The Family An image for Elastique by Jennifer Abessira.

The Reluctant Allegoricist: An Interview
with Jennifer Abessira

By Ian Sternthal
“Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other. He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather he adds another meaning to an image. If he adds, however, he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement.”

Craig Owens, The Allegorical Impulse

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Had Craig Owens ever checked out Jennifer Abessira’s blog Elastique, he would not have made the mistake of assigning the masculine gender to the allegorical impulse. Abessira’s life has been defined by a series of dualities; born in Paris, but raised in Tel-Aviv, her ongoing photographic series ‘Elastique’ reflects this constant tension through pairings of images that she both finds and creates. While the artist admits that she is often “too lazy to travel”, she has found freedom through the internet. As she explains, straight up photography had stopped fulfilling her creative needs; like many people in this digitally over saturated world, she started to feel guilty about creating new images, destined to be quickly consumed and forgotten. She started to collect orphaned images rescued from the depths of cyberspace, and breathed new life into them by giving them partners.

Abessira mines the virtual world for fragments, or ruins of the material world, such as images of the sphinx, a bottle of Listerine, a Jil Sander sweater , and a U.N convoy. She pairs the disparate images in order to question established meanings and commonly accepted norms.

The Family An image for Elastique by Jennifer Abessira.

While the circumstances that pushed Abessira to create ‘Elastique’ are rooted in contemporary experience, the technique of montage she adopts builds upon a rich tradition of ‘doing philosophy with images’ that extends from the Baroque allegoricists through Walter Benjamin’s experiments with ‘making the mute world of objects speak.’ Benjamin viewed the debris of modern culture – old advertisements, panorama’s, and various other collectibles as allegorical devices capable of rupturing the dominant capitalist mythologies which enabled the ruling classes to dominate society, and camouflage social injustice under the guise of historical inevitability. An allegory is a literary device in which characters, objects, or events in fictional works are exploited to symbolize broader concepts and ideas. Allegories present complex ideas and concepts, cloaked in the language of the era – rendering these concepts more palatable and relatable.

Like Baudelaire – who saw through the veneer of capitalist development that transformed Hausmannian Paris, and expressed this through poetic verses that married images of ‘progress’ alongside depictions of death, destruction and ruin, so does Abessira employ images of the grotesque in order to critique the aesthetic traps in which she also takes delight. Rather then letting us linger in this exotic world of vivid colors, she savagely rips us out of our comfort zone: In one dyptich a pack of savage wolves is paired with a girl eating a chicken drumstick, forcing us to reconsider the things we are used to seeing.

As I look through the collective of images, I can’t help but feel her underlying desire to point out the similarities between seemingly different phenomena: A Jil Sander knit sweater is placed next to an avant garde three dimensional painting, emphasizing the fact that both images are made from a straight line that is folded on two axes. In another dyptich, a found image of a woman’s cleavage framed by a nautical scene printed on her blouse, whose composition sub-sects the canvas into three triangular quadrants, is paired with an identical composition that Abessira made by photographing her crotch and legs over a photograph of a tropical island. It’s if she were using the images that make up our global visual vocabulary to point out how connected we all are as human beings. In her own words, she’s just trying to make universal peace between images….One lewd collage at a time.
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IS: Your work has a vitality and a colorfulness to it. Does this say something about your own disposition, or your attitude towards life?

JA: That is a big question…I don’t really believe in happiness, but only in small moments of happiness…

IS: Tell me about Elastique, and how it started.

JA: Elastique started when I began to feel that photography was not satisfying for me, so I started to mix my work with found images, pairing images in order to create a new language that might somehow give order to the ever-growing mass of images at our disposal due to the influence of media and internet. I started working on in August 2011, and it’s an ongoing project, I’m still creating it every day.

IS: How did this turn from a blog into a zine?

JA: It’s true, it’s a project that began on the web, but Elastique is not a blog, it’s just my work, and I was looking for ways to share it with others. I exhibited it in many exhibitions worldwide, in Israel also, and I saw Pogo Books through their Facebook and I really liked their selection of artists, so I started a dialogue with Fabio, the head of Pogo Books, and he immediately liked it and told me we would make a zine from it, and here it is. For me, it’s only a beginning. I really want to make it a big book, I see it as a sort of archive. Elastique is like a way to make some order between all the things I love, to act as a curator. It’s developing all the time. This zine is just a beginning, and I hope that I will have a few books after this.

The Family An image of Elastique by Jennifer Abessira, published by Pogo Books.

IS: Tell me a little bit about the relationship you build between disparate images. To what extend do your background and biography factor into your practice.

JA: I was born in a village near Paris, and I came to Israel when I was seven and a half, exactly. I felt really weird when I came here, I really liked Israel, but it’s a problematic age because it’s an age when you start to understand the world, you start to read and write really well. It was in the middle of second grade, and it was really confusing for me. Until today, when I get up in the morning, I always have this experience of being split between places. The painter Tarar said ‘I feel deeply rooted in the cross between danger and non danger.’ And I really love this sentence because it’s exactly how I feel. I really feel connected to Israel, but my language is French. When I go to France I feel like a tourist, but the language connects me. In my process, each image is built by two images, which in a way mirrors my two worlds, which are like in a constant fight. There is this ongoing ever-changing connection between my French part and my Israeli part. Sometimes they are in perfect harmony, like a lot of Elastique works, but sometimes they are in conflict.

IS: When you finished the army, you went back to Paris thinking you would study, but you didn’t?

JA: I had a French boyfriend and I wanted to start checking out Paris. I always knew the city somewhat through my family, but I never really lived there. So I went to live there and it was very special moment for me in life because I understood something profound. The city’s beauty terrified me. I felt as if I were in an ice cube, trapped, and handicapped, I couldn’t swallow all the beauty at once, and it was a paralyzing emotion. I didn’t understand how people could live their normal everyday lives in such a rich place.

IS: You keep repeating the words beautiful, but your tone betrays your words. It’s as if you felt there were something un-interesting, or banal about the kind of beauty you found there.

JA: Exactly, this is very true. Many philosophers that I really love talk about this: Albert Camus talked about this a lot, that while beauty is really terrifying, sometimes when I see someone very beautiful, the usual beauty – I experience conflicting feelings: On the one hand I am sometimes totally indifferent to beauty because it’s perfectly even, but in another way, this kind of beauty can be terrifying, and make you feel all of your emptiness, everything that you don’t have in this world, all the gaps that suddenly begin to emerge in your own self. So Paris is a kind of like a supermodel for me, on one hand you can’t stop looking, but from the other it’s like you want to ruin it, destroy it.

The Family An image for Elastique by Jennifer Abessira.

IS: Tell me about Tel Aviv.

JA: Tel Aviv, for me, is the exact opposite: It’s rough and dirty and always changing. It is a very special place for me. I think that when outsiders come here, they see history, exotic narratives that pre-condition the way outsiders experience this place, but when you live in Tel Aviv, everything is so cathartic: It’s a place where the First world and the Third world collide. A few days ago there was a bit of rain, the city was flooded, and I felt like I was in India. People didn’t go to work because it was raining outside. I’m also really obsessed with the trees and vegetation here, it’s like a jungle. Everything is so well-kept in Paris, in those small perfectly manicured gardens. Here there is lushness; wild palm trees and rich vegetation that most people hardly pay attention to. This was the first thing I noticed when I moved here, till today I shoot a lot of palm trees.

IS: This exoticism that you describe is writ large throughout your work. Looking at each spread I feel like I’m diving into this really sensual world, with such beautiful colors and textures, that you have designed. There is an element of traveling to the work.

JA: It’s funny that you bring that up. I really love to travel. When I travel I’m like a fish in the sea, and the photos I make while travelling reflect this. When I’m abroad, I have this new vision, I see everything differently. At the same time, when I think about traveling it makes me very tired, to think about finding a ticket, going through the airport, it feels like such a long procedure when you can just press a button and disconnect yourself and other ways. Elastique is the exactly same for me, it’s like traveling, because everything is possible for me. I connect all these people’s works, or I just find images, I don’t know from where, blogs and stuff, to my own, and there is something crazy about making it simple in one button. You press one button and the pictures are connected, I like that. I was addicted to cinema from a very young age; nowadays I spend more time in the internet. But it’s the same thing. I feel detached, I feel like I’m never here really, I’m always with other screens. A screen when I’m watching a film, I’m not really connected, or if it’s a screen of my ipod, or my phone, or my computer.

IS: Are you committed to staying in Israel, even with all the difficulties it represents?

JA: I don’t think there’s a place in the world today where it’s not difficult to be in our new century. I feel like it’s very difficult to live in Paris because the prices are really crazy, etc. What attracts me to Tel Aviv is that I’m trying to create something that I feel doesn’t really exist here, or isn’t native to this place. People often tell me, ‘Oh I didn’t know you were Israeli, you look like you’re from abroad’, because I’m very visual. I’m not saying art in Israel isn’t talking about beauty, but I feel like a black sheep when I see galleries, I don’t feel at all like I’m talking a language that exists here.

IS: Does that make you feel isolated?

JA: It makes me feel isolated but from a very good place. I want to make it here because I want people here to understand me. I really feel when people interview me from abroad they totally understand Elastique. I also feel like my photography talks a language that lots of photographers in Europe and United states speak, but here the photography is very different, and this is one reason that I want to make it in Israel – it’s like a constant battle for me here.

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The Family Order a copy of Elastique by Jennifer Abessira, published by Pogo Books, from our online shop.

The Family An image from Elastique by Jennifer Abessira.

The Family An image from Elastique by Jennifer Abessira.

The Family An image of Elastique by Jennifer Abessira.