• by Jonathan Touitou, 2015

The exhibition space as a time machine

In the early 1920’s, the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf presented new evidence for the controversial idea that language can shape thought. The idea, known as Linguistic Relativity, was suggested already in the 1820’s by the philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt. Whorf’s research on the Hopi language led him to argue that because the language lacked time-markers (distinguishing past, present and future), native speakers of Hopi could not conceptualize time and temporal references. To put it differently, native Hopi speakers seemed to have “no notion or intuition of time as a smooth flowing continuum in which everything in the universe proceeds at equal rate, out of a future, through the present, into a past.” (Whorf 1956, p. 57)[1]

The Hopi Time Controversy, as it came to be known, created a lively debate in the linguistic and the philosophical spheres. In his famous work Hopi-Raum (Hopi-Space), the linguist Ekkehart Malotki accused Whorf of overlooking numerous words and grammatical forms expressing time, suggesting the notions of time and space to be closely intertwined. Malotki argued for what he called an Ego-Centered Spatial Progression, embedding the notion of time in the spatiality of the body and its progression from past into future. According to Malotki, the Hopi language used spatial metaphors in order to encode temporal units.

Under the impulse of Malotki, it might be worth examining museum structure in terms of relativity. Perhaps, we can consider the act of strolling in a museum, 'the visit', as an example of ego-centered spatial progression. As we know, the scenography, as well as the modality of observation in a museum, carefully allocates specific time to specific spaces and regulates our visit by a set of rules. This way, the museum, as an institution, generates a uniform yet invisible cultural layer that it designates as evolution.

Archeology of a never-to-be-erected monument: the viewer as an archeologist

“They (the monuments) contextualize the past and affect the present and the future. In that sense, they function as ideological signifiers; they judge and evaluate and thereby coerce viewers to adopt the normative belief systems they stand for.”[2]

It is precisely within this evolution and invisible layers that Azoulay conducts her inquiry through her photographic practice, whereby she transforms an object, as it stands in the space, into an 'object image'. Since each 'object imageis being assembled out of several macro-photographs, the image of one object will have as many focal/cardinal points as macro-photographs are used to re-compose it. Thus, no longer does the image of an object point to one coordinate, the static photographer, but to its coordinate plane – that is to say, to the photographer’s movement in space.

And yet, our apprehension of the work of art as an inquiry into the past, tracking every detail hinting at the gestures and the decisions made by the artist is not possible in Azoulay’s work. It seems to resist the reduction of its time and space into a narrative of teleological structure. Instead, she proposes an archeological excavation that might unearth other possible narratives.

During her residency at the Kunst-Werke Institute in Berlin, the artist traveled throughout Germany to collect and photograph 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; in others, she examined buildings that were reconstructed precisely, brick by brick, in accordance with Germany’s restoration laws. These laws, along with their application in public and governmental institutions, and their mechanisms towards memory, history and space constitute the layers of Azoulay’s digging ground. Azoulay proposes an archeological excavation, in which to unearth other possible narratives.

Walls with various degrees of degradation, a pile of numbered stones between dismantlement and assemblage, a tombstone on which the name and date have been erased, a skull or else a graffiti on a wall saying ‘1989-1999’ – these ‘time-markers’ that don’t seem to crystallize into one event, appear as archeological findings "waiting" for their historical context.

In Azoulay’s work, the compound image of an object, as well as the photographic plan, are merely the beginnings of an inquiry. Yet, this investigation is not in – or of the image itself, since even a thorough look will reveal nothing of the meticulous digital labor needed to assemble thousands of macro-images into a single panoramic one. In fact, this process cannot be traced back, creating a sort of timelessness. Instead, it points at another meticulous process, namely the enormous gathering of information on each of the collected fragments or objects.

The origin of each and every one of the ‘collected’ objects is carefully scrutinized and verified. Each object thus becomes a monument, attributed with a context of its own. Loaded with their contexts, these objects enter the composition of the photographic plan as ‘equal’ signifiers. Hence, Azoulay’s panoramic photographs function as a metaphorical museum, in which no hierarchy is imposed or attached to the objects.

Each of these objects is exhibited along with its story, supplying a new context for its apprehension. Read one after the other or else randomly, these texts create a separate context, bearing almost no relationship with the one deriving from Azoulay’s images. What initially seemed to be realistically uniform and continuous, according to the Western notion of time, slowly recedes into the imaginary once the bonds between their individual historical context and their organisation as a ‘coherent’ historical narrative collapses into the artificiality of the photographic plane and its timelessness.  

Curating within a work of Art

This booklet contains a selection of objects and fragments from the work 7th Option, with which I composed the following narrative text. Perhaps like Andre Malraux, I curated an imaginary context that “gathers that which seduces our taste and imposes itself on our senses, yet also what is a calling in some of us: an elementary urge”.[3]

A 7th Option

“As I noticed, my horse had lost its shoe, I was at about a two-hour walk from the tavern where I planned on spending the night. Light was fading away very quickly, as the sun had already set. The moon was full, but the woods never felt darker. The stories of the taxidermist that I met in the basement of the tavern that I was returning to, started to haunt me. He was originally from Regensburg and had come to the rainforest because he was fascinated with the Jivaro customs, especially with their technique of shrinking heads. The taxidermist had the chance to see one of those back in Europe, and he was hoping to find one for himself so that he could learn the unique Jivaro technique. Yet, the chances of getting a shrunken head that was not your own were very slim, he said. 'In fact,' he added, 'the Jivaros had understood the rush for their sacred artifact and started producing them in order to satisfy the growing demand coming from the West in exchange for weapons and gold'."

“So there I was, slowly progressing in the mud towards my decapitation. The idea of helping the taxidermist getting a rare example of a Jewish shrunken head was of no comfort to me. My horse stopped and stepped backwards. This is it ... My head was pounding with my heartbeat and I thought I felt a needle in my neck. ‘That is how they capture you’, the taxidermist said. I started feeling numb. One or two minutes passed by, and I could calm down, enough to see a candlelight coming from the window of  what seemed to be a brick house.”

“Quickly, I was at the wooden door, knocking and hoping for a welcoming soul to open. And yes! Unbelievable! But the door opened with an elegant and beautiful young woman. 'Good evening,' she said, ‘Please come in, you are welcome’. It felt as if she had expected me. I scraped my boot before entering a poorly-lit room of modest size. ‘Make yourself comfortable,’  she continued while pointing at a stone seat. ‘You are a little late. I was expecting you five days ago’. I wanted to answer and express my surprise but no words came out of my mouth nor was I able to move my lips. She smiled at me and walked towards a skull standing on the window, stroke a match and lit the skull. ‘It’s a candle, which lasts 120 hours. By Wednesday at 10 o’clock you will be dead. You now start your slow route to the realm of the dead. In front of you are two objects: a molar tooth from the jaw of Saint Wolfgang of Regensburg and a stone relief of Judensau, from Regensburg as well. You now have to choose one object. The spirit of this object will accompany you in the next 120 hours.’ I still could not move, and my thoughts hit my mind at the pace of my shoe-missing horse, but the one thought that came to my mind was that I might as well die while eating and fucking as a pig rather than from a toothache. She handed me a stone curlicue in the form of a pig’s tail.”

[1] Whorf, Benjamin Lee (1956). “An American Indian model of the universe”. In Carroll, J. B., Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of MIT, pp. 57–64.

[2] Lambert, Ladina Bezzola and Andrea Ochsner (2009). “Moment to Monument: The Making and Unmaking of Cultural Significance”. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, p. 11.

[3] Malraux, Andre (1952). “Le musée imaginaire, la sculpture mondiale, la statuaire”. Gallimard, Galerie de la Pleiade, p. 17. “Le musée imaginaire rassemble ce qui séduit notre goût et s’impose a notre sensibilité, mais aussi ce qu’appelle en certains d’entre nous un besoin fondamental.”