Houses of Junk and Specters
On Ilit Azoulay’s Early and Recent Works
To write is to surrender to the fascination of time’s absence. Now we are doubtless approaching the essence of solitude. Time’s 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
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 sort of support, usually on shelves aligned to a grid, echoing the breadth and length of the photographic paper’s frame. The installation of such small, humble items in accordance to a rigid geometric order emits a sense of impotence; loss, loneliness, detachedness. But an attempt to remedy these disturbing 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. For 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 elementary items of any technology, perhaps of technology per se: representations of the technical impulse (techné) 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 plane, the photographic paper itself – the medium’s support and the format in which the images are placed – seems to be the carrier of the technical field’s elements; and since the items themselves are placed on a shelf, it 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 that complements the horizontal one in outlining the grid form, which is the basic unit of order.
In one of Azoulay’s early series of photographs (2008), the desert plane itself 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 larger 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 non-cultural, 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, comprising items since their invention and up to the present day. 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 mad collector of nameless objects, an utter chaos of nets, screws, pieces of wood, beds in which people have 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 joins this journey in search of the unconscious substrata and the traces of Romanticism in American culture, taken through God-forsaken 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 necrophilian search of the farm owner for testimonies regarding 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 are carriers of a memory of manual contact that traces a physical presence and the 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) that 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 named WALL-E 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? laboratory?) 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 of sorts), playing (like Cézanne‘s The Card Players 1894-1895), 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 dulled with 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 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 is not completed, for what is no longer 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 connect them to 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 is available for communication with any and all of these grids, only so long as it remains utterly committed to the establishment of foreignness and distance between these object images and all that stands in front of them.
In this grid, caught in remnants and continuously woven 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 specters, or like 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. 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, somewhat like Joseph Beuys’s utopian Eurasian plains.
Four years after her stay in Nebraska, Azoulay returns to its ruined objects, bodies and houses, but this time she chooses to find them only within the spectral realm of photography. All the photographs she took then, in the desert, are re-embedded in her current photographs. She says:
The idea behind it all is to trace a line of thought connecting my current acts with what I did in 2008, which was a milestone that I still don’t know how to speak about or understand thoroughly. The modest artist’s book Nebraska will have two parts: the first part will contain the Nebraska works, which until now were titled Unknown Aspects, and the second part, which will appear first in the book, will have some ten photographs of various spaces, which I’m presently working on and will eventually join together to create a fictitious exhibition space, like a sketch for an installation that will never be realized. Some of these spaces will remain empty, and in others works will be hung, which are in fact the early Nebraska photographs. Between the two parts there will be a schematic drawing of a fictitious three-floor exhibition space, indicating where the works are to be installed.
The symmetry between the two parts of the book allows us to regard the early Nebraska photographs (embedded in the current works) as analogous to the scraps (embedded in the early works), interspersed with photographic materials (“pre-WWII negatives of photographs of couples “) collected in the desert by the farm owner. The sequence of images extending between the earlier scrap photographs and the later photographs of scrap photographs identifies the life span and time of these technological remains as purely photographic, while redefining photography as the preserver of the physicality of mechanisms that no longer exist. And as the current photographs are viewed in relation to negatives from the past, the act of photography is identified as the development and bringing to light of images, emotions and memories of the past, of other people – not just an evocation of what has been and is no longer there (as Roland Barthes claims), but of that which wasn’t there even at the time.
In the early works, the scraps are photographed on tables; the current images, however, are placed on walls. Thus they seem to be returned to the vertical architectural support on which exhibits are displayed, while, at the same time, they are sent off to hover in the virtual space of digital photography. The current photographs are offered the actual walls of the building, the architectural locus, much like the places in which the Nebraskan farm owner had years before collected the scraps, remnants, and fragmented objects. But while this past inventory had an actual material, physical (albeit ruined) existence, the architecture that surrounds the current photographic images is virtual, immaterial. Azoulay recounts:
When I started working on the book I imagined the unreal spaces in which the works would be exhibited. Some of my works simulate architectural proposals, which it would be pointless to implement. At first, it was quite concrete: a sort of space that the work depends on, in which at least one or two walls have no functional purpose. Then other spaces started to come into being, more and more detached and formal. The series has titles such as Floor X, Room Y, Wall Z.
The architectural spaces, marked out as in mapping for operational purposes – perhaps of military zones, or disaster-ridden areas (like WALL-E) – are composed of elements taken from other structures, like a body of remembered architecture, a virtual version of ruins from the past. In this spectral version – or alternately, this memorized version, i.e., a proposal of a way to reassemble a memory – of the ruins, the depicted elements are quite intact, but there is something slightly odd and disturbing in the way they are joined together, in their angles of vision, in their arid emptiness, in the empty light-filled openings, somewhat like a surrealist picture, a dream or an hallucination. Azoulay:
After the pages showing these spaces, there will be an architectural drawing of an invented space with three transparent floors, with stairs, windows and walls placed in implausible locations.
Some of the images of these spaces seem like abstract drawings – places informed by no reason other than imagination and conceptualization, striving for utopian solace. Azoulay’s architectural images, too – future spheres of her photographic imagery – are utopian places or, alternatively, places of utopian architecture. There, ever since the ruins, the unique time of her photographs continues; an ongoing past-present which is a condensed, enchantingly tender present moment of what has passed and is no more.
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