The Saatchi Gallery artist tells us how her challenging photography reflects a reality not based on reason.
Cometes (2012): “I found this girl on an online forum for long-haired people. Extremely long hair has always fascinated me and I even thought about making a whole series about it. Cometes means ‘comet’ in Greek, as well as ‘long-haired.'”
Don’t expect any easy answers when approaching Zelenkova’s elegantly subversive black-and-white language. Often mislabelled a surrealist, she prefers that you lose and find your own way again in her often estranged, darkly romantic, yet timeless images. We talk to the Czech artist about why her work doesn’t make her a pessimist.
Why only black-and-white photos?
The usual first question! I sometimes shoot in color. But I feel more comfortable with black and white because it makes it easier to put things together. I’m more interested in form; colors are just too intrusive. It’s definitely an aesthetic choice.
Where are you from and why work in London?
I come from a small town in the eastern Czech Republic. About six years ago, I visited London and liked it, so I stayed much longer than I was supposed to. At the same time, I was bored to death studying law in Brno. I’ve always done photography, but never formally studied it. So I applied for a course in London and it was a good excuse to move here.
Is there a significant art scene back home?
There is in Prague, but I’m actually having a hard time becoming accepted there. They don’t want me, they’re like, “Who’s that?”
Can you name a few Czech artists that we should look out for?
Jiří Thýn, Jan Vytiska and Radeq Brousil.
Does London inspire or distract you?
It’s been very difficult for me to create any work in London. It’s the pace of life here: you don’t have the time to stop. It’s also hard to keep looking at things in a fresh way where you live. For my latest body of work, I’ve forced myself to take more London photos.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
I’m working on two different projects at the moment. The first deals with museums as places that are excluded from the flux and reality of everyday life, but are also organised and rationally structured reflections of the world. My other project is funded by 1000 Words Photography Magazine and deals with European migration. It’s challenging, because it’s very political and unlike me.
How do you describe your own photographs?
It’s a way of looking at the world, making sense of it, proposing a relationship between things that is not strictly based on a rational premise.
What influences your work?
Literature, I read quite a lot. During my last project I read Rimbaud’s letters and his Season in Hell. Music-wise, I like Nick Cave, Patti Smith, PJ Harvey.
Do you consider yourself a Neo-surrealist?
No, but the influences are definitely there. I try to find what is beyond the ordinary, in an ambiguous way. All of my photographs are taken in mundane public places but the prints that I choose create a slightly different visual language. I shoot very ordinary situations, but when translated into an image, a more romantic, timeless world emerges.
Do you attempt to portray a sinister view of the world?
People have called my work gothic and occult, but it’s not nihilistic or pessimistic. What is beautiful or extraordinary to me often has dark undertones or a quite contradictory nature: they’re not quite right. It’s like my photograph of the woman with the long hair. Hair is usually considered a symbol of beauty, but when it becomes excessive, a lot of people become repulsed by it.
Are you trying to destabilize our sense of stability?
Destabilize is the right word. Maybe “subvert” as well, especially in relation to the politics of my current projects.
3. Freud’s Study (2013): “This is Freud’s study and consultation room in London. I love the atmosphere provided by the oriental carpets, ethnic antiquities, and the fact that people used to confess their darkest secrets there.”
4. V&A Statue (2013): “The V&A Museum’s cast court is closed for construction, but you can find rather bizarre sights there, such as this veiled Italian statue. I think the way the modern materials interact with this ancient form is quite beautiful.”