Linda Zhengová, Catharsis

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 (here). Softcover (22×31 cm), 100 pages, with 48 color and black and white photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. Design by Lukasz Gula. In an edition of 150 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Catharsis is also available in a special edition (here). This version includes a signed book, and comes with a signed and editioned print (2 options). The prints are 21×29.7 cm. In an edition of 50 copies.

Comments/Context: The dark side of the human mind has always attracted photographers: the trauma of the war is inscribed in the aesthetic of Eikoh Hosoe, the nightmarish work of Joel Peter Witkin is heavily influenced by his childhood trauma, and Roger Ballen’s often discomforting work explores the space between sanity and insanity. A younger generation of photographers has similarly turned to using photography to explore their own personal traumatic experiences. For example, the work of Simone Hoang considers the limits of personal memory as she reconstructs fragments and faded memories of her childhood in the abstract narrative Ký úc//Memento (reviewed here) and Mariela Sancari rebuilds memories of her father in Moisés (reviewed here). 

The Czech photographer Linda Zhengová turns her repressed childhood trauma into an artistic journey in her new photobook. Titled Catharsis, the project asks how photography can represent largely invisible traumatic experiences and emotions. At the core of the book is her own trauma, one that started to resurface in recent years in the “form of strange and recurring nightmares” and led to her quest to confront and understand it. “How can one represent something visually that is by its very essence unrepresentable without banalizing it, trivializing it, spectacularizing it, and finally repressing it for a second time?” She considers her study of traumatic memories as an in-depth artistic inquiry.

Catharsis is a vertically-oriented softcover photobook. A childlike drawing of a face appears on the blue cover, while the title and the artist’s name, together with the definition of catharsis, are elegantly placed on the spine. The book is beautifully printed; flipping through the pages and smelling the scent of the ink adds physicality to the whole experience. To build her narrative, Zhengová combines her photographs with images from family archives, drawings from her childhood, and an essay. The title of the book references the relief from her trauma that she has achieved, as she worked to turn it into a healing process and a sharing of her inner world. 

The photobook opens with an image capturing a forest and the early morning sky above it. A handwritten quote appears on the right page of the spread reading “The portrayal of suffering through photography is reflected in the spectator’s own bodily memory, to touch the viewer who feels rather than simply sees the event.” The page with the quote opens to a foldout that expands the view of the forest, and it serves as a mysterious and enchanting introduction to the narrative. This is followed by images of the sky in red and yellow colors, curly clouds, an arm, edges of fire flames, and various other images of a body. A blue-toned portrait of a man with his head down as if he is sleeping is paired then with an inverted shot of what looks like a tree root, flowers, and a moth. Then there is a full spread showing an exposed female body (this time purple-toned) with an arrangement of fruits and flowers. The sequence immerses us into a mysterious world somewhere between reality and fiction.

The next section of the book (printed on uncoated paper) brings in archival photographs from Zhengová’s childhood and her drawings, alerting us that something traumatic happened in the past. The drawings mostly show different faces with a wide range of emotions, complementing the narrative of the book. Here she also places an essay referencing her traumatic childhood experience and sharing her in-depth research on trauma. The essay itself also divides a small image depicting a pig being sliced, while onlookers watch with a strange sense of entrancement. This is the only graphic and intense image in the book, literally representing the trauma of a wounded body.

In the final part of Catharsis, photographs start to transcend the emotional state, evoking dreams and fragments of traumatic memory. A full spread of the dark forest is overlaid with a smaller version of the same image but in red tone, evoking a dark memory. The following spread opens to a foldout showing a blurry red spot in the middle (it might be even a face) placed between two images of a child’s hands with chipped nail polish. A few spreads later, there is a picture of a mouth open as if caught in a nightmarish scream. Another image shows a snake shot against a black background, a biblical reference that appeared in the artist’s dreams. Many of the photographs in this section capture a blurry and fragmented body, emphasizing the physical toll trauma has on the body. While Zhengová doesn’t share the specific details of her childhood trauma, these images certainly stimulate sensations and trigger potential memories.

Through fragments, abstractions, and allusive associations, the photobook succeeds in visualizing the artist’s vulnerable emotional world. While the narrative of Zhengová’s book comes from her own experiences, it captures emotions that people who live with the effects of trauma can likely relate to. Catharsis is a thoughtful and beautifully produced book that hopes that by artfully sharing difficult memories, we can help to see each other in a more empathic way and reduce the stigma surrounding trauma. 

Collector’s POV: Linda Zhengová does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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