A Snake That Dissapeared Through a Hole in The Wall
Image: Tereza Zelenkova, Dog cemetery, 2015
We know where we’re at home, and therefore who we are
We can rarely break free from the spell that is cast upon us by the landscape of our childhood, our primordial home. Every place has its complex history and its unique character, formed by an intricate web of details that are perceptible only to those who inhabit it long enough. At the same time, we are often unaware about the uniqueness of our homeland and that invisible bond, at once comforting as much as suffocating, until we decide to leave it. Its image, similarly like photograph, often acquires value only through a displacement in time and space. It is when we’re faced with the realities of other worlds when we begin to learn what is so peculiar about where we’re from and how it influences who we are, or who we think we are.
After eight years long absence I returned to the Czech Republic, the country where I grew up, to photograph and document places and their local mythologies that I felt were deeply connected with my childhood and entrenched in my identity. There’s a sense of melancholy that I associate with the Czech landscape, something that can be traced through literary works and oral legends, but also in the impression that the land made upon its visitors. Romantic painters, like Caspar David Friedrich, were for instance inspired by the landscape of northern Bohemia, a region near the German border. This area had also inspired writers Hans Christian Andersen or Brothers Grimm, who set there some of their fairy tales. Nowadays this melancholy often arises from the tangible traces of not so distant past. Events linked to the war and its aftermath, the forceful deportation of Sudeten Germans, five decades of totalitarian rule under the Communist regime, and the impact of growing industry and agriculture, had all left many open wounds in the landscape.
While working on the project, I would research local legends and landmarks, traveling around the country to photograph specific places and at the same time discovering those previously unknown to me. I exhibited the resulting works several times but always without satisfactory texts that would speak about the locations and their histories. I always envisioned the result to be a book that would combine writing and photographs, carving out near-mythical image of a land located somewhere on the threshold of history and fiction.
Yet when I started the work, I didn’t anticipate and acknowledge the turns that the political development has taken in ensuing years. Recent years have been affected by a radical shift in public opinion throughout many parts of the western world. The political situation has become increasingly more favourable to conservative governments and has been marked by the rise in popularity of ultra right groups and parties. The so-called migration crises hit hard and led to the reactionary movements in many countries and through dubious media coverage had impacted people’s votes. The society has never been more divided in the recent history.
In times like this it was hard to return back to the largely romantic national mythologies of my country and don’t see the flaws in the identities that we all feel the need to cherish and protect. The nationalistic myth, like many other type of myths, can both unite and divide societies. And so they are problematic because they create false idea that only those sharing the same mythological past are our genuine allies. Yet what struck me when researching this project and when revisiting my favourite books, architecture and artefacts representing for me the deepest associations with my own cultural heritage, is that many of those had been commissioned, created or introduced to this country by people of different nationalities. It is not surprising of course, based on the historical and geographical facts, but it is important to acknowledge this in order to understand that any national identity is, similarly as parts of this book, a fiction.
Text: Tereza Zelenkova
Image: Tereza Zelenkova, Braun’s Nativity Scene, Kuks, 2015
“The rather dispassionate museum-like approach to photography seems to me to be the most fitting method for mediating sometimes deeply affecting stories. After all, it is these stories that draws me to places, alongside something intangible that weaves together the fabric of the visual with its intrinsic meaning, the relationships between the outer appearances and their essential significance, connections often impossible to see or clearly distinguish with naked eye. Working with a medium that essentially does little more than depict the reflected light from objects, this might come as paradox. However, due to its peculiar relationship with time, its strange stillness and minute detail, photography promises to reveal a bit more, something beyond the ordinary image of the everyday. It lures us to believe that it can see what’s unseen to the naked eye, that it can trespass the ordinary notion of time, and even blur the thresholds between the worlds of living and those long gone.”
Exhibition views, NoD Gallery, Prague, 2017
Exhibition views, Foam Museum, Amsterdam, 2018
The photography of Tereza Zelenkova is remarkable in that, although it employs a medium that is generally limited to capturing, representing and exploring the surface of things, it strongly alludes to that which often lies beneath the surface; imaginary, subliminal or unconscious undercurrents that, although elusive and difficult to pin down in an exacting way, are both emotionally familiar and hauntingly ever-present within her work. In a visual sense, the images themselves are by no means ethereal – they are crisp, clear, carefully considered and compositionally controlled – and yet each photograph disarmingly hums with discordant undertones that hint at uncertain mysteries, tenuous melancholies or seductively hidden meanings.
In previous projects, Zelenkova has often invoked rather heavy theories or dark themes to propel her work, including the death of God, Paleolithic cave dwellings, the daydreams of insomnia, and what she refers to as the ‘shamelessness’ of Georges Bataille. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that her most recent body of work centers upon a seemingly straightforward return to the Czechoslovakian landscapes of her childhood, and visits to various historical and folkloric sites within it. Nevertheless, Zelenkova’s intuitively rich and darkly imaginative sensibilities thrive in such environments, sidestepping literal, documentative description and conventional cultural or allegorical associations in favor of overarching personal and emotional resonances. Although the photographs are situated in places that purportedly contain legends of Medieval mass murder and heroic villainy, as well as the “Devil’s Table” and the “Gates of Hell”, the specifics of these histories and affiliations are secondary, if not entirely inconsequential, to the underlying and unnerving tenor of the images themselves. ‘I’m more interested in exploring the general poetics – of the landscape and stories tied to it – than in archiving individual legends or facts’, Zelenkova explains, ‘I’m tracing a sort of subjective image of the place where I grew up, and creating what might be called my own landscape mythology’.
Within this newfound mythology, Zelenkova astutely transforms the literal into the symbolic – fallen trees, hewn rock, faceless figures and inky-black voids insist that the mind wanders far beyond the surface of the scene or the limits of the frame, and, in a sense, deeply and searchingly into itself. Yet by denying the power of the existing stories or established symbols already present in the landscapes of her childhood, Zelenkova exhumes new, resolutely ambiguous, and quietly personal meanings, retaining just enough of an open-endedness for the viewer to feel both enveloped by the dense atmosphere of their presence, and, at the same time, invited to decipher their significances and their nuances for themselves.
Text: Aaron Schuman, Artist, Independent curator and Programme Leader of MA Photography at UWE Bristol