My memory is again in the way of your history.
Army convoys all night like desert caravans:
In the smoking oil of dimmed headlights, time dissolved — all
winter — its crushed fennel.
We can’t ask them: Are you done with the world?
In the lake the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s
Have you soaked saffron to pour on them when they are found like this
centuries later in this country
I have stitched to your shadow?
In this country we step out with doors in our arms
Children run out with windows in their arms.
You drag it behind you in lit corridors.
if the switch is pulled you will be torn from everything.
One to Nothing assembles an intimate, subjective and specific portrait of Israel that is at once emotionally vivid and dispassionate, a portrait mature enough to offer a rhetorical neutrality that does not preclude the hardship of injustice or the indiscriminate devastations of conflict, but that compels us as viewers to contend with the weight and complexity of effect that these forces have had over a long, contentious and bloody history. One to Nothing consists in oblique and tangential images that gradually, and in irregular form, work together to construct the outline of a landscape that no individual image seeks to describe, but which we come to recognise with a complex degree of certitude. That portrait is made up of a tapestry of unremarkable incidents, enigmatically frozen moments, detours and seemingly random meanderings. An inventory of those incidents might seem wilfully abstruse, or deliberately evasive. They number among them a man clambering up into a large truck, a couple embracing beside a pavement, the tattered assemblage of a ramshackle house made out of improvised materials, a ladder stacked alongside another against a wall, a couple lazing by the seaside, flowers bursting forth in rude colour beside a road… Yet these incidents and incidental spaces are given coherence in their relationship to three principal themes: Israel, the literal subject and physical location of these photographs; Israel, the symbolic land at the epicentre of Biblical history; and Israel, the ancestral homeland of the forebears of the photographer who made this work.
For Irina Rozovsky, whose photographs in the book One to Nothing are displayed here, Israel has played an imprecise role in her sense of her own lineage, her individual and collective self, and her sense of personal identity. This has been the case despite the fact that prior to 2008 she had never been there. That particular circumstance is one that peoples of any diaspora can relate to in visceral and sympathetic terms: memory, place and identity can be profoundly intertwined in the absence of the very earth in which those notions were formed. As a Russian immigrant to the United States, her memories and her conception of ‘home’ have been affected by the particular emotional relations she has developed with lands far distant from the one in which she grew up. She travelled to Israel in 2008 without any intention of making a body of photographic work whilst there, but swiftly found herself in the throes of a frenzy of picture-making. Those pictures sought to test, to investigate and to give some voice to the plurality of ways in which Israel had significance not merely to her personal experiences, but as a distinct territory, and one rife with explosive political conflicts and opposing religious and historical claims. One to Nothing emerged as a means to draw together outside of herself the multiple strands of personal, racial, religious and societal histories as they had informed her relationship with Israel, while at the same time attempting to embrace the vast insurmountable anachronism of an unfamiliar country with such an ancient history, such a rich and contentious ancestry, and such a symbolically charged landscape.
Narrative is at the heart of the resonances that draw these photographs together – the historical narratives that have endowed Israel as a country with such a heightened symbolic charge, the religious and political narratives that have intersected, competed and served as battlegrounds in the definition of this terrain, and the suspended, abstracted quotidian narratives depicted in the individual images, which work together to evoke but not define the way in which all stories seem to find their origin and their original mystery here. The book’s narrative moves lightly – episodically – between bold and diminutive statements, between raging light and languorous pastels, between a poetics of the absurd and the undigested normalcy of the everyday mundane. This episodic and itinerant tone is analogous to the harsh realities of a country that is permanently on the verge of violence, and at the same time bound up with the most rudimentary aspects of day to day life. Simultaneously, however, this tone also reflects the experiences of the photographer making the images themselves, refracts back to us her momentary surprise, her mystification, her elation and her confusion. This has the effect of doubling the narrative back onto subjective and objective dimensions – reminding the viewer of the selectivity of the metaphors from which this document is constructed.
The epigram to the book, quoting from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, reads “I can not comprehend yet that I am sitting where a god has stood, and looking upon the brook and the mountains which that god looked upon… I can not comprehend this; the gods of my understanding have always been hidden in clouds and very far away.” Irina’s photographs take appropriate heed of the historic scale and psychological magnitude against which our understanding of this land is measured, but refuse to be cowed by its majesty or deterred by its divisive influence. By concentrating on the rudimentary bric-a-brac of day-to-day life, One to Nothing illustrates the vast difficulty and profound complexity of normal life here without lapsing into monolithic invective – the work contends with questions of a larger scale by focusing on interstices and apparent minutiae.
The deeply enigmatic and allusive character of the photographs in One to Nothing enables them to stage the perennial conflict between memory and history for possession of one proscribed and legitimated set of facts; neither faction emerges victorious, but in the steady iterative evolution of the work we witness the manner in which an interplay between memory, history, fact and fiction, represents the ground on which our sense of our own past and our identity is based. People enter and leave the frame like ghosts, laze upon the earth, sprout from it, kneel upon it, float mysteriously above it, gaze distantly toward it, hastily improvise a means of living in it; they alternately scarper and stand rooted, embrace, arrive and depart, almost never confront the camera, disappear into shadow or emerge, momentarily, from the rock and from the earth into the sudden exclamation of bright unbending light. The actions of these people are unexplained, are patently inexplicable, and as we wrestle with their elusive apparitions we grasp the multi-faceted aspect of this story, we disinter the complex linkage between inhabitant and homeland, and in this process the raw phenomenological fact of each image turns the photographs into metaphors.
What bind these people to each other and to this land are the most elemental of ties: family, sustenance, shelter, passage, respite, reverie, duty, conflict, boredom, maintenance, a necessity to move from here to there. What unites these scenes and figures are the most basic and essential factors of everyday life. In this context, portraiture takes on the function of illustrating suspended questions, rendering up a thin yield of anything resembling literal facts, interacting with abstracts of tents, resting camels, religious paintings, gateways, fences and prayer mats to give depth to the emotional and political complexity that characterise the place in which we find ourselves. A certain kind of elliptical trajectory emerges from the thematic repetitions that weave portrait and abstract together, and the emotional thrust of the work resolves in a series of merging figures, jagged boundaries, sudden eruptions of contrast or colour, counterpointed here or there by an embrace, or the insistent call of the sea. A young woman stands waist deep in a large body of water, her gaze transfixed, her skirt soaked; another young woman clambers upward or perhaps down into the slippery grasp of the earth, her body caked in sheets of mud, the palms of her hands fusing with the gelatinous soil; a pair of young women soldiers bend simultaneously toward the ground, their hair entwining them together as they bow down; one woman disappears into the mouth of a tunnel that stretches darkly on from the light in which we find her, while the face of another woman emerges from the slim aperture through which light enters her kheffiyeh, itself a movable shadow. Each subject is drawn into a sympathetic or conflicting orbit with one another, drawn into a constellation of interdependency and conflict, togetherness and violent separation, light and dark. It is in the intricate array of these relationships that the complex histories of this land are given real metaphorical weight.
My ancestors gave me the green voice
and limpid silences that spread
there in the grasslands around Lake Tacarigua.
They travel on horseback around the haciendas.
It’s hot. I am the horizon of this landscape
where they are heading.
In the bitter fragrance of the joba trees
I hear the sounds of their harsh guitars
crossing the dust and traversing my blood.
Under my skin they look at each other
so sharply I can almost see their faces.
And when I talk to myself, they are the ones speaking
in the rustling sheaves of the sugar plantations.
It’s hot. I am the tense wall
where their portraits hang in a row.
My ancestors come and go through my body,
with the airless breeze sighing from the lake,
the galloping of dark shapes that come down
to be lost among distant seedtimes.
Wherever I go I carry the shape of emptiness
that unites them all in a different space, a different time.
It’s hot. It’s the green heat that joins them to me.
I am the fields where they are buried.
— “My Ancestors”, by Eugenio Montejo
The particular virtue of this kind of picture-making is its capacity to invite the imagination to lend body and texture to the indices of deeper psychological traumas that the photographs give us to witness, without ascribing to those traumas a precise moral value or culprit to blame. Paul Graham’s early to mid-1990s New Europe work operated in a similar fashion: evoking real schisms that produced often bloody and profoundly callous indecencies, but refusing to enter into a diatribe in the process. Irina’s photographs are constantly in search of the elliptical moment — a moment that takes the shape of some thing that cannot easily be fitted into the regimented procession of time, a moment that when photographed is only vaguely descriptive and is far more profoundly allusive, a moment that has the appearance in a picture of literally relating very little at all, while at the same time reserving for itself the right to say a great deal. Her photographs allude to the multi-faceted complexity of violence, and to the forcefulness by which it has been ingrained into the landscape, but they achieve this in the way that colour so often erupts rather than emerges within the frame, often from the night or the shade, sometimes in the midst of the baked heat of the desert, where the colour is black and the violence one of deep contrast. This seems to me analogous to the violence of birth, which is a form of eruption, but equally other images invoke the obverse of emergence in their dilapidation and decay, so that we can trace a linkage between emergence and destruction analogous to the conflicts that created this nation.
In Irina’s photographs this violence has its reciprocal aspect, and we are given views looking outside from within as well as looking in from outside: one image shows the desert snatched from the deep shadows of a cave looking out onto a narrow patch of sand and rock, in another we are whistling past a desert in which squat graffitied buildings seem to have been scattered at will, dark pools of shade gazing defensively back toward the camera’s lens – mutual suspicion animating nominally unremarkable subjects with unmistakable tension. We are given sufficiently visceral imagery of a low-lying suspicion and guardedness, of haphazard violence, distance and destitution to be disabused of any edenic notions or halcyon idylls. The photographs admit a complexity they do not seek to resolve, but merely to describe with an easy-going precision, and they compel us to chart our course through the mystery, the simple humanity and the stubborn hardship of this most arid and intricate landscape.
If space is the field for memory, and if memory is the basis of our narrative self-invention, then we must live in some seam between inside and outside, some corridor between the place we make and the place that makes us.
A favourite quotation of urban geographer David Harvey comes from the American sociologist Robert Park, who wrote that “[t]he city is man’s most consistent and, on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in, more after his heart’s desire. The city is the world which man created; it is the world in which he is therefore condemned to live. Thus indirectly, without a clear sense of the nature of his task, in remaking the city, man has remade himself.” The broader point in Park’s observation must be that our sense of our selves and of our society is bound up with, refined, produced, and is in some way expressed by the material forms with which we organise our own space, and thus make possible our relations with each other. This is not to suggest that that organisation is consensual, or that its strictures are voluntarily assumed. Harvey notes that Haussmann’s drastic reconstruction of Paris involved, and in strictly logistical terms required the violent expropriation and expulsion of a mass of poor Parisians from the centre of the city in order to make possible the broad scenic boulevards that now characterise modern day Paris. We are each of us in some fundamental ways the issue of these reciprocal physical and legal processes by which social and political forces have organised the spaces in which we live, admitting some, nurturing others and expelling still more people in the ongoing construction of our communities.
Irina’s One to Nothing photographs contend with questions of the ways in which land, identity, community, conflict and the narrative of each of those things can be identified in two-dimensional form, can be uncovered at any angle and in any moment, traced backward from the flotsam and jetsam on which her camera alights in odd corners around the periphery of things, working from an angle against the current and far from the architecture of manifest national destiny or religious grandeur that so scars and illuminates the landscape. The fact that neither the Separation Wall nor the Wailing Wall feature in her work is not a function of evasion, but a rhetorical choice. By refusing to make images heavily freighted with the symbolic cargo of pro-Palestinian or pro-Zionist politics, and by instead concentrating on the modest interstices of the most ordinary and unremarkable events, Irina is able to articulate the perennial and decisive influence of violence and conflict without entering those articulations into the service of particular ideological camps. This way of working transforms the modest features of landscape into metonyms for ancestral conflagrations, drawing the mind toward a comparison between the tiny aperture of a cave looking out on the desert and the tiny slit in a kheffiyeh, noting the absurdity but also the apparent freedom with which one tourist clambers over and across an awkward gate that serves as an intermediary border, and the visibly immense distance separating a group of young Muslin women stood on a promontory from the city beyond. The material organisation of space, the ways in which it has been adapted in order to channel, to separate and to protect one group of people from another, in these photographs serves as a repeating figure that alludes everywhere to an opposition on which in so many ways both sides depend.
The absence of broad objective and documentary fact in this work tends to lead the mind on toward terrain of memory and the imagination – a principal battleground in the perpetuation of this interminable conflict. Precisely because the book is rife with various references to religious iconography, and with many polymorphous biblical echoes, it becomes clear on reflection that “narrative self-invention” is at the core of the intractable anachronism that these photographs suggest Irina to have found this land to be: at once wide and open, narrow and closed off, barren and yet peppered with exploding pockets of colour, dry and yet enfolded in water, ancient and at the same time suburban, sacred and deeply mundane. Her work presumes and depends upon faith in our willingness to look thoughtfully and without animus, suggests that even simplicity has to strive in order to gain its right to self-expression, and avers that even the most divisive of separations represents another form of interdependency. Her photographs suggest that the distance and the rigid strictures separating us from each other diminish our common humanity, however complex the path back toward one another might prove to be.