Krystyna Ziach
Archê - The Ambivalence of Water and Fire, by Mirelle Thijsen, 1996 (English, part I )
Mirelle Thijsen is art historian and art critic for the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad
This article has been written at the occasion of the exhibition Archê / Krystyna Ziach, which was held at The Netherlands Photography Institute in Rotterdam in 1996 (photo)

Archê is the prefix of the Greek word "archetype", which literally means origin. It is also the title of a recent Gesamtwerk created by the Polish artist Krystyna Ziach, who was born in 1953 and currently lives in Amsterdam.This universal concept refers to the leitmotif "water", which implicitly is present in it. Essentially, the seven photo objects that comprise Ziach's work are concerned with the flux of time, with transience. Water can in this context be conceived as a metaphor for the passage of time.

The Liquid Element
Thales (640 B.C. to 546 B.C.) was the first Greek philosopher to make the elementary statement that "everything is water". In his conception, water is the Archê i.e. the origin of all things, which meant that it is the primary material from which all things are made. Certainly for that period, Thales revolutionary statement was an attempt to understand nature for the first time on purely natural scientific grounds. In this context, one should certainly not conceive of water as it is expressed in sensorial perception, but rather it should be comprehended within the general category of "liquid element". When it is understood in this fashion, it appears to possess organic, cosmological and substantial characteristic. In many myths of Genesis, water is understood to be the primal ocean. It is a source of all life that in fact emerges from it. However, it also has the qualities of dissolution and drowning. "Subterranean" water sometimes is associated with the chaos of pre-historic times. Even though water was thought to be one of the elementary symbols, it nevertheless remains ambivalent in its meaning; it has both the quality of creation and fertility while it also represents destruction. In Christian iconography water especially plays a purifying role. It washes away the stains of sin through baptism and initiation rites. Many old cultures knew the phenomenon of natural baths, which not only served as an hygienic practice, but also had the meaning of symbolic purification. For many centuries, a healing effect has been attributed to thermic and mineral (subterranean) baths.
In the depth psychological literature, water is understood to be the fundamental symbol of all unconscious energy- it is therefore conceived to be quite dangerous e.g. in dreams, when the imagery is present of water roaring by or when boundaries are burst by flooding. Depth psychologists believe that water creatures can be seen as the embodiment of certain living "entities", which emerge from a deeper unconscious layer of the personality and which mainly have a female shape. These female forms are often associated with concepts such as fertility, offspring and marriage. Water is an archetype. It is recognized as such by its three well known physical states: vapor, water and ice. At the same time, it evokes many cliché images which are drenched within our already image ridden culture.

Water as a source of inspiration is not foreign to the work of Krystyna Ziach. In her last project, The Garden of Illusion (1993), water(vapor) played the role of an important element of expression. Evaporable vapor (water) or thin smoke (fire) constitute the symbolic transformation of the material into the spiritual. In fact, this transformation is the axis around which her work revolved since the project Japan (1987/1988).
In Archê Krystyna Ziach restores water to its Prima Materia and produces in this manner a more esoteric dimension to her work. In her prior series, she used sand, pigment and minerals for it. One can discover different layers in this project. Ziach chose two starting points which were concerned with the theme of "water": flowing and inert water. Flowing water is associated with purification and unconscious energy. This positive force resonates in three of her photo works. In its most exuberant form, flowing water is expressed here in an almost three meter high and narrow representation of a water fall. Its uncontrollable en downward stream is a symbol for the dynamic, enduring influence of the times. Ziach entitled this work "Archê”, because she believed it was a key work. Water purifies the skin, but it also harms it, through a slow, practically imperceptable process of erosion. The self-portrait in The Fountain of Time that shows in an almost serene manner a part of the face, namely, the closed eyes under a stream of water, refers to this process of erosion. Indeed, it speaks volumes, that in the project Archê there does not exist a portrayal of slow, streaming rivers and calm brooks, which usually represent the easy and secure life.

Troubled Waters
Inert water, in contrast to flowing water, smells: it sews the seeds of death and decay. It nearly has a morbid characteristic and also refers to a disturbance in a natural equilibrium and to changeability. Ziach devotes three works to this idea. They are all photo works with a suggestive depth: the mysterious attraction of static, dark water is manifested in it. In The Spiral of Memory, one witnesses whirlpools. Their inward spiral movement announces change. It signifies flux, unrest, chaos and disturbance. Rolled up photos with images of human body parts tumble around in the whirlpool; they are hauled away in the movement of water. The phenomenon of algae is a central part of all three photo works. It is one of the few organisms that can survive in troubled waters and overgrow, or literally suffocate, every other form of life within it. On the other hand, algae also has, in the biological sense, a purifying function. One could also characterize it as being a positive element in an environment which for the most part is in a process of disintegration. Ziach photographed the water surface which was covered with an infinite, dotted pattern of algae cultures. These cultures, when blown up into a larger size, obtain a kinky almost abstract structure. Aqua Obscura shows a puddle in which a series of photo negatives are floating around with portraits of one and the same person. They are half concealed between the algae, as human residues. The method of portraying photos within photos has the affect of memories in multiplied form. These photos are partially distorted and blurred by an amber-yellow glass plate, which is erected centrally in front of the photo panel. In this small glass panel, that dramatically recedes from the photo, water bubbles are flowing around, just as they do when entrapped within a frozen water surface. Once again, an "external" expressive element is used, an added layer, which creates confusion and gives expression to an unstable (natural) equilibrium. In this manner, Krystyna Ziach offers again and again ample space for different ways of perceiving. The glass returns in two out of three of the algae works as a symbol of rhytmic repetition. With this methodic choice, she shows that she can play in a visible way with gravity. Initially, Ziach used mirrors to create confusion in a predominantly rational formation. The mirrors were used in the series Melancholy (1989/1990) and in The Garden of Illusion. Ziach is continually concerned with the idea of the surreal force of reflection. In an iconological sense, the mirror is the symbol for transience, it is also a symbol of Vanitas. In Archê, the symbolic and spatial affect of the mirror is omitted for the first time and is perhaps substituted by water and the special glass.

The living element fire, which consumes, warms and illuminates, can also bring about death and decay and has a similar ambivalent symbolic meaning as does water. Fire can extinguish, but it can also have the quality of the purifying flame which can "burn out" evil, pain, sin, illness, distress and suffering. Fire then has the meaning of a symbol of life energy. Ziach complements these two conflicting elements by uniting them literally in the installation Quinta Essentia. The title indirectly refers to an ever recurring symbol that takes place in several cultures in the form of a hexagram. It is a six pointed star composed of two triangles that overlap each other. In general, it is assumed that this figure consists of the composition of the "watery" element (which is female and pointing downwards) and the "fire" element (which is masculine and pointing upwards). Joined together, both triangles represent an harmonic duality. Alchemistic reflections went as far as to subsume all four primal elements (water, fire, earth and air) under the symbol of the hexagram. Today the symbol rather reminds us of the star of David of Israel. Given the fact that water and fire cannot be mixed, the alchemist assumed that a fifth element was neccesary: the Quinta essentia (absolute life energy) which must dwell within the center of the figure. Ziach links up with this idea in the water object that has been named after it. In this robust, spatial object, which stands on a socle , water is present in the form of an element of experience. The course of the water is physically represented in space, it is tangible and audible in its downward movement .Water trickles vertically downwards in an undulating, filmic layer, literally spilling over the photographic surface. On top of it, the capricious, inevitable and ever rising direction of fire is portrayed, as if it were burning sulphur. It is the ultimate connection of two impossibly unified elements, of two absolute extremes. The pulsating affect of a pump cares for the continual circulation of water and with that the passing of time. The object is entirely composed of oxydite metal. The chemical process of corrosion is once again a metaphor for transience.
part II on the next page