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 historyMousework, Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2021.
ActivitiesDaniel Milman and Ilit Azoulay in conversation: Hysteria Now and Then