- by Katia Reich, 2014
The appropriation of history by means of construction, destruction, and reconstruction is the theme of Ilit Azoulay’s photographic works. The Israeli artist, born 1972 in Jaffa, works like an archaeologist, securing objects in human settlements with great scholarly precision, and then documenting these in detailed photographs. These photographed “findings,” mostly from architectural structures, are then assembled through meticulous digital processing into monumental—up to thirteen-meter long—photo collages. This exhibition, IMPLICIT MANIFESTATIONS, collects the results of Azoulay’s period as artist-in-residence at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, from July to November 2013. Her residency—jointly supported by the Shpilman Institute for Photography Tel Aviv, the Schir Foundation, and KW—included a stay in a live-in studio, a solo exhibition at the Projektraum (project space) on the ground floor of KW, and a publication.
Azoulay works mostly on location. Her findings are items that were made for specific purposes, at specific times, which she removes from their original contexts and places within new pictorial settings. While the objects operate as bearers of meaning, whose production and conditions of use tell us stories and histories, the photo works become a projection surface for utopian thinking: a single stone can stand for an entire building.
The object as an artifact is an ideal core, or center, for the composition of the image, which the beholder approaches through its process. The object is pictorially enacted in the form of a network, in which history appears in an associative and nonlinear manner—actively becoming stories. Azoulay’s digital collages of images are made via a complex process of associations and research driven by the mindset of archaeological research. After the findings are discovered, they are registered following highly systematic rules, which are clearly shaped by the selected camera technique. The artist meticulously takes stock of her objects. So as to remain as close as possible to reality, she photographs each finding true to scale and from a central perspective. Her ideal tool is therefore the macro lens, which reproduces its object on a scale of 1:1 and does not reduce its size, as a regular lens would. The photographed object fragments are then digitally processed and the images are reassembled.
Azoulay’s models and predecessors in this respect are to be found in the photomontage and collage pioneers of twentieth-century classical modernism, who were driven by the desire to test the limits of the photographic apparatus, as in Dada and New Vision photography and artists like Hannah Höch, El Lissitzky, and László Moholy-Nagy. Whereas in those cases this way of working led to utopian and subversive forms, Azoulay, with her digital recording and subsequent processing and montage, uses it to present an analytical and artistic contribution to the cultural history of her home country Israel, and to the other places where she has lived and worked, most recently Berlin, and Germany in general.
Azoulay’s diverse pictorial narratives, made up of various single components, are repeatedly interrupted by abrupt contrasts that open up new chains of reference and association. The beholder becomes part of this dialectic, as the findings from differing geographical, historical, and cultural contexts are assembled digitally into one fictional pictorial space. In this interplay between deconstruction on the one hand and the culturally and historically charged politics of preservation and cultures of memory on the other, Azoulay works as a storyteller who simultaneously documents and interprets. Cultural formations are always crystallized in the collective experience, which Azoulay rearranges in her artworks, thus making an important contribution to questions of testimony, and to cultures of remembrance.
Azoulay’s pictorial themes and artistic method are both closely linked to her origins within a family of Moroccan immigrants and to her childhood in Jaffa, Israel. As a child, Azoulay often accompanied a friend of her grandfather’s, who worked for some time as a builder, to construction sites. Demolition and new construction took place almost simultaneously in Israel. The young state was only founded in 1948 and was growing rapidly, and there were not enough building supplies to meet increasing demand. Instead of building sustainably, the construction industry concentrated on expediently and cheaply meeting its short-term needs. In one case, for example, the spaces between wall claddings were filled with belt buckles that came from a nearby buckle factory. Azoulay terms these instances as “fake walls.”
Fascinated by the diverse objects used to construct buildings, Azoulay became a collector, continuing this activity as an adult and turning it into her art practice. Her work THE KEYS, made of two large 370x150 cm and 500x150 cm panoramas and an oval window image, perfectly reflects how closely Azoulay’s methods and work are linked to the history of Israel. THE KEYS presents a broad spectrum of findings from different construction sites: metal rods in differing stages of weathering, stones, sculptures, as well as findings that refer both to the living and to passing away: plants, a bag of fruit, a clock. The key ring with its strikingly colorful pendant (thus the title) can be seen as a metaphor for the significance of building houses, and for settlement policies and practices in Israeli-Palestinian history.
Azoulay builds her own walls of shelving, in which she installs her findings. These refer back to artistic models such as the American sculptor Joseph Cornell’s (1903–1972), and Israeli artist Haim Steinbach’s (born 1944). Exploring the cultural and aesthetic aspects of found objects, and then decontextualizing and reassembling them, led both of these artists to work on the presentation forms of framing, showcase, and shelving, all of which are also important to Azoulay.
In her most recent exhibitions IMPLICIT MANIFESTATIONS, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin (September 14– November 16, 2014), and at the Herzliya Museum in Israel (September 20–December 27, 2014), Azoulay expands her photo collage SHIFTING DEGREES OF CERTAINTY with further components for the first time. At KW, text and sound are added on audio-guides. At the Herzliya Museum, the group exhibition including both German and Israeli artists will feature Azoulay’s large photo collages and panoramas, as well as SHIFTING DEGREES OF CERTAINTY, which serves as an index to the works on view.
From the very beginning of her stay in Berlin, Azoulay made the place and neighborhood she was living in the object of her historical, analytical, and aesthetic research. She included the KW building, as well as the adjacent exhibition and living space in her new piece, given their significant histories and their present role. Using a crane and her camera with a macro lens, Azoulay created a detailed documentation of the meter-long crack along the KW façade, caused in 2008 during the adjacent building’s new construction, and included it in a prominent place in SHIFTING DEGREES OF CERTAINTY and in her new panoramas. Traces of over twenty years of artistic and curatorial work in the exhibition and production spaces at KW also entered Azoulay’s new work; she added an object text, EXHIBIT 41: MASHRABIYA, as a commentary on Olaf Metzel’s sculpture, TEGELER WEG 1984/2005, produced in 2005 for the REGARDING TERROR: THE RAF EXHIBITION, and integrated other architectural details from the exhibition galleries into her work. She also made use of Nedko Solakov’s artistic intervention MARKIERUNG, made for the RELAUNCH project in 2013, in which drawings and comments spread around the entire building pointed out new projects and the future exhibition program at KW. In addition, Łukasz Surowiec’s work for the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, BERLIN-BIRKENAU, is echoed in image and text in Azoulay’s SHIFTING DEGREES OF CERTAINTY. On commission by the Biennale curator Artur Zmijewski, Surowiec had 320 beech striplings taken from around Ausschwitz and planted at various locations in Berlin. Two of them were planted in the KW courtyard. EXHIBIT 8: YOUNG BIRCH TREE describes the context for this piece’s creation, and Azoulay also has a botanist analyze the birches’ health and the condition of their soil. The results not only show that the soil is not sufficiently nutritious, but also that the trees store factors such as fear, pain, and stress in their seeds, and are thus weakened as a result of their history. Researching facts beyond the artworks themselves and adding a new narrative, Azoulay contributes an extended significance and creates a greater sense of permanence around these artistic gestures.
Following these first steps, Azoulay expanded her field of research beyond Berlin, to the whole of Germany. Her first interest was the Bauhaus tradition in Dessau and Weimar, as she was well acquainted with the architecture and philosophy of the Bauhaus from Tel Aviv. She then visited some of Germany’s oldest historical cities, including Halle, Kulmain, Potsdam, Regensburg, and Xanten. There she researched listed cultural monuments and sites and photographed selected, at times iconographic fragments of architecture, sculptures, and objects. This research included correspondence with curates in monasteries, house squatters, employees in public administration, lawyers, botanists, and taxidermists.
In other cases, she examined buildings that had been meticulously rebuilt after World War II according to the strict laws for preservation of historical monuments. EXHIBIT 12: JUDENSAU – THE JEWISH SAU, a stone sculpture that was attached to Regensburg Cathedral in 1230, highlights the ambivalent approaches to historical artworks with anti-Semitic content within the requirements of German monument preservation laws, and the opposing stances taken by responsible protagonists. In this case, in addition to pursuing her characteristic method of photographing each object as though under a magnifying glass, Azoulay also researched all available information about the origin and context of the object, and visited the monument’s on-site restoration workshop. With her text on EXHIBIT 12 she not only shows how inconsistent realities exist side by side; Her fictitious narration also ironically refracts both earnest obedience to German restoration laws and the overall sense of responsibility and guilt that is brought to bear on German history.
The artistic results of Azoulay’s residency are presented in KW’s Projektraum. The 9x2.5-meter photo collage SHIFTING DEGREES OF CERTAINTY covers the eastern wall of the room in a puzzle-like arrangement which resembles a map. The macro photographs of each of the 85 findings are assembled in the image alongside the street system of a fictional ancient city. They depict a broad spectrum of Azoulay’s research and finds in Berlin and Germany, with light switches, heating radiators, stairwells, the façades of buildings, medieval stone sculptures and fragments of architecture, artworks, relics from exhibitions, letters, packing items, two human figures, plants, stuffed animals, and much more.
Beginning with the real findings and with her own experiences while researching, Azoulay then begins to blend reality with imagination and fiction in her object descriptions. In EXHIBIT 21: HIDDEN CAMERA and EXHIBIT 77: RADIATOR, she introduces one of photography’s fundamental themes: its ability to use optical means so as to make something previously unseen or unnoticed suddenly visible. The text for EXHIBIT 21 describes the hidden installation of a camera in the auditorium at Bauhaus Dessau, and the covert, unauthorized recording of a meeting between two people. Something that was not visible to the public is visualized in the imagination of the reader by means of documentation by video camera and through Azoulay’s text. EXHIBIT 77: RADIATOR describes a vain attempt to photograph the rising heat from a radiator designed by Walter Gropius and Marianne Brandt, which was also in the Bauhaus auditorium. The full picture is only complete, in this case, by a combination of seeing and listening, which is presented through the object texts included in the audio-guides, so that the viewers can create the whole image for themselves.
These audio-guide texts summarize experiences, research, and failed plots undertaken by the artist and actively make of the beholder a witness to cultural history, politics, and society. At times, the audio-guides comment on the findings in sound rather than spoken commentary. EXHIBIT 51: WOODEN CHAIRS IN A CINEMA, for example, is a recorded soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film BLOW UP (1966), which alludes to the relationship between witnessing and photography. Photographer David Bailey has just met and photographed the woman in the park, who demands the film roll from his camera, but he insists on his right to photograph, saying: “… some people are politicians. I am a photographer!”. These audio guides do not prescribe a fixed route through the exhibition, leaving the visitor free to choose. Visitors to the exhibition are thus placed in the role of active participants, and through their movements in the gallery space they themselves become part of the exhibition. Another layer is created through the protagonists of Azoulay’s stories: in some cases their full name is given, in others only their initials, and in others they remain completely anonymous. These various identities leave the viewer to construct their own realities, and to ask who is being hidden or protected, and can the narrator even be trusted.
Concerning the question of analog versus digital photography, Azoulay abandoned analog camera and darkroom work in favor of digital technology in 2009. The digitally produced image, a binary code, without any material medium, no longer necessarily indicates a physical reality. There is no negative, no haptic and proven connection to the document, but rather only fragments of reality, which allow Azoulay to follow up her basic documentation with a much freer creation of new (pictorial) realities. Azoulay’s work remains closely bound to the real findings, seeing that her stones, works of architecture, fragments, and objects all derive from the physical reality and are then digitally shaped, assembled, and collaged. This differs from the photograms of Thomas Ruff, for example, which are produced purely digitally with specially developed software. A decision for analog or digital image production is nowadays made entirely on the basis of artistic inclination and chosen aims. Azoulay has opted for digital technology because the perfection of detail and the manifold and generous means of presentation in digital photo collage make for a more convincing visualization of her interest in researching human living, cultural spaces, and the formation of identity. With her digital image collages she creates a valuable archive that proposes something permanent, in the face of the ephemerality of history and of life.