Florencia Malbrán on Karen Azoulay

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Karen Azoulay on view at CUE Art Foundation March 15 - April 21, 2007.

Don’t stare so romantically!
— Bertolt Brecht

 Karen Azoulay interweaves visual arts and dramaturgy in images that resonate with some of our most cherished dreams. The lingering allure of the first encounter with her sceneries and sculptures owes much to the brilliance of their color, yet responds as well to their surprising materiality; in Azoulay's world a broken umbrella becomes a comet and satin turns into water. But however durable the effect of this sensuous arrest, a certain tension underlies her images. Fascination and conflict are linked in her artworks, exerting an undeniable attraction while simultaneously creating troubling fantasies.

Azoulay's first solo exhibition in New York, presented by CUE Art Foundation, includes color photographs, sculpture and one grandiose installation. The photographs introduce the two main themes that inform the show: landscapes of the sea and of the sky filled with stars or fireworks. The In The Waterseries (2006-7), for instance, depicts a swimmer propelling her body with difficulty among swirling waves fabricated out of carefully sewn glossy fabric. The uproar of the storm is emphasized by a purplish sky, composed of heavy clouds made with painted silk. In Wading Under a Crackling Sky (2007) and Catching the Star (2007), a woman appears, literally, out of the blue and either floats beneath an explosion of lively fireworks or grabs a flying star.

In the tradition of tableaux vivants, these photographs show a model posing theatrically in a constructed setting. The model seems to have performed an action from which the photograph captures only a petrified instant. The idea of a prior artistic event might indeed appeal to the public and even stimulate the anticipation of possible re-enactments. Undoubtedly, it is enticing to imagine being part of the audience, experiencing the thrilling action and entering into a "flesh-to-flesh engagement" with the performer.[2]

Yet these photographs do not document previous performances. The photographs are the artworks themselves, and they do not function as a kind of record offering a delayed perception of an action that took place in the past. Models held a frozen pose, they did not perform, but the confusion that arises regarding the scope of their artistic agency points towards a crucial aspect of Azoulay's art. She creates "illusions", encompassing both meanings of the term. On the one hand, an impression or appearance that tricks the eye, on the other, a false or unreal perception. Azoulay then presents what would be a "real" scenario in "real" nature, and at the same time sets up portals to those imaginary realms in which the impossible might occur. 

Catching a star is a treasured childhood dream shared by many. The empowering idea of elevating oneself beyond the atmosphere and capturing a shining celestial body discloses impulses to control the world, overcoming any fear. Here is demonstrated the ambiguous character of fantasies, which crystallize inmost desires but still don't mitigate anxieties and pain. Such ambivalence is embedded in Azoulay's Catching the Star, portraying a woman who stretches her arm to reach a shooting star in the mist of the night. The invitation to the ostensibly "performed" moment in which the shot was taken-extended by the immersive quality of the photograph-is immediately contradicted, and the star, suspended alone in an immaculate glow, is actually the disguised canopy of a trashed umbrella.

Catching the Star is suspended in an unsettling oscillation between enthusiasm and frustration, as expressed by the possibility of witnessing the live interception of the comet and the fact that that moment can be accessed only through a photograph. A similar wavering sensation arises with Azoulay's tall and glittery sculptures, when the excitement produced by their glamorous sparkling is quieted by a rush of perplexing questions. What are these organic forms? Dusty galaxies with diffuse tails?  Flora from the bottom of the sea?  Or are they fireworks, as signaled by their homonymous title Fireworks (2007)?[3] 

Ambiguity reaches maximum tension in an untitled room-size installation, which presents a monumental vista of fireworks going off in the sky while streams of water flow into the surrounding space.[4]  The stars are perfectly cut circles of stained glass, and water currents are made out of a satiny fabric. Shimmering lights and a vibrantly charming palette of golden, black and blue complete this magical scenery, eliding references to Las Vegas spectacles with the idealized landscapes of romantic painting.[5]

But if romanticism sought to create an image of nature that would mediate between human beings and infiniteness, such melancholic longing is definitively absent from this installation. The splendors of the ocean and the night sky are icons of the sublime par excellence; Azoulay nonetheless empties them of any spiritual quality. She puts before us a symbolical panorama only to hollow it out of any emotional connotation, turning the whole installation into a zone of estrangement. A sense of fakeness prevails in her polished surfaces and her nuanced attention to detail, a kind of artificiality explained only partially by the use of synthetic materials. As the artist herself observes in the statement she wrote for this exhibition: "Although sunsets and windy vistas enchant me, I build landscapes in direct contradiction to the natural phenomena that inspire them. By restaging transitory atmospheric events in a heavily theatrical, static and almost flat way, I am attempting to seize the unseizable."[6]

Azoulay's evocation of whimsical imagery, and the simultaneous weakening of its pathos, might be related to Pipilotti Rist's video aesthetic, in which suggestions of a fanciful feminine universe are always associated with an acid criticism of social norms. One also is reminded of Robert Gober's dioramas, in which objects from everyday life, like bathroom sinks and wedding gowns, appear immersed in an enigmatic mood that calls into question identity and sexual difference. Yet I would ascribe Azoulay's uniqueness to a particular exploration of Bertolt Brecht's theatrical "distancing effect." She clearly "makes strange" familiar fantasies, displacing them from the intimate space of the imagination into the public space of the gallery, and further counterfeiting them with unexpected materials.

Due to the impressive scale of the installation and the scenographic effects at play, Azoulay's installation could well serve as a visual threshold to those fantastic reservoirs that store yearnings and subjective projections. The cascades of water and the constellations of the night certainly seduce and envelope the body. However, far from eliciting ecstatic contemplation, this artwork hinders mimesis to prevent our total immersion in the idealized landscape. Via stasis, stillness and the deployment of ephemeral objects, the simulacrum becomes obvious. Discontinuity and disjuncture seem to follow the Brechtian distancing strategy, pressuring us to be critical of those ideas and imaginings we take for granted.

Brecht's final purpose was emancipation, but such political aspiration is not pertinent to Azoulay's case. Brecht wanted to rehabilitate the subject from the terror of Nazism, and therefore strove to change society. Azoulay does not advocate a radical ideological transformation. If her artworks appear distanced, it is because they dramatize those illusions we construct as a refuge from reality to reveal them as a montage, exposing their fragility and fictionality. She brings to the fore the conflicted backdrop of consciousness, demonstrating that there is no pure scenario that can be made out of our tainted history. She does, however, project a subtle humor, and this is probably why Glenn Ligon, curator of the exhibition, notes that her art "retains a sense of play, wonder, abandon and, ultimately, lightness."[7]  Without giving up pleasure and delight, Azoulay thwarts dearly held fantasies. In this ambiguity rests the singularity of her art.

 This essay was originally published in Winter 2007.

The writer,  Florencia Malbrán, is an Argentine curator and art critic based in New York. She received a B.A. in Art History from the University of Buenos Aires, and frequently collaborated with the Museum of Modern Art of Buenos Aires. She is currently an M.A. candidate at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, where she is a Bruce T. Halle Family Foundation Fellow.

The mentor was Charles Hagen. Charles Hagen is a photographer and writer who teaches photography and video at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.  He has also taught at the Milton Avery Graduate School of Art at Bard College; Cooper Union School of Art; New York University; and the School of Visual Arts, among other institutions.  He has written for many publications, including The New York Times, Artforum,Aperture, and ArtNews.  His photographs have been shown at the Sarah Morthland Gallery; Lennon Weinberg Gallery; the Aldrich Museum of Art; Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn. 

[1] In one of his early productions, Bertolt Brecht put up placards that read "Glotzt nicht so romantisch!" ("Don't stare so romantically!")

[2] I am borrowing the "flesh-to-flesh engagement" coinage from an article by Amelia Jones studying performance and documentation. Amelia Jones, "Presence in Absentia," Art Journal (Winter 1997): 11-18.

[3] At CUE Art Foundation, these sculptures are displayed collectively so as to compose an installation, which is titled Fireworks. However, each of these sculptures is an individual piece with an individual title, in reference to a precious stone matching their color. Examples of these titles are Firework (Peridot) andFirework (Mandarin Garnet).

[4] The installation remained untitled at the time of this writing. While the installation would be room-size in most exhibition venues, it partially fills the gallery of CUE Art Foundation. Approximate dimensions of the installation are 12' x 8' x 8'.

[5] For criticism on the interpretation of landscape by romanticism painters from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and especially by Casper David Friedrich, see Joseph Leo Koerner, Casper David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

[6] Text from the Artist's Statement from the accompanying exhibition catalogue entitled Karen Azoulayproduced by CUE Art Foundation for the current exhibition.

[7] Text from the Curator's Statement from the accompanying exhibition catalogue entitled Karen Azoulayproduced by CUE Art Foundation for the current exhibition.