If we understand irony as a riposte or a horror on the part of a counterpart, a negation embracing the exist- ing and employing the affirmation of the existing, then the irony in the appearance of the image results in, as Søren Kierkegaard puts it, the “appearance not being the essence but the opposite of the essence.”1 Kierkegaard’s understanding of irony is apt for describing Steve Sabella’s singular use of the palimpsest. The expression of irony, as the “infinite absolute negativ- ity” (and any addition must by its essence be under- stood as a negativity), is engaged in negation and thus “[irony] destroys the given reality by means of that very given reality.”2 The 2014 work 38 Days of Re-Collection, begun in 2009, two years after Sabella’s physical exile, is the result of a process of multiple imprints. The work adheres to a strict principle; it is subject to a compulsion to bring things together that construct history in its very breaches, of life, of suffering, of distortions, and hopes. It is not about the reconstruction of history but about the act of photographing as dis- aster, following Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster and its central statement: “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.”3 In 2009, Sabella rented a house in Ein Karim in Jerusalem, which a Palestinian family had abandoned, to secure themselves, when they heard about the Deir Yassin massacre in April 1948. He stayed in it for thirty-eight days, taking photographs of objects—utensils, walls, pictures—and visually frisking the history of the place. Then, in his parental home and in other houses in the Old City of Jerusalem, he removed pieces of walls, lit- tle bits of painted plaster, or just of stained chalk. The color photographs were copied onto black-and-white film; the pieces of fresco, flayed bits of wall, were covered in an emulsion. The negatives from the house he lived in were then projected and fixed on that emulsion. Because of the different colors of the carrier, the black-and- white images take on a mysterious, dreamlike presence that really belongs to no place and no time.
They look ghostly; are the absence of presence and the presence of absence, and it is hard to decide which place or time they belong to.
The carrier, the fresco, is no thinner than photographic paper, yet much more fragile, like a dried piece of parchment, and can be regarded as something that can disintegrate just by being touched. The national disaster, the Nakba, destroyed the homeland of the Palestinians in May 1948. More than seven hundred thousand Palestinians were forced to leave their houses and not permitted to return.4 As we are all aware, this dislocation had catastrophic con- sequences for the people of Palestine, who over the subsequent decades would be dispersed, ghettoized, imprisoned, or exiled. The wars, the settlement policy, and the intifadas have caused unbearable sacrifices. In one of his poems, Mahmoud Darwish describes the visit made by Edward Said to a place near the house in Jerusalem in which he was born: