April 6: Photographs of the void expose us to a helpless staring as into a wound; compelling and yet awful.
At eighteen, in 1969, some time after the death of my father, I obtained the paperback edition of Werner Haftmann’s rather prematurely titled Painting in the Twentieth Century.
The illustrations are found in Volume 2 and are mainly in black and white which made them quite satisfying to me as a nascent photographer.
Amongst them is one that haunts me still; it is George Grosz‘s 1947 watercolour The Painter of the Hole. He produced a version in oil in 1948. In it I can now sense his feelings of emptiness and anticlimax after he had fled to American in when Hitler came to power in 1933. Unappreciated in the USA, he impotently watched the unfolding horrors of World War II and the Holocaust from afar while works he’d left in Germany were destroyed in the Nazi incineration of “degenerate art.”
But as a callow eighteen-year-old what this image did to me then was to arouse my own feelings of nihilism as I read Sartre’s Nausea and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, staring into an emptiness like that painted by the man balanced on his broken, three-legged stool in the mire and rubble. At his feet lie discarded his previous attempts at rendering his little sketch, his primum mobile, on the tatter of paper pinned to his easel as rats gnaw his canvas. There is a sign, in the iron collar at his neck, that somehow he has managed to free himself from chains, only to replace them with this obsession. There is in this watercolour, more compellingly than in the oil, a play of voids in which negative and positive space vacillate so that what is solid remains uncertain. Looking now at this work, it is his pain, and Grosz’s, that I see…’the pain of others’, as Sontag would have it.
The Czech photographer Tereza Zelenkova (*1985) who now lives in London, draws such voids from out of her own heritage, that dark well of central European photography. Each is like staring into a wound; compelling and yet awful. This face and its pointed ears emerge from the corner of this rock, a block tilted out of loamy forest soil, bound by roots and fringed with ferns. The amateur sculptor has confounded the hollows and protuberances of the canine face, and Zelenkova’s print renders them so deep, that human and animal are merged, yet somehow an image of dogged faithfulness persists.
This is a good month to see Zelenkova; Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam, Keizersgracht 609, 1017 DS Amsterdam opens her A Snake That Disappeared Through A Hole In The Wall, continuing until 10 June while also in Amsterdam The Ravestijn Gallery at Westerdoksdijk 603, another solo, The Essential Solitude, will open on 13 April, showing until 26 May 2018.
She chooses her titles cannily; compound those of her current exhibitions, and you have an approach to her work. At the heart of each is a hole, a breach, a lacuna that admits solitude—and snakes. In the Czech forest, and throughout the landscape of the Republic, Zelenkova finds places that have come to acquire names for their genius loci and where in their darkness a mythology comes to dwell, emitting a “dark, hidden pulse” that she as a photographer can sense.
Elizabeth Bathory’s bedroom, Čachtice Castle is an image of a breach in the stone walls of Čachtice Castle in Slovakia which becomes full of our imaginings as we learn that it leads from the bedroom of this Transylvanian torturer to a chamber in which reputedly she made her peasant servants cook the flesh that she bit and tore from their bodies.
Immune from accusations given her status, Bathory’s crimes were ignored until 1610 until King Matthias intervened when Bathory began taking victims from among the daughters of local nobles. In January 1611, Bathory and her accomplices were tried for eighty murders, though she may have killed 650, and all were convicted. Bathory escaped immediate execution but was immured in the castle with only slits for air and food. There she survived nearly four years but was found dead in August 1614.
The maw as Zelenkova presents it, is not mere blackness; within, we can perceive a voluptuous, but headless and limbless, female silhouette. Black, in her low-key and sombre prints, is never blank, but significant; “spaces left to the imagination”. The void compels our filling it, as in her earlier project, The Absence of Myth (2013), and with it she presents an implementation of George Bataille‘s l’informe and confirms his assertion that “the absence of myth has in itself become the myth of the modern age”. She agrees;
I think modern life is filled with rituals more than ever before. ‘Life’ for many people could be described as a set of repetitive actions that remain exactly the same every day – get up, brush your teeth, drink coffee, get on the Tube, sit in front of a computer, eat lunch, more computer, get back on the Tube, eat dinner, watch TV, brush teeth, sleep. This is something that I am desperately trying to avoid in my life. I’d like every day to be entirely unique. Of course this is not always possible to achieve, but it is something that I really aspire to. The problem with modern rituals is that they don’t have any meaning; it can be said that they are rituals without a myth. They are completely meaningless set of actions that we repeat every day but the only way we can measure their value, their purpose, is through a pay cheque at the end of the month. And this detachment we have from work and the way we value our life – through consumption – is something that I’m trying to avoid.
Voracious nature devours art and religious iconography in her 2015 work Jesus in a crucifixion of myth that sentences it to formlessness and a new and unhuman order.
The Essential Solitude presents a presence, a woman unseen behind her veil, an impossible cascade of hair, her feet black and begrimed, in a rotting interior festooned with baroque hangings, peeling plaster and dust-encrusted furniture and ornaments
Of her chosen location, she says;
These photographs show one such room. Although at first sight a derelict ruin, it is also a folly created by someone who I’d like to imagine as the 20th century answer to Des Essientes, a decadent character from J. K. Huysmans infamous novel A Rebours, who transformed his house into a sensual feast in which he surrounded himself with historic interiors, carefully arranged objects and, of course, an array of smells and sounds. “Travel, indeed, struck him as being a waste of time, since he believed that the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience”
The setting is the late Dennis Severs’ 1724 house at at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, who turned it into the imaginary home of long-dead members of the 17th century silk-weaving Huguenot community whose former temple on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street still bears the words Umbra Sumus – we are but shadows.
Zelenkova’s use of direct flash, vignetted by being set for a longer lens than the one she is has on the camera, sheds an inadequate light on the surfaces and textures yet manages to reveal more decay in the recesses and underneath so that an odour pervades the whole series.
The scale of the prints presented at the two exhibitions varies, but even reduced for publication in her limited edition books, they remain compelling.
The process of building her series is intuitive and reactive and more than just a photographic method, ordered along the lines of Bataille’s Critical Dictionary that graced the pages of his 1929 Documents magazine, from which his notion of l’informe was derived.
I am a believer in contradiction. It is through a combination of opposites that we can truly create something new. Instead of searching for the perfect moment or trying to capture emotions, I adopt a rather detached approach to photography, that I deem more fitting for mediating the inner life of things. The dispassionate, museum-like attitude of cataloguing and compartmentalising the world around us often uncovers unexpected relationships between things and reveals a strange hidden order. As it often happens in real life, the important lies in the margins, or in between the images – in the unspoken and omitted. I find that the ambiguity, which might occasionally arise from such a way of working, is healthy antidote to a sometimes dangerously rational, definite view of the world.