Places was an attempt to find some of the underlying narratives that shaped my work. In this project I collaborated with artist Ayako Yoshimura, and together we selected through a meticulous process 31 photographs out of my existing works at the time.
I printed a 40cm*40cm copy of each photograph and bound them together to create a coffee-table book. This form of presentation was influenced by my growing frustration with the feeling of alienation inherent to viewing exhibition experience and consequently, the short time the average viewer spends looking at my works. I wanted to create a situation in which the viewer could have a more intimate look at the photographs.
Below is the book’s closing text, which is based on conversations I had with independent curator Marianne Brouwer.
Contemporary photography has taken postmodernist alienation and disenchantment as its subjects – whether through the built environment or through the human subject. But no critique of today’s postindustralist capitalism or the disenchantment with our former utopias quite prepares one for the utterly desolate world presented by the photographs in this book.
There are three, loosely grouped chapters: non-places, places of memory, and chairs. The photographs have been taken over a span of thirteen years, from 1993 to 2006. The chapters together constitute a journey that takes us to Moldavia, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Mexico. The book is the receptacle of the artist’s life, of a lifetime spent in emigration, yet all its places look alike, and all are devoid of people.There is no one word in any European language to describe the state of being that is exile.
Exile not merely understood as a fact of biography, but exile as a permanent inner condition. It is not just a state of longing or of homesickness, but rather of being forever unhomed, of never quite belonging wherever you may have settled down. It is a state that cannot be cured or altered, for it springs from a deep uprootedness of the soul. Losing your home means not just the loss of a place and the subsequent relocation in a foreign country. It means losing one’s cultural and social identity, one’s status within a community, the value and context of memory. Even if you are physically able to return, home is the one place you can never go back to; home is the permanent presence of absence.
Ilya Rabinovich’s photographs comprise a double figure of both exile and estrangement. The first, the outer figure, shows us the collective utopia of a better life turned into the impersonal hell of the globally uniform. Those apartment blocks, corridors, interiors, parking lots, cinemas, hotels, schools, and waiting rooms, testify of a culturally estranged world that is by now terribly familiar to us all. These places could be everywhere – and, in fact, they are. Sometimes we know from a palm tree that we are not in some Northern country, from a patch of snow that this is not the South. But even whatever there is of nature in these images seems oddly displaced. The occasional personalized touch to a building or an interior -- a tree wedged in a corner, a vase of flowers -- seems like an uneasy prop, all the better to reveal the hopelessness of ever calling places like these ‘home’. Many photographs leave one with a suffocating feeling of confinement. Those buildings and spaces testify to the lifestyle of a global middle class, or those striving to emulate it, and its standards of luxury, higher education, the exclusive neighborhood, the better car. What emerges, page after page, is anonymity and cultural impoverishment.
Places bereft of memory, corrupted by the pretentious fake and, above all, obsessed with a certain propriety, a normative behavior excluding all else.
Most terrifying of all, however, is that there are no people in any of those places. Nothing alive is stirring there, not even a bird. When looking at these images, you are abandoned to loneliness, as if everyone has gone away, turned their back on you. It makes you yearn for human warmth, for the crowd to occupy the seats of the cinema once again, for a boy with a football to come skipping around the curb of a road, even for the visual swoosh of a passing car. But there is something in each and every one of these images that bars access to the life one knows must be going on in these places, access even to the places themselves. This exclusion, this desolation, is the second, inner figure of exile in these images, the one that sets them apart from any other type of postmodern photography: the exile that speaks of the life of the émigré.
A very carefully chosen technique brings about these effects of barring, of estrangement, of never quite owning the world you see. Sometimes there is an ever so slight shift in centrality, making you feel that something is wrong, dislocated; often the viewpoint is very low, like a child’s perspective of a classroom or a home. Sometimes the horizon is halfway up the image, creating a sense of floating, of the entire space being upside-down.
Or of access barred by a stretch of empty space so wide it defies crossing. Sometimes there is a technical disruption of the perfection of the image, a form of willful optical destruction enhancing the senselessness of the place.
Most postmodern photography can allow itself to be dispassionate, objective and critical because the intrinsic point of departure of its critique is a feeling of ownership, of belonging, of being part of the culture it portrays.
In Rabinovich’s case, the photographs do not represent or target postmodern alienation and displacement as a kind of moral photographic subject, even though today’s alienated human condition unmistakably emerges from those desolate photographed environments.
It is as if the photographs themselves are desperately looking for a place to inhabit, a world to belong to, but find none.
Marianne Brouwer, October 2006