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. 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 photography 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 Option – Shifting 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.


Panic in Lack of an 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 mis-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.



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.


Imaginary Order

Imaginary Order is a series comprised of a soundtrack and photographic panoramic works that followed the seven-year renovation of an emblematic Brutalist building, designed in the 1960s by Yacov Rechter, in the northern Israeli town of Zichron Ya’akov. The overhaul converted a convalescent home for Health Maintenance Organization members into a multidisciplinary art center and luxury hotel. Over the seven years of its renovation, Azoulay frequently visited this historical building and followed its turning from a place built on egalitarian principles for all HMO members into a luxury hotel accessible only to the few who can afford it. Yet along with this turn, reflecting the transformation of Israel from a socialist-based economy into a capitalist one, a darker turn is being explored – from war to postwar.

In 1974, subsequent to the end of the Yom Kippur War, the convalescent home was used momentarily by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Upon their return from Syrian and Egyptian prisons, Israeli soldiers were taken and held by the IDF for interrogation: Did they or did they not talk under torture? Was the state at risk? Was the order of things being threatened? No trace of torture or of this momentary interrogation camp was found in the building. Yet Azoulay was not looking for graphic details. Instead, she was interested in tracing the transformation of one order into an order of a different kind.

Some 40 years later, Azoulay formed a research group comprised of a researcher, a linguist, a curator, a dramaturg and an architect to inquire into the past of the building. With the help of witnesses, the examination resulted in testimonies that were rewritten for reenactment by actors. 

Meticulously scrutinising surfaces with a macro-lens, Azoulay produced thousands of close-up images documenting the walls exposed in the reconstruction process, revealing their past layers. These images she then pasted together digitally, resulting in a large-scale photograph – which she calls a ‘photographic plan’ – of great technical resolution, seemingly presenting a multitude of angles of view. As such, the series portrays a temporality at play, which may echo that of the darker turn reflected in the meticulous collection of the thousands of images of which the ‘photographic plan’ proposed is assembled. Documenting the building’s transition, Azoulay’s images picture an imaginary order – a structure never to be erected which is yet a constitutive part of the final stage of the building. The work Imaginary Order thereby pictures the invisible hand at play while imposing a new “order” or possibly preserving an existing one.


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.


The Keys

Raising questions about the wondrous mechanism of sight and perception, “The Keys” series (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.


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.


Horizontal study

In Ilit Azoulay’s autobiographical work “Horizontal Study” (2012) objects that are all somehow related to the artist’s personal history are placed on a surface resembling a desk. Shot separately from a bird’s-eye view and then composited together digitally, the objects are packaged in nine “Pandora boxes.” Some are open, exposing the objects within them to the camera's prying gaze, while others are sealed, so that the narrative binding the objects together remains an unsolved enigma.