To write is to surrender to the fascination of timeʼs absence. Now we are doubtless approaching the essence of solitude. Timeʼs absence is not a purely negative mode. It is the time when nothing begins, when initiative is not possible, when, before the affirmation, there is already a return of the affirmation. Rather than a purely negative mode, it is, on the contrary, a time without negation, without decision, when here is nowhere as well …

— Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature 1 

Before she photographs the world, Ilit Azoulay arranges its leftover scraps in straight lines. Screws, nails, springs, coils, spools of thread, fibers of all sorts, old pieces of rope, perforated tin plates, fragments of disintegrating, unstitched, damaged embroideries are all arranged over some kind of support, usually on shelves aligned to a grid, resonating the breadth and length of the photographic paper’s frame. The installation of such small, humble items in rigid geometric order emits a sense of impotence; loss, loneliness, detachedness. But an attempt to remedy these upsetting emotions is also apparent, indicated by a discernible effort to preserve things, to create for all these items, which have lost their place in the world, new miniature places and supports that may also serve as time capsules. 

These remnants are easily recognizable as the leftover components of some technology or other, but it is hard to point out the particular use they had served or to date them. These screws, screw-nuts, buttonhole loops, or threads may have been part of technologies used over an extended period of time, and so it may be said that Azoulay presents timeless, placeless technology, or rather the basic elements of any technology, perhaps of technology per se: representations of the technical impulse (techne) that underlies technology, which always conform to a basic grid pattern. When images of items from this inventory of elements are surrounded by an empty surface, the photographic paper itself—which is both the medium’s support and the format in which the images are placed—seems to be the bearer of the technical field’s elements; and since the items themselves are placed on a shelf, this becomes a simile of the photographic medium’s format, which requires a wall in order to maintain its stability in the world, an architectural unit to support and counterbalance it; a vertical element which complements the horizontal one, both outlining the grid form, which is the basic unit of order. 

In one of Azoulay’s early series of photographs—unknown aspects, 2008  pp. 6, 11–14—the flat plane of the desert landscape becomes analogous to photography. In Azoulay’s own words:

I made these works during an artist residency program in Nebraska, in a place called the Art Farm. I went there in search of a flat landscape, at a time when I was taking quite a lot of photographs in places “without objects.” I was looking for dry, flat terrains that have a sky-line and an earth-line with no bushes, no mountains, hills or houses. In Israel I only found one area with such a landscape, around the Mitzpe Ramon crater. About two years after I had worked there, in the company of some friends who are painters, I was looking for a more expansive flat landscape, which I found, through Google Earth, in the State of Nebraska, all of which is flat terrain, with the exception of a single small hill at its center. 

Robert Smithson spoke of the field of photography as an ocean, and Ilit Azoulay speaks about it in the context of the desert—another place that is empty and apparently noncultural, whose surface and boundaries are unstable, fluid, expansive, dangerous, exciting. By anchoring her photography in the desert, Azoulay links it to the destiny of Land Art, which had shifted artistic activity from central urban exhibition venues to America’s deserts and frontier prairies—or, in Azoulay’s case, to a studio apartment in an old desert farm:

Staying at the Art Farm, one is required to contribute three hours of work a day—for instance, gathering potatoes, cutting the grass, or, in my case, sorting through a collection of screws, with items as old as the time they were invented. A few days after I got there, I realized that I had no desire to photograph the desert landscape. I was fascinated by a lot of things on the farm, first and foremost by the farm owner—a wonderful man, a collector of nameless objects: an utter chaos of nets, screws, pieces of wood, beds in which people had died, pre-WWII negatives of photographs of couples, printing machines, etc., all of which he collects from dilapidated houses in villages and towns that were hit by hurricanes. Instead of landscapes, I started taking medium shots of objects arranged on tables: one day of photography, one day of developing, and then printing in a subterranean lab.

Settling in remote, “primitive” parts of America and turning one’s attention to odd figures and long-forgotten materials are a familiar topos in chronicles of American culture, including films such as David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and The Straight Story (1999), John Sayles’ Lone Star (1996), or No Country for Old Men (2007) by the Coen brothers. Azoulay joined this 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.

In such a place, Azoulay traces the farm owner’s search for testimonies about the dead, objects that had touched dead bodies, ghost images, traces of past actions and machines, ruins left behind by nature’s grandiose spectacles (a major theme of Romanticism, incidentally). Her photographs bear testimony to desires driven by the desires of another, a stranger who covets remnants of objects and instruments that carry the memory of manual contact, tracing the physical presence and body heat of strangers long gone. It is a nostalgic journey in the footsteps of a another nostalgic journey to moments in which objects, machines, and houses still carried the imprint of human touch and were made to human measure—a journey back in time (hers and the farm owner’s) which Azoulay links to gathering as a mode of action, which, as we know, is customarily regarded as feminine. In Azoulay’s work, photography—which theoretical discourse has repeatedly discussed in “masculine” terms such as pointing at (Rosalind Krauss), shooting (Susan Sontag), or hunting (Vilém Flusser)—draws nearer, image by image, to feminine territories and their gathering practices.

In the post-apocalyptic Earth depicted in the animation film WALL-E (2008, dir. Andrew Stanton), the robot protagonist gathers remnants of an extinct civilization in his hiding place. Scraps of the former Technological Age— machine parts, a soundtrack, or a fragment from an old movie—are presented at the outset as signifying all that may still stand for Earth and human culture, and at the end of the film they reappear, suggesting the return of humans to planet Earth. In Azoulay’s work, too, the rarity and scarcity of the scrap items she photographs is apparent—indicated by the way she isolates each of them from its original pile (for the pile is the form that best indicates the unimportance of its constituent parts), allows it to exist on its own, opens up an empty space around it so it may be perceived as representative, lays it on the table surface like a rare (archeological? scientific?) finding that should be studied with great concentration and attentiveness.

In Azoulay’s work, remnants and scraps that have been removed and cast away from the cultural order are called to the table, as if invited to a convention or gathering that stands for society and culture—be it a meal, a conversation, a ceremony (which would make the table an altar), playing (like Cézanne’s The Card Players, 1894–95), or a discussion about studying and knowledge (as in Vitto Acconci’s Under-History Lessons, 1976). Be that as it may, they are elevated to the level of representation, which lifts them off the ground and distinguishes them from presence (Émile Durkheim). We are invited to shift the images of the items arranged on the tables into the metaphoric field, and thus, for a moment, the tattered fabric seems to be a shroud, or possibly a hobo’s bag, containing some secret or cherished object; an old electrical-heater coil appears like an unidentified object emitting light from far off; and a perforated tin lid brings to mind knight armor that bears the patina of time. At times, Azoulay’s imagery calls on us to delve into our memory for art-historical references: frayed ropes hanging in the air, a tattered piece of fabric, or some crooked nails arranged on the table, always parallel to the photographic paper’s vertical and horizontal boundaries, are read in reference to Cézanne’s “table strategy,” but here the “still life” has turned into the junk of a past civilization and technology; an old teaspoon on which a piece of bulbous, fist-like woolen fabric is placed brings to mind the surreal images of Méret Oppenheim; pieces of fabric that have disintegrated into fibrous masses recall dismembered body parts (a brain, intestines)—while the piles and folds of stiff boards, old bottles, unidentified item packed in a plastic bag, and rolled up maps arranged alongside them are all images and arrangements that bring to mind laboratories, simulations of military operations, and arenas of violent ceremonies or criminal events, such as characterized the object arrangements in Joseph Beuys’ work.

However, the metamorphosis of the representational, the metaphoric or historical images in Azoulay’s photographs is also curbed. In their mere nothingness, in the emptiness encompassing them, in their detachment from all particular time or context, these objects present the failure of that metamorphosis; more than presented or represented on the table, they seem to have existed in a present perfect tense, manifesting a past event that has not been completed, for what is no longer there has continued to exist without recourse to restoration, revival, or redemption in a different time or place. At the same time, in a double reversal, this failure is also a success, for it succeeds in maintaining the anonymity and ordinariness of the elements, even when one is tempted to associate them with art-historical images, even when they are placed on the table and lifted onto the pedestal of the Symbolic Order. At this unique moment, the table is revealed as giving lucid voice to particularity, which turns away from all forms of representation or firmly fixed epithets, identities or roles.

The grid, which determines the placement and position of these technological remnants while being determined by them, seems to stand for this particular anonymity, and as such is also the matrix of this present perfect tense, which always connects the past and the present and shows no preference for either. Thus the grid has become iconic of this tense. It is not the grid of modernism, presented as an image of utopian and autarkic autonomy; nor that of postmodernism, reproduced as both a model and a product of ceaseless mechanical movement; nor that of architecture, structured in scaffolding form; it is not even the common, trivial grid habitually used to instill order. No, for Azoulay’s grid lends itself to communication with any and all of these grids, only so long as it remains utterly committed to the establishment of foreignness and distance between the images of these objects and whoever faces them. 

In this 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’s utopian Eurasian plains, these luminous or white-dusted areas associate the close-up images of the tables with a memory of a desert landscape scattered with strange remains. 

 

Sarit Shapira is a curator and theorist of contemporary art.

 

Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude,” The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (1955; repr., Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 23.