Tereza Zelenkova, The Essential Solitude

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in March 2018 (here). Softcover, 32 pages, with 18 black and white photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. In an edition of 250 copies, individually numbered and handmade by the artist. Design by Tereza Zelenkova. Produced in conjunction with an exhibition at the Ravestijn Gallery (here) earlier this year. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Tereza Zelenkova is Czech artist and photographer who currently lives and works in London. She took up a camera at the age of sixteen, and then moved to London in her early twenties to study photography. At the moment, she mainly works in analog black and white, and her recent projects have variously explored the dark corners of death, symbolism, enigmas, and mysteries, blending fact and fiction with inspiration from mythology, fairy tales, and other cultural references.

Zelenkova’s projects are often guided by locations, usually linked to Slavic legends and local histories. She has explored castles, caves, and primeval forests, and one of the most intriguing venues she has reimagined was the bedroom of 16th-century countess Elizabeth Báthory, a serial killer and prolific murderer, believed to bathe in the blood of virgins to retain her youth. These spaces are filled up with their own dark mythologies, and have provided rich inspiration for the photographer’s imagination.

When the Financial Times commissioned Zelenkova to photograph her favorite place in London, she picked the house of Dennis Severs. Severs turned a five-story 18th-century building into a time capsule of sorts, and guided by his fertile imagination, he staged and decorated the rooms in the style of former centuries (for instance, the kitchen is meticulously recreated for life in the year of 1724). Severs lived there until his death in 2000, and today the house is open to the public.

The photographs Zelenkova made at the Severs house ultimately took shape as the series The Essential Solitude, and have also been recently self-published as a thin photobook. The book has a burgundy cover with the artist’s name and the title (along with the number in the edition) stamped on in black. It opens with an excerpt from Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil, referring to mysticism (experienced in solitude) and its relation to the truth, while a text by the artist explores various literary references, setting the mood for the visual narrative that is about to unfold. Zelenkova is obviously fascinated with the Severs house as a manifestation of the owner’s imagination and vision. This home, dark and strange, yet sensual and unique, seems like a particularly suitable stage on which Zelenkova can reveal her own quirky creativity.

The main character of The Essential Solitude is a mysterious woman whose distinct feature is her remarkable floor-length hair. She appears through the book in various frames, and the dark and eerie atmosphere of the house reinforces her elusive character. In the very first photograph, wispy locks of her hair fall over heavy drapes as they touch the wooden floor. Together with two other shots, this photograph is a detail of a wider image entitled The Double Room. It depicts the Rapunzel-like woman lying down on a draped bed; we see her nude body from the back as her hair runs down to the floor. The room, with its thick dark crumpled drapes, dusty candle stand, and spidery nets, feels like a scene from a dark fairy tale.

The historical interior of house is thoughtfully constructed and Zelenkova brings it to life in her visual narrative. Carefully placed objects (books, candles, frames) come together with worn out drapes, thick fabrics, peeling walls, and dusty floors to create a hauntingly claustrophobic and cluttered atmosphere. There is a rich sense of creeping decay, but also a feeling of stopped time. One of the spreads pairs two poppy heads, positive and negative, a fitting reference to the plant’s symbolism of sleep and death. 

Another photograph depicts the mysterious woman standing in the middle of the room, we only see her remarkable long dark hair as it touches the floor. I am the Sun is the title of the photograph. This photograph is eerie and almost spookily surreal, and the interior of the room makes it feel like the whole scene belongs in a magical tale. As the woman appears through the book – sitting blindfolded on a chair, lying on a bed, sitting at the desk – we never see her eyes. She is a timeless feminine presence (almost a ghost) in a timeless house trapped in a dreamy personal solitude.

While many photographers (from Joel-Peter Witkin to Jerry Uelsmann) have pursued fantastical visions in their work, Zelenkova’s approach stands out because of its performative quality. Using her chosen surroundings like a stage set, she crafts melancholy narratives that leave enough space for our own imagination and interpretation. The Essential Solitude is a smartly constructed visual narrative, where reality is encouraged to wander into the world of dreams and the lonely moments of a faceless character open up plenty of storytelling possibilities.

Collector’s POV: Tereza Zelenkova is represented by Ravestijn Gallery in Amsterdam (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. 

Read more about: Tereza Zelenkova, Self Published

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