What Isn’t There
Elle Flanders & Tamira Sawatzky
Elle Flanders & Tamira Sawatzky, Isdud, 2009. © Elle Flanders & Tamira Sawatzky.
Presented by Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Soctiabank CONTACT Photography Festival
Curated By David Liss & Bonnie Rubenstein
What Isn’t There (1994 – ) is an ongoing collaboration between filmmaker and photographer Elle Flanders and architect Tamira Sawatzky, documenting the places where Palestinian villages once stood. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 signalled the end of these villages, through force and exile, and since that time many have gone back to nature. While Flanders and Sawatzky occasionally find small signs of past and present habitation, they are more concerned with what truly remains—the unsettling presence of absence.
Flanders, who grew up in Israel, has been obsessively photographing sites of former Palestinian villages for over 15 years. Hiking in the countryside as a child, she read the landscape through an Israeli narrative. Later, as an adult, she learned a completely different history, a history of dispossession. Before the arrival of Google maps, finding these villages was a complex task. Flanders traced old Palestinian maps onto maps of present-day Israel, and searched for revealing signs at the sites: fruit or olive trees, the remains of building foundations, or stone walls. As an architect, Sawatzky’s point of departure has been an investigation of the relationship between building and landscape. Her socially engaged approach involves interpreting architecture within its geopolitical context, regardless of what still stands.
The seemingly picturesque landscape installed in MOCCA’s courtyard, Isdud (2009), portrays the site of a former village of the same name (now known as Ashdod, a port city in Israel). Confronted by a life-sized image of a rolling hill with a field of blossoming flowers, the viewer is asked to consider the function of photography and the underlying social dynamics that disrupt this idyllic scenery. By positioning a deceptively peaceful setting within an urban environment, Flanders and Sawatzky engage the viewer as a silent witness, raising questions about history and landownership.