An Interview with Tereza Zelenkova
"The illusive nature of Czech born photographer Tereza Zelenkova’s work immediately drew me in. It is work that is curious in both aesthetic and intent, relying on a poetic narrative that is never fully descriptive, but carries a heavy omen of dark undertones. Zelenkova’s recent body of work Supreme Vice was published by Morel Books and the images weave together a series of stark landscapes and studio images deeply rooted in a Gnostic view of occult symbolism. The photographer’s work alludes to sense of an individualistic exploration into the spiritual world. A world in which many of us go to look for ourselves, regardless of how dark the path we choose to travel my be.
For this issue of Finite Foto I felt Zelenkova’s perspective and photographic aesthetic to be a complimentary addition to the wide-variety of various photographic viewpoints we have selected to feature. Between working on her forthcoming publication Seeing for Others, Index of Time and numerous exhibitions including the group Hijacked III at the QUAD Gallery in Derby, UK, Zelenkova was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions and give further insight into her unique world view." -- Antone Dolezal
Antone Dolezal: Your work has strong ties to occult symbolism alongside a deep fascination with death and the natural order of things. Although I have read you label yourself closer to an atheist than that of an individual immersed in an occult practice, you must have a strong connection to the occult. How was your interest in the occult originally fostered? Who were your influences and how has this interest and way of life found itself through your own personal photographic practice?
Tereza Zelenkova: Even though I do not have a religious upbringing I’ve somehow managed to develop a deep mistrust of mainstream religions which I perceive as a way of controlling people who lack their own direction and free thinking. I think that people should seek redemption in life and not after they’re dead. I don’t really believe in afterlife or re-incarnation and that’s why I might be drawn to the concept of death, to the fact that we are discontinuous beings and simply cease to exist at some point. At the same time, I can never be hundred percent sure because I can’t empirically verify my presumptions until I die myself… But the question is, how and why to live a meaningful life with the knowledge of imminent (and permanent) death, without succumbing to absolute nihilism? This is something that I ask myself every now and then.
My interest in the occult comes from my fascination with the 19th century’s outburst of a myriad of occult beliefs and secret societies. This curiosity has been nourished by my favorite literature and I guess also by a romantic imagination. I read books such as Huysmans’ ‘The Damned’, which talks about Satanism of the 19th century Paris. Then, sometime later I came across some really interesting figures such as Austin Osman Spare, an English occultist and artist born in the late 19th century. Spare was this solitary figure; a prodigious artist who turned his back on the art world and set about dedicating his life to experimenting with automatism, the unconscious and will power, whilst all the while living in poverty. I find people like him fascinating.
My photography always reflects on my preoccupations in life. It would be hard for me to be really interested in something without seeing it as a potential subject of my work.
AD: Some of your landscapes in Supreme Vice were taken in the American Southwest. What drew you to this landscape?
TZ: My former partner was from Phoenix so when we went to visit his parents we went on a two week long road trip around the Southwest. I knew the landscape from movies and photographs and it had for me a certain cult status. When I was a child I used to love Westerns. One of the most famous film series in communist Czechoslovakia was an adaptation of Karl May’s novels about an Apache warrior called Winnetou. The movies were a French, German and Yugoslavian co-production and everything was shot in Croatia, with the main character played by French actor Pierre Brice. It looks a bit ridiculous now but back then we’d watch it on TV every year at least once. Pierre Brice is still so popular in Czech that every now and then he’s invited to appear at music festivals to do his signature Apache greeting. Once when I was asked at elementary school what I’d like to be when I grow up my reply was “American Indian”. It was quite a harsh realization that this was not a real occupation, nor a choice.
AD: Can you explain a little more of your personal experience traveling through the Southwest and how this shaped Supreme Vice as a whole?
TZ: It was my first time in the States and coming from a central European background, I found the landscape in the desert completely uncanny. We went to many places, some of them I had wanted to visit for a long time, such as Zabriskie Point. I hadn’t planned to photograph any of it for my project. I took the images as a mere record of our journey, but once I came back to London and I started to work on Supreme Vice, it somehow all fell into place.
AD: Alongside your landscapes, you weave a series of studio imagery that is surprisingly complimentary. Can you talk a little about your intent with mixing these styles of photography? What is your editing process when finalizing a body of work?
TZ: With my work I hope to transgress the traditional division of photographic genres. I concentrate on the narrative or just stream of associations without being necessarily descriptive. Lately I came to think about my work as a sort of visual poetry.
I give myself quite a lot of creative freedom when I work. I tend to photograph things or follow ideas without necessarily planning too far ahead. I see my creative process as a journey: I set off in one direction but I never really know what awaits me at the other end, and what I might meet along the way. I anticipate anything and expect nothing.
AD: You have several self-published zines and imprints. Do you view a body of work as being finished once it arrives in the book form? What is it about the medium of a book that gives your work additional strength as opposed to prints on a gallery wall?
TZ: I actually very much enjoy putting prints on a gallery wall the same way I enjoy making books. What I like about books is mainly their intimacy, but also the fact that the images in it are bound to co-exist together as they should – this is something that doesn’t usually happen with large prints. I love books and it is always nice to produce one and see people’s interest in it.
AD: While cruising your website, I came across a body of work titled Index of Time. This work alongside your portfolio When One Shuts One Eye One Does Not Hear Everything is very illusive. I feel as though I’m being taken into an extremely solitary world when looking at each body of work. Would you discuss the illusive nature of your imagery? Does the solitary feeling in your photographs reflect the way you navigate in the world?
TZ: I actually made the Index of Time in collaboration with photographer Peter Watkins, so this already negates your presumption. At the same time I am not the kind of person that feels the urge to constantly socialize. I think that it’s all about balance. I don’t like to be in overcrowded London all the time but at the same time I can’t see myself as a solitary hermit. On one level I’d say that solitude in my work might be a sign of a kind of independence. On another level I think it might be the mere lack of people in my images, which is due to me being a bit shy about approaching people to be photographed. But there are countless signs of a human presence and intervention in my work—and those traces might, at least for me, speak of humanity more than an anonymous face.
AD: How do you feel your newer work has evolved in the last few years and what direction do you see your work moving in?
TZ: I think that with Supreme Vice I found my language and since then I’ve been trying to improve it. I try to continuously challenge myself with my work. I know that I’ll never be able to entirely fit within contemporary photography discourse but I just follow my gut and try to do the best I can while making sure that I still enjoy the process.
View more of Tereza Zelenkova’s work on her website.