The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall
Essay by Max Houghton
Photography might have been invented to give credence to Rimbaud’s famous expression ‘Je est un autre’; his grammatical slippage expresses the I and not-I of the image as potently as it articulates the condition of self. The poet’s oeuvre, as well as that of another feted Symbolist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, haunts and animates the work of Tereza Zelenkova, whose photography has been exhibited this year in two simultaneous shows in Amsterdam: The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall at Foam, and The Essential Solitude at The Ravestijn Gallery. Choosing to position herself in such a constellation, the artist invites the viewer to look carefully at the connections between her black and white images; to notice the allusions.
Since her earlier work The Absence of Myth (2013), which includes a close-up rephotographing of a girlishly languid Rimbaud, Zelenkova has been enticing us into acts of contemplation about the nature of reality, or about nature and reality. Within her work, neither state is inhabited and instead we are enveloped within the realm of a fecund Symbolist imagination. It is not a slow descent from here to elsewhere, but rather a sudden tipping, reminding us of the unsteadiness of the very ground beneath our feet. Zelenkova traps us in a claustrophobic interior world, as inhabited by writers and artists in order that they make the necessary journey inward.
Zelenkova quotes from Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (1957) in her text for The Essential Solitude, picking up on his relentless quest for a ‘different’ truth, as well as the ways in which his work was influenced by Symbolist antecedents. Her preoccupation is the same, and in order to seek out this elusive truth, she employs both image and text, which, as another Symbolist, Georges Rodenbach knew, offers a rich form for such exploration. Rodenbach’s 1892 literary attempt to raise the dead amid the streets of Bruges is punctuated by ghostly photographic imagery, among the very first works of fiction to be so.
However, it is specifically a novel by Huysmans, A Rebours (usually translated as Against Nature), which serves as epigraph for The Essential Solitude, and in which the protagonist, Jean Des Esseintes, exiles himself within a library, in order that he can gorge on aesthetica, and closet himself away from stinking brutish reality. Zelenkova chose a very particular site as a set for this story – the Huguenot House on Folgate St, London, created by the late Dennis Severs, whose loyalty was to historical imagination (as opposed to facts), and whose stated desire in creating his non-traditional museum was ‘to bombard the senses’ (he succeeds). The subject of the images (The images … scarcely mentioned so far. What an oversight. Like in Rodenbach, (like in Sebald), these images do not hold to the tick-box standards of contemporary photography. Instead they ask to be considered as flashes of understanding, trapdoors to other senses, a way of seeking new perfumes and stranger, even darker, flowers.) … is a woman with floor-length hair. She variously sits at a desk, sits blind-folded, looks out towards the window, lies in sensual repose, but we never see her eyes. A remarkably long-haired woman has appeared previously before Zelenkova’s lens, in a 2011 image called Cometes, which translates as a comet, but also as a portent of disaster. Hair observed thus becomes its own world, with its rivers and tributaries and unexpected surfaces. It hides things. It can grow even when we are dead.
The atmosphere conjured throughout this series is that of an opium den; dark, soporific, oneiric. Sumptuous, sensual fabrics drape thickly, carrying the scent of centuries within their folds. A dressing table is laden with precious objects: pots, pearls, feathers, an open book. Closer inspection reveals a tiny ceramic hand on a stick, for scratching the unreachable itch – could any item be more essential for a life of both solitude and creativity? Two poppy heads – papaver soniferum – in negative and positive, lull us to the edge of sleep, to the uncanny landscapes of hypnagogic hallucination.
This essay is strewn with the names of dead men; the Symbolist mode of expression is not very well populated by women, other than as dead lovers, or virgins or femme fatales, so it is all the more pleasurable to Zelenkova begin to carve her own path. She does this most vividly with the image The Unseen, from her most recent work, Snake, in which three women are seated at a lace-clothed table, a fourth stands; each face covered by heavy white cotton veils. Had the artist pinned back the veils, we may have entered the territory of a Vermeer painting, or even Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Instead, we are suspended in a moment of acute expectancy, as we observe this sightless, silent quartet, who seem to have emerged from another realm of being altogether. Their presence is even more unsettling within the series of images, which otherwise depict significant sites in her native Czech Republic, photographed – always in black and white – with unforgiving flash. We see much imagery from the forest, in which the ‘natural’ is always open to question or to incursion. Zelenkova may be alluding to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the female serial killer who inspired Dracula or to the writing of Gustav Meyrink (his death mask is among her images). Meyrink wrote about the Golem of Prague, a creature that becomes visible in the city every 33 years, appearing with a doppelganger.
Perhaps this is what the snake sees, when it disappears through the hole in the wall (the hole is pictured too), or what we each see on the other side of the mirror (I is another). Zelenkova says this series is unfinished, and may remain so, leaving the reader to unpick this strange and complex weaving of a literary photography in parentheses for years to come. ♦
All images courtesy of The Ravestijn Gallery. © Tereza Zelenkova
The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall was originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Photoworks.
Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.