and to condition women. However, merely pointing at it might serve to further continue the dissemination of this worldview.Examining the correlation between form and content, Azoulay invited artist and partner Jonathan Touitou to design the frames for the series. Each work is comprised of three images that are placed within an industrially produced vacuum-formed frame: a detail from an archival image from the Salpêtrière photography lab on the left; images of found objects photographed by Azoulay under a magnifying glass on the right; and post-produced collages of images obtained from online image banks in the center. As a supplement that both assembles elements together and evokes thought about them, the frame, which imposes a distorted perspective on the images, accentuates the intent of things considered secondary or inessential to become the centerpiece. Thus it emphasizes the works’ rehabilitation of the magical, the supernatural, and the distorted.Drawing connections between the mass-produced images of “hysterical” women and the circumscriptions of female identity, Mousework refers to the nineteenth-century definition of hysteria as the persistence of a social construct inherited from the past, epitomizing a system aimed at maintaining the patriarchal order, which continues to this day in our societies. Consequently, its representation may be used as evidence against that very order. Azoulay’s new series proposes a powerful female vision of a possible post-patriarchal era.

Exhibition history

Mousework, Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2021.  


Daniel Milman and Ilit Azoulay in conversation: Hysteria Now and Then


Regarding Silences

Regarding Silences (2008-2016) is the culmination of eight years of research and resulted in a series of nine photographic, panoramic works which focus on the renovation of the emblematic Brutalist building, the

Mivtachim Sanitarium

designed by the architect Yaakov Rechter in 1968. Situated in the northern Israeli town of Zikhron Ya’akov, the building’s overhaul converted a subsidized convalescent home into a multidisciplinary art centre and luxury hotel.

Over the nine years of its renovation, Azoulay frequently visited this historical building and examined the process of a concept that changed from egalitarian ideologies into capitalist principles – a luxury hotel reserved for the rich.

This process reflects Israel's transformation from a socialist into a capitalist state and its transition from wartime to post-war. In 1974, subsequent to the Yom Kippur War, the convalescent home was temporarily used by the Israeli army. Israeli soldiers were interrogated there upon their return from Syria and Egypt, where they had been



held captive.


They were asked questions such as “Did you talk under torture? Have your actions put the state at risk? Had the general order of things been compromised?” While some interrogations were straightforwardly verbal, about a third of the former prisoners of war (POWs) were taken to other sites and  


administered a drug

that caused them to mentally live through the incident that caused the trauma during the war


The drugs not only forcibly made the soldiers live these painful memories, but they had devastating lasting effects on them until today.

Over the course of the renovation, Azoulay meticulously photographed the building’s surfaces with a macro lens and created thousands of close-up images documenting the walls exposed during the reconstruction process, revealing their various past layers. She then digitally stitched these images back together to form a large-scale high-resolution photograph, which she calls a “Photographic Plan,” presenting a multitude of angles.

Due to the lack of sufficient documentation of some of the building’s historical events, Azoulay formed a research group composed of an investigator, a linguist, a dramaturg, a psychologist writer, and the artist’s studio manager in order to create a fuller scope of view. They interviewed 43 witnesses and former POWs who had been held in the building in 1974.

Some of those interviews are presented alongside the final works. Materials the former POWs had kept or created, such as



handmade objects, etc. are featured throughout some of Azoulay’s works. The stand-in for an experience that is hard to comprehend, one that is ultimately marked by silence – the silence of captivity, secrecy, and of disengagement.

The exhibition’s walls green colour represents a vacant non-space, a way of defining the almost unimaginable repressed memories and mental spheres into which some of the former POWs have sunk over years of silence. It is a parallel reality with no familiar landscape or daily routine, a dense bubble of simulation that can be dressed in any reality or landscape, but never become it. The chroma key green also speaks to the photographic process which isolates details from the whole picture and places them within a new reality that has nothing to do with what the unaided eye would see.

No element is simply found and, in fact, none of Azoulay’s works is photography in any straightforward sense of the term. Each element in these highly constructed images, even the banalest looking piece of concrete or dust, is carefully considered and placed. In the resulting project, the material history of a site intersects with the present in multifaceted ways.


Exhibition history


No Thing Dies

Ilit Azoulay's project No Thing Dies (2014-2017) arose from the depths of the archives at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The museum was erected in 1965 with the belief that it would help embed the cultural identity of the young state. No Thing Dies looks into the social layers that are subject to this period of 52 years and perhaps shows how it sustains the illusion of a dialogue with other Middle-Eastern cultures.

During three years, Azoulay spent most of her days in the archives of the Israel Museum, reviewing its collections, and interviewing its curators, archivists and conservators. She recorded these conversations and revealed many artifacts that never were publicly exhibited – alongside stories about their original purpose, their journey to the museum, and the challenges of their preservation and display. The selected objects were photographed, analyzed, classified and eventually created an image bank which reflects the invisible life-long labor of those preserving, researching, restoring, archiving them.

While recent surveillance technologies, similar to Azoulay's photographic technique, aim to reduce the gap between image and data, Azoulay's composite images in contrast re-insert uncertainty, mystery, and complexity.

No Thing Dies draws inspiration from the tradition of Persian miniature books that were ordered by the ruling monarchs (btw. the 13th-16th century AD) and praised his name and deeds, a sort of propaganda.

While Azoulay's work too, was commissioned by the museum, her images seem to create surreal and sometimes theatrical scenes stressing the duplicity of the Museum.


Exhibition history

No Thing Dies, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2017

Still Life? 4th Photo Brussels Festival, Hangar Art Center, Brussels, 2019


Depicted are twenty-eight of the 753 pages from the No Thing Dies archive, which present mile-stones in the construction of this project. These pages, which hung on the walls of the artists studio while working on the project, include images of objects or fragments thereof, collated from the twenty-four departments in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. 


Each image is accompanied by a short textual description of the item, in the artist's handwriting, after interviewing museum staff about it. The stories were interwoven when each image was "cast" in a particular "role" in one or more final, collage-like pieces, featuring in that piece alongside other "image-role players". A book focusing on the project No Thing Dies was published in 2019 with Mousse Publishing.











Implicit Manifestation

In early 2013, The Shpilman Institute for Photography, Tel Aviv, in collaboration with KW Institute for Contemporary Art and the Schir Foundation, Berlin, announced Ilit Azoulay as the first recipient of their joint photography residency. Azoulay moved into her studio at KW in June 2013 and used her five-month residency to develop her interest in the archeology of cities. Azoulay traveled through Germany, collecting and photographing objects and architectural fragments in Berlin, Weimar, Kulmain, Regensburg, Dessau, Bamberg, Brandenburg, Xanten, Potsdam and Halle, as well as in the KW building itself. In some cases, she singled out sites undergoing preservation, while in others she examined buildings that were reconstructed precisely, brick for brick, in accordance with Germany’s restoration laws. She was fascinated by the special character of German preservation laws, archives, and public and governmental institutions as reflecting the country’s mechanisms of inscribing memory and history. Consequently, she undertook the collection of all possible information pertaining to the origin of each and every one of these objects. This meticulous gathering of information became central to the artist’s project in Germany, Shifting Degrees of Certainty (2014). The final work is composed of 85 objects, which Azoulay photographed using a technique similar to scanning, and their stories. It also includes correspondence with monasteries, squat residents, taxidermy experts, plant researchers, building constructors, and lawyers. The photographic technique used in this project is characteristic of Azoulay’s practice. It allows her to juxtapose multiple points of view within a single, digitally composed image. The photographs are accompanied by a sound work which makes both the data gathered and the process of its collection available to the viewers, allowing them insight into the artist’s research process and the historical, personal, and idiosyncratic details it uncovered. Unlike Azoulay’s previous research-based projects – a practice characteristic of her photographic oeuvre – here, the meticulous research behind each image is made part of the work. Consequently, what might seem, at first sight, to be an object-based work reveals itself, through the audio tracks that bring to life a process habitually left behind, as one in which the object is merely the starting point for questions regarding the construction of history and reality, as well as the production of memory and its mechanisms. The presentation of the story as part of the work not only shifts the artistic focus away from the object itself, but also undercuts the certainty of a single perspective, and therefore of a single truth, which is pertinent both to reality and to the photographic medium. The soundtracks are available to the viewer via an audio-guide device, a traditional semi-didactic museum tool by which facts are often relayed in language typical of research. The information conveyed in Azoulay’s audio tracks encourages the visitors to observe the images, to focus on small details, to stare, to wonder. The stories told are not linear and do not offer a clear perspective. Listening to them, one becomes confused and distrustful. Consequently, one listens more attentively and commences one’s own investigation and inquiry into the images, the audio tracks, even the device itself – putting in question the very transmission of knowledge and the museum as an institution. The language of documentation employed by the soundtracks draws one’s attention to the ways by which history is constructed, determined, organized, and perhaps manipulated. In her show presenting this project at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, the objects were presented as a theatrical set awaiting a situation or an event. Arriving in the gallery, the large-scale panoramas of Shifting Degrees of Certainty hit the viewers with a sense of reality. However, on approaching the wall on which the individual photographed objects were arranged like a complex puzzle and listening to the soundtracks, one realized that the panoramic images were a mere option, and the objects were composited together to create just a particular version of reality. In this installation, which brings together the aesthetics of the theater with a sense of behind the scenes, one can never be certain of what one is seeing. As the panoramas’ titles convey – Third Option, Fifth Option, Sixth Option, and Seventh OptionShifting Degrees of Certainty presents options of reality, setting side by side the factual and the fictional, the actual and the possible, the visible and the imaginary. In this nonhierarchical museum installation, where all is possible, the visitors must remains actively engaged in forming their own perspective.

Exhibition history



Room #8

History deposits its sediments on walls like paint on canvas. Once constructed, walls begin to absorb light, sound, humidity, and layered traces that form over time. Functioning as a support and a façade, walls define a place by marking its boundaries, at the same time registering all that has accumulated in the spaces they circumscribe. Like earlier works created by Ilit Azoulay, Room #8 (2011) evolved out of her visits to buildings scheduled for demolition in southern Tel Aviv. Azoulay began her work process by studying the surfaces of the walls and exploring the building materials and the traces left by objects. After the building was pulled down, she scoured the demolition site and collected objects from the rubble. Back in her studio, Azoulay cleaned and then meticulously photographed these “specimens” in preparation for the final composition, which was then staged upon a digital “canvas.” Composed as a large panorama (measuring 10.5 meters in length), Room #8 features eight entrances and exits. Some are clearly architectural fixtures, such as a window or a sliding door, while others are abstracted metaphors to be deciphered by the viewer. This flat mis-en-scène could hypothetically be "folded" to create a room with four walls – a space whose indeterminate function is imbued with a sense of mystery. The absence of a single, linear narrative and the presence of multiple possibilities immerse the viewer in a non-hierarchical perceptual experience, in which seemingly familiar artifacts prove to be unidentifiable. An occasional reference to a well-known work of art, such as Duane Hanson's sculpture Tourists, is given no more prominence than a sliced apple or a row of sticks. Appearing at once realistic and imaginary, Room #8 probes the conventional limitations that govern human perception. The work's title – a play on the word “roommates” – openly invites the viewers to inhabit it.  

Exhibition history


Panic in Lack of Event

The series of works “Panic in Lack of Event” (2013), which was created over a period of two years, presents objects and architectural elements photographed by Ilit Azoulay in several urban sites, including the building where Braverman Gallery is located in Tel Aviv, which is slated for preservation. In this series, Azoulay continues her reflexive engagement with the nature of the creative act. She analyzes its different components while probing its historical and contemporary resonances. Using the formal and conceptual repertoire of the collage medium, the objects depicted in these works are propelled together by a dazzling movement of inner liberation. The white-wall texture which served as the background support in most of Azoulay's earlier series is replaced here by a wrinkled, worn-out, silvery-blue curtain previously used as a screen for the projection of slides. The various ready-made objects photographed appear upon the screen in different opacities. Their mise-en-scène creates dynamic interrelations, as if they are being endlessly projected and re-projected on a hyper-receptive screen. The photographic decisive moment of dramatic action is replaced here by a series of artistic acts. Together, they form a kaleidoscope of anticipated events that are forever being thrust away from any immediate, concrete present.  

Exhibition history

Linguistic Turn, Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv, 2013



The series Transition (2009–2011) has sprung from Ilit Azoulay’s ongoing interest in Israeli architecture. Observing Israeli buildings, one quickly notices a strong sense of immediacy. This architecture of a community in a turbulent state of mind without pause is characterized by an improvised, eclectic style of construction without a clear vision of tomorrow. “Passage” is the opening image in this series of dioramas. An empty beach is all that is left of a vanishing community. High cliffs are made small by their juxtaposition with a seemingly headless man – a printed and cut-out image of a photographer looking through a waist-level camera. His gaze will forever remain a secret. The objects included in this series were collected by the artist on construction sites in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. She then placed them on a table and photographed them from a single point of view. She used mirrors to lure the light in and create a suggestion of a place. A carefully thought out arbitrariness is assembled, where all the objects are redefined by the emptiness in which they find themselves. Although each installation portrayed presents a singular still moment, they are all named after transitional spaces, both modern and mythical in meaning: Passage, The Gate, Lobby, Tunnel, Bridge, and Transition. As such, they express an ambiguous relation to permanence. These are still images that do not allow one pause but rather subject the human figures frozen within them to a nomadic destiny.

Exhibition history

The Constantiner Photography Award for an Israeli Artist, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2011


The Keys

Raising questions about the wondrous mechanism of sight and perception, The Keys (2008-2010) was inspired by the artist’s wandering through the city of Tel Aviv. Visiting empty buildings marked for demolition and others designated for conservation, Ilit Azoualy studied the textures of different walls and the objects she discovered embedded within them. When she began researching these buildings in depth, she discovered that in the 1950s and 1960s, during the so-called austerity period that followed the founding of the State of Israel, contractors used improvised building materials in order to meet the massive demand for construction at a time when great waves of immigration were arriving in the country. In almost every building slated for demolition, Azoulay found at least one wall made of various discarded materials and objects rather than cement blocks. Such “fake walls,” as she calls them, suffered more than others from the effects of humidity, had a larger number of cracks, and were easier to demolish. Returning repeatedly to the same sites, Azoulay collected the objects she found inside these walls, such as metal, plastic, and aluminum scraps, stones, glass shards, seashells, apple seeds, and broken toys. These scattered fragments, which no longer served a functional purpose, she took to her studio. There, she cleaned them as specimens and then photographed them, using a macro lens, all in the same natural light. These images were then composited together digitally.  

Exhibition history




  • The transfer agreement, also known as the Haavara Agreement, was signed in 1933 between the Nazi regime in Germany and the Zionist movement in Israel, and ended with the outbreak of World War II. As part of the agreements 50.000 Jews were transferred from Germany to Palestine, as well as goods worth millions of German Reichsmark that were used to build the Land of Israel.
  • Transferumbau is an artistic research project that seeks to trace the material and human aspects of this agreement. Due to its multiplicity and complexity it is based on a collaboration between four artists and a curator: Ilit Azoulay, Jonathan Touitou, Nir Shauloff, Lou Moria, and Hila Cohen-Schneiderman.
  • The understanding at the heart of this project is that human migration entails not just the import of materialistic goods but also their worldview. In this case we think of imported objects as a manifestation of a certain worldview – the one of the Bauhaus movement for instance. Transferumbau traced original objects transferred during the Haavara Agreement and examined how everyday objects became museum exhibits and national or aesthetic carriers of an ideology.
  • The transfer agreements were a controversial episode in the relationship between Israel and Germany, which remained obscure despite the fundamental impact it had on the Jewish settlement in Palestine. The agreement between Nazi Germany and the Zionist Federation of Germany was signed on August 25, 1933, and remained valid until 1938. It allowed German Jews to sell property and real estate under the condition that these revenues were invested in acquiring goods and building materials from German companies. These were then exported from Germany to British Mandatory Palestine, where they were purchased and their worth was returned to those owners who immigrated to the new land. 50.000 German Jews have immigrated thanks to the agreement; the cumulative wealth – ca. 150 million Reichsmark – was transferred to the country via the Anglo-Palestine Bank and the Tel Aviv-based company Haavara Ltd. The Nazi regime, in turn, encouraged the emigration of Jews from Germany, increased the number of jobs, and secured the export of goods contrary to the anti-Nazi boycott initiated by the American Jewish community.
  • The project seeks to revisit archival materials and augment them via artistic and performative renditions. The engagement with the subject from an architectural perspective allows a direct reading of the historic topic. Materials produced in Germany, imported at unprecedented levels, enabled the construction boom of the 1930s, the building of new Jewish cities and the thtive of Tel Aviv. Numerous private construction projects sprawled in what later became known as The White City. The myths of the White City having beens built from exclusively local construction materials is refuted. History is being reinterpreted as a new creation of German-Jewish co-production based on common architectural vision or an appropriation of ideas originating in the Bauhaus School. In addition to criticism and protest related to the at the time ongoing trade with the enemy, the import of German goods generated tension with local industrialists, whose products and economic stability were impeded; they engaged in constant ethical and economic struggles with the Haavara firm.
  • One of the buildings constructed during that time was the Liebling House – a typical modernist building among other 4.000 international-style buildings in the White City, designed by architect Dov Karmi and constructed by contractor Max Liebling in 1936. The building was donated to the Tel Aviv Municipality in the 1960s and wasconverted into a museum entitled “White City Center” in 2019. It isoperating under the municipal Department of Conservation and co-funded by the German Federal Ministry of Building (BMUB) and the Tel Aviv Municipality, is another example of a German-Israeli co-production, that allows us to consider past and present power relations and mutual influences.
  • The exhibition project traced the transfer agreement, rewrote its narrative through a profound observation of the building and its materiality, mapped the relationships with other buildings in Tel Aviv, and examined the influence of German culture in Israel.

Exhibition history


Table Tops

Table Tops (2009) is a series of black and white photographs consisting of objects taken from abandoned places in Tel Aviv, Israel. Carefully arranged on tables, born out of a further development of the method used for Unknown Aspects, these works emphasize thoughts on the horizontal pane, not just as a historical element in photography, but including thoughts on territorialism and the figurative sense of ‘horizon’. 

These works don’t just reflect “the American journey in search of the unconscious substrata and the traces of Romanticism in American culture, taken through godforsaken places cast off by the side roads of enlightenment and progress. In the bastions of conservatism, narrow-mindedness and ignorance, away from all that is considered ‘cultural’ and ‘current,’ there is a better chance of finding a ‘natural,’ wild, animistic world.”


On an additional level, these arrangements play with a “grid, caught in remnants and continuously interwoven in them through ‘feminine’ modes of action, there are gaping holes that seem like white windows or nebulous stains – like the memory gaps of old age, or like specters, or the enigmatic pauses in the architectural order that allow a ray of light to penetrate (somewhat like the window image in Romantic painting, like an icon of light), softening and turning sublime (and sublimating) the hard, angular dryness and the alienated, hopeless appearance of these scraps, while endowing them with a note of tender sadness and melancholy. Somewhat like Joseph Beuys’ utopian Eurasian plains, these luminous or white-dusted areas associate the close-up images of the tables with a memory of a ... landscape scattered with strange remains.*



* Sarit Shapira, Houses of Junk and Specters: On Ilit Azoulayʼs Early Works. In: Ilit Azoulay: Finally Without End, ed. by Orit Bulgaru, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2014, p. 10.



Exhibition history

Eyes in the back of the head, The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon, 2012


Unknown Aspects

“The collector destroys the context in which his object once was only part of a greater, living entity, and since only the uniquely genuine will do for him, he must cleanse the chosen object of everything that is typical about it.” – Hannah Arendt*
The series Unknown Aspects (2008) was developed during a residency program at Art Farm in Nebraska, USA. In this extraordinary art space, Ilit Azoulay found numerous eccentric collections (old letters, wooden wheelchairs, and rusty screws, to name but a few) stored in states ranging from total disarray to perfect classificatory order. Azoulay created small installations with objects found in these collections and then photographed them. This strategy probed a philosophical and visual paradox concerning the state of the collected objects – their inherent “thingness” in their original context, as well as their ability to exist outside of it while remaining whole. By collecting bits and pieces from the “pile of debris”** before her and repositioning them in a new photographic context, Azoulay both heightens and questions the uniqueness of every object. Displayed for the viewer's investigative gaze, the objects within each photograph incessantly speak of their past while being assimilated into a new environment.
* Hannah Arendt, “Introduction: Walter Benjamin: 1892-1940,” in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) p. 45.
** Walter Benjamin, “Theses on History,” Illuminations, p. 257.

Exhibition history:

Nebraska: Unknown Aspects, Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv, 2017