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Krystyna Ziach / A Chamber of Mirrors 1984 - 1994, text by Iris Dik, 1994 (English)
Iris Dik is an art historian based in Amsterdam
photo : Exhibition A Chamber of Mirrors, Nederlands Photography Museum, Sittard, NL, 1994
A CHAMBER OF MIRRORS
From 21 May until 26 June, the Netherlands Photography Museum in Sittard shows photo works by the Amsterdam artist Krystyna Ziach. The exhibition includes the four series she has been working on during the past ten years: Metamorphosis (1984-1986), Japan (1987-1988), Melancholy (1989-1990) and A Garden of Illusion (1992-1993).
In her native Poland Ziach obtained degrees in sculpture and art history. In the Netherlands she turned to photography in 1979. Ziach’s background in sculpture continues to play an important part in her monumental photo works, photo sculptures and installations. Her work constitutes a search for the experience of space, within and without the plane, at an expressive as well as a more metaphysical level. The title of the overview, A Chamber of Mirrors, refers to the important part played by the mirror. The title also recalls the lecture ‘The Nightmare’ by Jorge Luis Borges, in which he describes two of his worst anxiety dreams. In the first dream he stands at the beginning of an infinite labyrinth. Through the cracks in the wall he tries in vain to catch a glimpse of the minotaur in the centre. But, even if he continues to walk forever, never shall he find its hiding-place. Beyond this dream of confusion and infinitude lies the second situation, where Borges is locked up in a reflecting circular room. Thus another kind of labyrinth, this time one where - reversely - he can see everything, but cannot move an inch. Krystyna Ziach’s hall of mirrors appeals to similar anxieties, but is not a nightmare. Here the observer is not a captive, but free to determine his own route and to interpret and interrelate her evocative photographs at his own discretion.
Initially, in the series Metamorphosis, Ziach began by making self-portraits. Contrary to the work of many female artists in the early eighties, Ziach’s work was not intended to reveal her own identity, but rather to research the expressive energy of the female body and, in doing so, to push back the frontiers between photography and painting. Against expressionist backgrounds full of contrast she assumed expressive poses. Her painted body either contrasted with the backgrounds, or formed a chameleonic whole with them. For the photograph Geometry, she painted the nine edges of a cube on her body and the backcloth, which makes her seem to be part of the geometric figure. This photo can be considered as the prelude to the later series Melancholy. Painted expressionist elements return in Melancholy, but now in a more stylized form. Human figures seem confined by geometric and crystalline structures. The mirror turns up several times, referring to the tradition of the trompe-l’oeil, the illusion of space in art. Ziach’s inspiration for Melancholy came from the geniuses of art history, Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Kasimir Malevich. Like Ziach herself, these artists were captivated by the ambivalent longing for the unity between mathematical order and absolute emotion. Malevich’s black cross for instance, is composed of five squares which are to symbolize pure emotion. Ziach’s Black Cross of Malevich is a lyrical adaptation of this painting. With the - expressively painted - cross as a frame, she photographed a naked woman in a variant of Da Vinci’s ‘homo universalis’. The greater part of the space in Sittard is occupied by the recent installation A Garden of Illusion and two large works from the series Japan. In these two installations, in which Ziach uses real mirrors as plastic material, the works come loose from the walls. While her earlier photography mainly offered a perspective on an illusionary space within the plane, now the sculptural conquest of the (exhibition) space itself has set in. The series Japan (1) was created after a journey through Japan in 1987, where Ziach became inspired by the timeless nature of Buddhist and Shinto rituals. In this series the emphasis is on space in a spiritual sense. In Japanese culture the mirror symbolizes ‘the infinite imagination of the gods’. Infinity is a triangular photo work which is reflected in a similarly shaped mirror on the floor. The idea of infinity is enhanced by the multiplication and mirroring of the image of one single Buddhist monk. In The Anatomy of the Big Buddha - another work from this series – Ziach searched for a visual shape for the spiritual nature of the Buddhist ceremonies. A photograph of the back of a large Buddha sculpture was cut in two. These side panels encompass the mysterious image of a cave, water and smoke: the imaginary inner space. In the series Japan Ziach used for the first time the space around the photograph. On the floor in front of some of the photographs she scattered pulverized marble and sand in geometric patterns, in which she drew lines suggestive of meditative Zen gardens.
(1) This series was shown at Arti et Amicitiae in 1988 and in 1991 and 1992, a smaller selection was part of the exhibition Outer Space (Camden Arts Centre, London; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle; Arnolfini, Bristol): photo and video installations of, among others, Judith Barry, Geneviève Cadieux, Willie Doherty and Jeffrey Shaw.
The photographs in A Garden of Illusion (2) are combined with variously shaped mirrors and framed by sculptural geometric forms. The separate images of this series have been printed monochrome, five in blue, five in sepia, which is Ziach’s way of differentiating between signs of the celestial and the terrestrial, dream and reality (3). The installation is an artificial garden where the spiritual and the sensual reflect each other infinitely. The constantly changing spaces ‘behind the mirror’ which emerge during the walk, are related to the trompe-l’oeil effects from the painted scenery of Ziach’s earlier photo series. Geometric forms - such as the triangle, the circle and the square - cut across each other and create continually varying connections between the separate photographic images. The photographs that Ziach used for this installation were enlarged details from shots she found in her archive, combined with photographs she took especially for the installation and which hold personal memories: a kerbstone with a puddle of rainwater in Paris, a crack in a wall, a honeycomb-like structure on a frosted-glass door and a group of dilapidated houses in the Jewish quarter of Cracow. They are abstracted shots according to the technique of the blow-up, which was in vogue in the twenties with photographers such as Paul Strand and Albert Renger-Patsch, who used it to emphasize the intrinsic beauty of the commonplace.
(2) Last year in May a part of A Garden of Illusion was presented for the first time in the RAM Gallery in Rotterdam. On that occasion a multiple of the work A Memory of Rain was published, which in 1994 and 1995 will be part of the travelling exhibition Art in Boxes (organized by the Hayward Gallery London). This exhibition contains work from, among others, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell.
(3) By this division she unites two traditional meanings of the mirror in one work. Initially the mirror is the symbol for the pure truth of the divine, also used as a symbol for Mary and the angels. Later it reversely became the attribute of one of the seven cardinal sins, Vanitas (vanity). And in the hands of the goddess Venus, such as on the paintings by Rubens and Titian, it symbolizes desire.
A Garden of Illusion has a similar minimal appearance but - despite the aesthetic finish - Ziach does not seem interested in the first place in the presentation of form for the sake of form. Due to the way in which she selects and combines her images and grants them a symbolic added value, e.g. by their colour and shape, she tries to give them a new meaning by disposing of their magic in a poetic collage technique. The surreal atmosphere is enhanced by such images as a curtain, a Magrittan cloudy sky, and other organic motifs such as wisps of smoke, cell structures and plant forms, in which we can project whatever inner fantasies we may have. Some photographs are plainly erotic, e.g. the portraits of a woman in ecstasies. Ziach’s approach is more serious though when compared with the absurdism or the irony used in surrealism to create interrelations. A Garden of Illusion may be understood as a metaphysical search for the meaning of life, witness the titles of the separate works, such as A Sense of Time, Plato’s Cave, Breathing and Illumination. In a sense A Garden of Illusion is also related to a kind of alchemist’s workshop. Like the alchemists, Ziach is searching for the connection between the micro and the macro cosmos. In the imposing work Plato’s Cave the smoke literally seems to rise up from the mirror on the floor, which brings to mind the association with purification rites. The four elements - fire, earth, air and water - return several times. Instead of applying processes of heating and cooling, Ziach seems to use the mirror as an instrument for image distortion or amalgamation - in search for the philosopher’s stone? - until the amalgam transcends the autobiographical. On one of the mirrors one can discern a fine-grained material. Has Ziach succeeded in penetrating the essential, did she find the prima materia, or is the walk through her Garden of Illusion a mere dream, witness the blue film which lies over the powder ?
Ziach gives the series Metamorphosis and Melancholy a much less prominent place in the exhibition, showing but a small selection in Sittard. In this way she also seems take leave of the personal touch of her expressionist period, in favour of the more minimal and universal approach in the photo installations Japan and A Garden of Illusion.
Translation: Hanny Keulers