- by Michal Ben Naftali, 2014
- Read the Hebrew Translation
What takes place behind the scenes of Ilit Azoulay’s works is attested to by the artist herself. 1 This testimony is revealed as indispensable for us, since the surface of the artwork encodes, or perhaps flattens out, the conditions of its creation. Despite the singular charge of Azoulay’s lengthy preparation process—a meticulous undertaking that involves gathering, cleaning, oiling, and caring for the photographed objects — this process is not evident in the final product. Almost nothing remains of the literal object relations she entertains with her materials, a quasi- concrete enactment of what psychoanalytic language terms “object relations.” Almost nothing remains of her laborious field work and affective contact with these objects, which are reincarnated in a body of artwork largely calling for a formalist, experimental descriptive language, as if it had entirely forgotten the emotional reality of desire and melancholic memory that gave rise to it.
This is a testimony about a home. Azoulay wanders through sites in the south of Tel Aviv, where buildings hastily constructed during the first years of Israeli statehood are now awaiting destruction. “The great reminiscences, the historical frissons—these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist,” 2 writes Walter Benjamin. Unlike the tourist gravitating towards the sensational, the urban flâneur turns his attention to minor, inconspicuous enclaves that are demonstrably excluded from the monumental urban sphere. Indeed, the houses that Azoulay searches for, which never drew any attention to themselves, are about to disappear from the urban landscape in order to make way for other buildings. Their imminent eradication, moreover, has not been determined by any dramatic event such as a war or natural disaster. The destruction they have been condemned to is destruction of another order, a seemingly civilized mode of capitalist destruction through which those who control the city seek to eliminate the old and prepare the ground for new, more efficient forms of building, which give residents the impression that their quality of life is being improved. Azoulay, however, has no interest in the scenes of destruction themselves. She is concerned with the walls of these houses —not their faÇades or supporting walls, as she emphasizes in her testimony, but rather the internal walls, those deceptive, illusory walls that reveal their stories in the course of her investigation. These walls speak, yet without being compelled to put into words the tales or the secrets of those who once inhabited the apartments. They speak of a different time and a different loss, which, in all likelihood, none of the residents was aware of. They reveal the secrets of craftsmen, of builders and contractors, of all the agencies or instances that once facilitated or orchestrated the production process that transformed the building walls into a hybrid, surreal collection of eclectic objects, whose strangeness rivals that of the artistic imagination. These elements—industrial debris and organic remains, apple seeds and fish bones—waited all those years on the dark interior of the walls, where they were intended to remain forever invisible, as if constituting the unknown or subconscious dimension of the architectural sphere itself; a dimension that inevitably exceeds the inhabitants’ subjective selves, pointing perhaps to an uncanny, autoimmune mechanism implanted into the syntax of the houses themselves. The nightmarish, terrifying quality that resides at the heart of the familiar domestic sphere is thus related not only to the sociopolitical scandal that afflicted these specific walls, but also to the fact that they seemingly say something about a different order of ephemerality and fragility, one inextricably related to the scandal of existence.
The house, that anchor which is always also a womb and a sepulcher, is never made exclusively of conventional materials and elements. Like the candy house visited by Hansel and Gretel, the house offers itself up to the imaginary as a source of nourishment in response to the originary oral fantasy of destructive incorporation, its roof and windows succumbing to the children’s insatiable hunger. 3 What I referred to above as the literal “object relations” in Azoulay’s work are related, however, to a more carefully controlled incorporation of the objects, since the artist, who collects the findings she scrapes and peels out of the walls, is, after all, attempting to reestablish some form of distance between these vestiges and her work. Operating vis-à-vis a crumbling landscape that appears at once organic and nonorganic, she consciously attempts to create and maintain a stable syntactic system of boundaries by engaging in a symbolic, rational effort that is the fruit of quasi-scientific research. This research is also evident in the “temperature” of these works—in the undertaking of an analytical archeological mission involving a de-contextualization and re-contextualization of the objects, and culminating in “The triumph of representation over destruction: beauty.”4 The treatment of these objects, which are kept in Azoulay’s studio in bags and boxes, neutralizes their charge as concrete traces of precisely dated poverty and neglect. As already noted, the documentary point of departure and commitment to the real form the unspoken background of the work, rather than constituting its aim. The objects are destined to appear within the work as miniature, decorative sculptural items located at a distance from the camera’s lens in proximity to a heterogeneous range of other items, images, photographs, and geometric lines associated with different temporalities and degrees of realness; the objects are thus emptied of their specific context, as if gravitating toward abstraction. From this moment on, they exist only within the montage. We viewers may know nothing about their origins, or about the trajectory they have followed with the artist, as we face the total, exacting demand made by the work, in the studio or in a gallery, in an encounter stripped of information.
This was Azoulay’s choice. She also chose to provide the works with titles offering suggestive, reflexive points of reference that underscore the formal aspect of her poetics and thus further obscure their camouflaged affective dimension. Titles such as Linguistic Turn (2013) or Synecdoche (2012) give expression to a highly refined poetic symbolism that invites us to respond with great restraint to the textuality of the image as a whole. We are never made to observe pain. We are never asked to identify with or merge with the work, in which the occasionally present human figures appear indifferent, inaccessible, and withdrawn—avoiding contact or a face-to-face, save perhaps for a curious or furtive glance at one another.
When I returned home after encountering Ilit Azoulay’s work for the first time, I dreamt a dream from which I awoke with the word beit-sefer (the Hebrew word for school, which literally means “the house of the book”) impressed in my mind. In the dream, however, this compound word was written differently and sounded differently—“beit se-fear” is what I both heard and read in the dream. I had encountered something harrowing and uncanny, something that caused a sense of fear to trickle into the house and into the book and to undermine the foundations of knowledge—something that encouraged me, if only as a personal experiment, to transport the journey undertaken by Azoulay into the realm of psychic reality, even if, just like external reality, it seems to remain outside the work.
“For the flâneur,” writes Walter Benjamin, “the city splits into its dialectical poles. It becomes a landscape that opens to him and a parlor that encloses him.” 5 Such a room, a discrete urban enclave, lends its name to Room # 8 (2011), pp. 37, 73–91 one of the most impressive, perhaps even emblematic, works created by Azoulay the flâneuse. Since a style is not, by definition, a catalogue of subjects, one can and should extricate from this work not only its central motifs, but also the self-reflexive characteristics underlying the artistic syntax created by Azoulay. For, as she puts it, what is at stake here is a “linguistic turn”—a phrase that appears simultaneously as a chance formation and as a carefully planned construct. This syntax appears to bring together elements of a single experience that were stored in a different part of our memory, transforming them into a dream-thought. The network of connections is thus not necessarily logical or even emotional. “The ego handling of the dream self—its aesthetic,” as Christopher Bollas writes, “inherits its now internalized structures from the way the self experienced the early environment and passes this on in the dream setting by the way the ego handles the subject. This is not a memory in the proper sense, a cognitive recollection that becomes available to the subject’s psychic or thematic recovery, but an existential memory, a remembering by being, that is internalized into the ego’s structure and is manifested in the dream through the ego’s style, or as I choose to denote the phenomenology of its style, into the aesthetic.”6
Azoulay’s Room # 8 is spread out as a panoramic montage strip that unfolds, as if in a dream, against a roughly textured, monochromatic grayish background resembling concrete, which stretches almost across its entire length. 7 The Formica backrest of an orphaned chair at the right-hand edge of the frame, which appears in different variations in additional works, leans against the wall beside a displaced keyhole, which marks the disrupted point of entry into the work. A key-without-a-key, a threshold-without-a-threshold, which nevertheless decisively shuts out the world outside the artwork and all that unfolds in it. This categorical frame is duplicated by the many frames within the work—those of photographs, windows, doors, or closets, which separate its different parts from one another. Following Rosalind Krauss, one can see the very act of spatialization and the creation of spaces between one image and the next as an instance of what is referred to elsewhere as a “linguistic turn.” The spatialized images deprive the photograph of its central illusory quality: the illusion of total presence that lies in the freezing of a single moment, of a reality that existed at a specific time and in a specific place. The act of spatialization, which is born of the relations between the images and the spaces that separate them from one another, shatters this simultaneous presence, indicating as it does that we are not observing a direct experience, but rather a constructed world rife with interpretation. The photograph negates its own privileged status in relation to the real, presenting us with a reality that is established as a sign. 8 Azoulay’s “linguistic turn” is thus not only a title, but also a means of distilling a certain quality within the image itself, which involves an active transformation of presence into absence—that is, into representation or writing. This transformative process applies both to the objects-findings transported from sites of destruction, and to the other images woven into the montage.
Earlier on, I mentioned the photographs that appear within Azoulay’s works. The wall in Room # 8 features an entire series of photographs. While some of these photographs appear to be souvenirs, we cannot always determine whether they belong to others or to the artist herself, and whether she uses them to reconstruct her memories or to invent fictional ones. One small photograph, which hangs below a painted rectangular window located on the wall in a seemingly arbitrary manner, features two men in gray suits moving a wall. Another photograph, a large cutout that occupies the center of the work and is located within what appears to be a square block of glass, features a blurred, seated male figure similarly dressed in a suit and wearing a bowtie, who looks towards his right with his hands clasped together. Azoulay told me in conversation that like another miniaturized figure positioned on a shelf to its left, it was scanned from a class photograph taken at a European school. To its right, as if glued to the glass, is another photographed figure, this time in color, which was taken from the series “Tourists” by the American artist Duane Hanson. p. 76 The figure, captured in a satirical manner that is nevertheless not devoid of compassion, represents the cliché of the tourist-photographer from Florida: a mustached, bespectacled, overweight man wearing a baseball cap and carrying a camera around his neck, his hands on his hips, his head slightly lifted, his gaze either astonished or bored. Despite the clearly delineated outlines of this figure, which potentially mark a reflexive moment pertaining to the conditions of the work as a whole, he is located at a distance and is not, in fact, photographing the ensemble. The tourist suspends the photographic action. If there is some form of dramatic tension in this work, despite Azoulay’s tendency to de-dramatize her materials, it is embodied in the tension between the image of this photographer and what takes place beyond another window that appears in the work—a real, slightly open window that is partially located behind the upper left part of the glass plate, with iron bars and a tangle of ropes visible on its other side. Behind this window stands an additional male figure, who observes the scene with one open eye. From his position behind the lattice, he is likely unable to see anything except for the artist’s observing eyes. He does not see the wall unfolding before our eyes. Yet he is watching something else, something that we cannot observe, for we are unable to see what is taking place in the space between us and the walls. So that even if the exterior appears threatening while the room has a protective quality to it, the man’s terrified gaze attests perhaps to the fact that he is better off remaining outside the room. In any event, what unfurls before us is nothing but these flat, horizontal partitions, which exclude us from the potential space between them. As if we were facing a gallery wall. As if the room itself had internalized the exhibition space, becoming an exhibition wall. As Itamar Levy writes about walls in his book Home and Road, “One could say that they are the room, and yet they efface themselves. They have a minimalist tendency, which enables us to forget their existence. […] The walls of a room possess a kind of modest wisdom, the wisdom of disappearance.” 9 Yet here the walls take over, while the room, which, according to Benjamin, encloses the flâneur’s city, vanishes and disappears. The containment of the miniscule objects placed upon shelves in this and other works, where they appear as unidentified, non-functional objects, only serves to enhance the sense of disquiet. This sense of disquiet is created not only because, as already noted, Azoulay strips the real objects she presents of their studium, that is, of any sort of social commitment seemingly enfolded in her very gesture and in the historical and political context in which it takes place. Nor is it due solely to the fact that the understated presence of these objects precludes the intrusion of a nostalgic dimension, which would present them as the fragments of a lost paradise. This disquiet is also created because, in contrast to Roland Barthes, Azoulay does not charge the work or any of its constitutive elements with a pathetic or affective punctum. 10 The unexpected sense of coexistence between the different elements, which sustains the semblance of them existing peacefully one alongside another, is not experienced as a shock or mystery but as a misunderstanding, or rather an active refusal to understand, which is more directly embodied in the work The Keys (2010). pp. 122–31 The live figure, which is photographed from behind wearing a wrinkled, stained gray shirt, looks to the left towards a bunch of keys stuck into the wall as if put on display. Yet the keys, strangely enough, point upwards, in defiance of the law of gravity. This upward thrust and the gaze of the seated figure, who stares at them without reaching out, as if he himself had become an object, render them similarly useless.
At the Appearance of Things (2011) p. 20 reproduces a photograph by Lux Feininger, who captured the everyday life of the Bauhaus students. It features, for the first time in Azoulay’s oeuvre, a group of women in a stairwell— another space that appears repeatedly in her works—while once again providing no key for deciphering the scene, which seems to have been staged. Most of the women, who are moving towards the dark space at the top of the staircase, gather in its upper part in a state of arrested motion. Some of them appear calm, while others exude a sense of subtle anxiety or suspicion as they turn their smiling faces to the camera, as if responding to a call. There is no connection between them. Not a single one of them looks at the others or responds to them. Azoulay dialogues implicitly with two additional representations of this photograph—a 1932 painting by Oskar Schlemmer and a 1989 painting by Roy Lichtenstein. In both paintings, the women’s heads are turned away from us, so that their smiles are effaced and they appear faceless. Is the courtyard of this school the courtyard of the beit se-fear, the schoolhouse turned into a house of fear? Why is the girl in the foreground hastening to walk towards us, in the opposite direction from her fellow students? Where is she hurrying to? And how should one read the gnarled natural formation added by Azoulay, which appears like a mushroom-shaped rock covered with moss? Separating the sleek, gleaming architectural space on the right side of the work from its left part, as if separating light from darkness, this formation represents another recurrent gesture that appears in Azoulay’s grids—the presence of surreal vegetation, which transforms nature itself into a form of imitation.
If these works represent a radical turning back, it is largely translated into images of objects that stage a drama unfolding on the exterior of the image. 11 Like the walls of the destroyed buildings, the works conceal their fragile foundations. The psychoanalytic language of object relations obviously focuses on people possessing a functional value or values for the individual, who is himself charged with value. 12 The others—external or internalized objects, those we loved and hated in our early life— represent aspects of ourselves as they occupy a place in the imaginary space of our psyche. Ilit Azoulay uses objects in the literal sense: split, miniscule objects of the kind that fascinate small children—children who remain in actuality outside of the work’s frame. Yet what does it mean to incorporate an object as it is? Perhaps its humanization. The object becomes human. The uncanny human environment it shapes is slowly emptied of human beings.