Israeli Urban Archaeologist Takes the Art World by Storm

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Ilit Azoulay. 'The place I enjoy being in is the studio.'
Ilit Azoulay. 'The place I enjoy being in is the studio.'Credit: David Bachar
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

Eight years ago, before the opening of “Findings” – her first solo show, at Tel Aviv’s Minshar Gallery – the photographer Ilit Azoulay called herself a “wandering hunter” and talked about “the way one can decide in advance about the hunt."

Azoulay, who creates massive installations in her Jaffa studio, surely never dreamed that one day her findings would be displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and she would be able to get through the opening despite her anxiety.

“Shifting Degrees of Certainty,” comprising Azoulay’s photographs of nearly 100 objects and an audio guide, is part of MoMA’s “Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015.” The exhibition, which includes the work of 19 promising artists from 14 countries, opened in November and runs through March 20. "Ocean of Images," now in its 30th year, has launched the careers of many important photographers.

The installation resulted from Azoulay’s five-month residency at Berlin’s Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, during which she pursued her interest in the archaeology of cities.

“I made a note of towns and cities that weren’t bombarded during World War II, in order to be able to see a true process of preservation and reconstruction,” she says. Captivated by ancient cathedrals and other buildings, she collected objects that included architectural fragments. These were photographed using technique similar to scanning.

The Keys, 2010.Credit: Ilit Azoulay

Together with assistants, Azoulay meticulously researched the history of each object – they pored through archives and consulted numerous agencies, organizations and individuals ranging from academics to taxidermy experts and specialists and builders, among others. She also recorded sounds and conversations, integrating them into the installation.

The first object Azoulay photographed for the project was a large gravestone that had been appended to the facade of a residential building in Weimar. The inscription read: “Here lies in heavenly repose my dear husband Friedrich Christian Richter, who fought in the Railroad Operation in Kaiser Frederick’s Army.” The name of the deceased had been scratched off the stone, however.

“Somebody obviously had brought the marker from the cemetery to the building, and I was curious as to who erased the letters,” Azoulay says.

A month-long search with a researcher hired by Azoulay led to various city archives and eventually to the Greek island of Crete. There Azoulay found an art student who during a residency in Weimar had studied the possibility of erasing a person’s history in Germany.

“She bought a few gravestones, used a sculpting tool to erase the names of the dead and hung the stones in a few German cities. The process showed me that no matter what I photograph there’s always a story,” Azoulay says.

First Option, 2013.Credit: Ilit Azoulay

Another story began when she noticed, near her Berlin studio, two birch trees that seemed to be sickly. She learned that the trees were part of a project by the Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec, who transplanted 320 trees from Auschwitz to Berlin. A botanist explained to Azoulay that trees, like people, carry the effects of trauma from a young age. These trees grew in an environment of fear and atrocities, which affected their development.

Of the 150 sites and objects she photographed in Germany, Azoulay selected 85, which she digitally combined into what she calls a “brain.”

“When I returned to Israel, I took all the correspondence with the archives and turned it into a story. I wrote it in three languages – German, Hebrew and English. We went into the studio and recorded it with actors and we presented the stories of the research in an audio guide, wearing different hats – first my personal journey, then as a historian and another time purely as a sound file.”

The keys to success

Azoulay’s career got its first serious push when Rivka Saker – the chairwoman of Sotheby’s Israel and the founder of Artis, a nonprofit organization that supports Israeli artists – paid $2,500 for three of Azoulay’s works in the M.F.A. graduates’ exhibition at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. It was an unusual act, Saker confirmed this week in a phone conversation from New York.

Tree For Two One, 2010.Credit: Toni Hafkenscheid

And soon after Saker visited the exhibition, curators from the Israel Museum also came to the show and decided to purchase a larger version of one of the works that Saker bought, “Keys.” Saker opened additional doors for Azoulay, helping her to make connections abroad. Andrea Meislin, who shows the work of Israeli photographers at her eponymous New York gallery, fell in love with Azoulay’s work during a visit to Israel sponsored by Artis. Meislin now represents Azoulay abroad. The second key person to visit Azoulay’s Bezalel show was collector Shalom Shpilman, founder of the Shpilman Institute of Photography.

“Shpilman bought my work and supported me on a daily basis. He brought curators and museum directors to my studio, along with art scholars and collectors from abroad,” says Azoulay. “He helped me build up this muscle that enables me to stand in front of an audience and talk about my work process in the studio and about my works. To this day, I’m still reaping the fruit that Shpilman so generously sowed. There were times when I’d go into the studio and just cry tears of gratitude for being so fortunate to be able to do what I love most.”

In 2010, Shpilman brought Quentin Bajac, then the chief curator of the Pompidou Museum in Paris, to her studio. She says Bajac kept following her work after that, until, in 2013, the Pompidou acquired her work “Room 8.” Bajac is now the photography curator at MoMA and was also behind that museum’s acquiring her work. In late 2015, Azoulay learned the stunning news that MoMA’s purchasing committee had decided to add her work to the museum’s collection for a tidy sum of tens of thousands of dollars.

Does all this success worry you at all?

“Why should it worry me? I’m not afraid that I’ll lose the hunger of an artist who’s just starting out. I also don’t like the spotlight. If you’re asking me if I enjoyed the opening at MoMA or the receptions at New York galleries where I’m supposed to remember who’s who and so on – well, I don’t remember and I don’t enjoy it. It’s really hard work. The place I enjoy being in is the studio. To me, that’s the only meaning of the word ‘success.’”

STUFFED GIRAFFE (detail from SHIFTING DEGREES OF CERTAINTY, 2014).Credit: Ilit Azoulay

Urban archaeologist

In 2015, Azoulay was one of 10 finalists for the Prix Pictet, a prestigious prize awarded to photographers whose work grapples incisively with major social issues. She didn’t win, but she was on the short list of 12 photographers chosen for an exhibition that will travel to 40 museums around the world.

Born in 1972, Azoulay earned a bachelor’s degree in photography from Bezalel in Jerusalem in 1998 and a master’s from the school’s Tel Aviv branch in 2010. Tel Aviv’s Braverman Gallery represents her in Israel. Azoulay has won the Culture and Sports Ministry Prize, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s Constantiner Photography Prize (2011) and the Israel Museum’s Gerard Levy Prize for a Young Photographer, among other awards.

Azoulay, who calls herself an urban archaeologist, uses a Nikon camera with a macro lens that can capture textures that the human eye cannot perceive. In her 2010 project “The Keys,” Azoulay presented, against a white background, objects she collected from construction sites and buildings slated for demolition in south Tel Aviv. Each artifact was brought to the studio and treated like a precious object, restored, photographed, numbered and added to the collection from which she created her photographic installation. For her “hunting trips,” Azoulay is aided by researchers, but she does all the photographing, recording and writing herself.

Over time, these trips have become ever more sophisticated. One of the two projects she is currently working on requires exhausting explorations of the dim storerooms of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem – a project that will take at least five or six years. As someone who does intensive archival work, she is also quite disciplined about her work in the studio: four and a half workdays per week, in which she creates massive installations that depict the reality she has concocted with the objects she photographs, which are sewn onto an artificial canvas with Photoshop.

Her large studio space also resembles a museum, with the cabinets holding countless fascinating objects and treasures. On a shelf under the window are a row of boxes filled with records from the 1960s and ‘70s. They came from the legendary record store her grandfather, Rafael Azoulay, opened with his three sons in Jaffa’s Clock Tower Square and is still in operation.

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