A Celebration Of Water: Jitka Hanzlova’s Photographs at Yancey Richardson Gallery by Donald Kuspit

Jitka Hanzolva, Silent Blue #5, 2018, from the series WATER 2013-2019, 18 3/4 x 14 3/8 inches (47.6 x 36.5 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York.



There’s something soothing and pleasing, lovable and lyrical about the water in Jitka Hanzolva’s photographs of it, for it is a “Water That Dreams,” suggesting that it is also water that she sees in her dreams.  If, as Freud wrote, a dream is a wish-fulfillment, then we have to ask what wishes the water dreams, more particularly, what wish the isolated fish in Silent Blue #1, #3, #4, 2018 had, and also the swarm of fish in Silent Blue #10, swimming together as though one—they all look alike, all the same kind.  And if, as I think, the fish is a symbol of Hanzolva—she’s clearly in the swim, clearly had to dive deep to photograph the small fish in the middle of Silent Blue #1; the larger fish in Silent Blue #3 and #4 are closer to the surface but still out of reach.  The swarm of fish in Silent Blue #10 seem to float on the surface, like flickers of light, but move too fast to grasp, let alone bring into clear focus, like the larger fish, who have an iconic presence.  Hanzlova had to dive into the depths to photograph them, suggesting she swims as well if not as fast as they do—but her camera eye has to be fast to catch them.  Swimming along with them, she becomes another fish in the water, in effect identifying with them.

Jitka Hanzolva, Human Light #7, 2018, from the series WATER 2013-2019, 18 5/16 x 14 3/16 inches (46.5 x 36 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Hanzlova’s Silent Blue series brings to mind the philosopher Chang Tzu’s famous dream:  “Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly.  I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was myself.  Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again.  Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”  Just as Chang Tzu dreams he is a butterfly—identifies with a butterfly, perhaps because his mind fluttered hither and thither, always on the restless move--so Hanzlova dreams she is a fish, her mind’s eye, materialized in the camera’s eye, flutters hither and thither, happily on the perpetual move.  “Life is but a dream,” Shakespeare said, and so is imaginative art, as Freud said, and dreams always involve some displacement from reality, as he argued, however real things may seem in them, and however real they may seem.  From that point of view, every photograph, however seemingly realistic and descriptive—matter of fact—always involves a certain displacement from reality, which gives it emotional significance, implying it is a kind of dream despite itself—resonates subjectively however ostensibly objective.  

Surreally imaginative photographs, famously those of Man Ray, are ingeniously manufactured dreams, but one doesn’t have to be a surrealist to make imaginative photographs, only have the courage to engage the elemental with open eyes.  Water is elemental, and as such an Urphänomen—a primordial phenomenon, all the more so because it is the Ursprung—origin—of life.  I am using the German prefix “ur,” broadly translated as “basic,” “fundamental,” “primordial”--“existing at or from the beginning of time,” and as such peculiarly timeless--to allude to Hanzlova’s series Ur, the key to all the other series in the exhibition, a selection of 46 color photographs devoted to Water made between 2013 and 2019, clearly a grand obsession, certainly a major achievement—a tour de force devoted to a force of nature.  It is worth noting that Ur is the name of an ancient Mesopotamian city inhabited consistently from ca. 55000 to 300 BCE—from the beginning of recorded time, making it almost as timeless as water.    

Jitka Hanzolva, Ur #4, 2018, from the series WATER 2013-2019, 22 13/16 x 16 15/16 inches (58 x 43 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York. 

Water is the most abundant substance on the surface of Earth.  But “water resources are under threat from water scarcity, water pollution, water conflict, and climate change.  Fresh water is a renewable resource, yet the world’s supply of ground water is steadily decreasing.”  I think Hanzlova’s Water works are a response to this life-threatening—for water is “the elixir of life”—crisis, further evidence of the so-called “death of nature.”  A homage to water, her photographs may end up being a memorial to it when Earth has become as dry as a desert, which large parts of it already are, and unable to support life.  They are a tour de force in defense of life-giving water in a world that seems anti-life, as its endless deadly wars suggest.    

There are two groups of works in the exhibition:  photographs that show water as an end in itself, that seem to essentialize, transcendentalize it, so that it becomes an uncanny phenomenon, peculiarly unworldly—photographs that are exquisite revelations rather than matter of fact representations--and photographs that show water compromised, impinged upon by human society, reduced to passive servitude rather than vigorously self-expressive—mundane water that serves for boating or swimming, the water of a lake or a beach, domesticated water, water rendered passive, water that serves human pleasure, rather than water in and for its dynamic, elemental, untamable self.  Ur #1, #3, 4, 10 2018 along with Ice #1, #4, #5, 2018 and Clouds #3, #6, #9, #13, 2013 epitomize Hanslova’s obsession with elemental nature.  In sharp contrast, the water in the foreground of Human Light #1, 2015 is passive and subservient to the mound of earth that looms above it on the shore.  The debris in the foreground of Human Light #3, 2018 along with the foamy white water—clearly polluted compared to the crystal-clear blue water in the Silent Blue series—indicates that the water has become a kind of wasteland.  In Human Light #10, 2018 an iceberg tinted blue is contrasted with an iceberg tinted black, the frozen remnants of a living ocean and an ocean blackened by death.  In Human Light #7, 2018 an isolated blue iceberg, the frozen—dead—remains of the deep blue sea, floats below a gray cloud and on a blackish sea.  It is worthy of Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead, painted five times, from 1880-1885, except that it is uninhabitable, not even by ghosts.  Rigor mortis has set into the water, turning it into dead ice.  The work also brings to mind Caspar David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice, 1823-1824, however different the icebergs, both deaths triumphant.  

Jitka Hanzolva, Ice #1, 2018, from the series WATER 2013-2019 22 13/16 x 16 15/16 inches (58 x 43 x 2 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York.

The beach scene in Human Light #5, 2017 shows water domesticated, unmoving, all but lifeless.  The water is in the remote distance beyond the beach, passive, not to say dead and dumb, certainly compared to the wildly animated living water in the Ur, Ice, and Cloud series—clouds are embodied water.  The quirky perspective line marked by the lamp posts and the beach umbrella trace a path to what is in effect a dead sea.  The dead sea in Human Light #8 is marked by pleasure boats, the contrast between the big empty two-seater and the small empty canoe beside it sets up an all too human contrast between lovers and loners.  In Human Light #5 the frozen lake in the foreground is dominated by the high-rise buildings on the shore above and beyond it, symbols of man’s dominance of nature, as the much smaller trees below them, forming a sort of decorative filigree on the shore, indicate.  It is Central Park Lake, an artificial lake in an artificial nature, designed for human amusement, rather than raw nature, a safe housebroken nature, as the buildings that loom above it make clear, rather than an inhospitable Ur world, full of wild animals rather than a place where one can safely walk one’s pet dog, an animal as domesticated as the trees in the park.  In Human Light # 2, 2016 the sea is gray with age, the yellow streak—a bridge of light crossing it--stretches to the blue sky in the remote distance, perhaps a sign of hope in a barren space.  The depressing existentialism of the Human Light series, obsessed with death to a nihilistic extreme, contrasts sharply with the ecstatic essentialism of the Ur, Ice, and Clouds series, with their water and living creatures, suggests the philosophical subtlety of Hanslova’s artful photographs taken as a whole.

Jitka Hanzolva, Silent Blue #1, 2018, from the series WATER 2013-2019, 44 1/8 x 32 inches (112 x 81 cm), Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York.

In the Human Light series the camera is a means of everyday seeing; it involves what the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in the Phenomenology of Perception, calls accepting, without question, “the world ‘already there’,” the “natural attitude” to it, or what the philosopher John Cogan, in The Phenomenological Reduction, calls “captivation in acceptedness,” accepting without question whatever appears to be the factual case.  Seen in Human Light, confirming that it has been put to human use—it is used for swimming and boating in that series—water is matter of factually, not to say banally, the case.  It is familiar, boring, taken for granted, accepted as what it appears to be.  In contrast, the water in the Silent Blue series is unsullied by human use; it is primordial matter, home to fish, primordial life, like Chang Tzu’s butterfly, primordial life at home in the air, another primordial matter.  In the Ur, Ice, and Clouds series water is more clearly a thing in itself—no longer a home for fish, a generator of life, it becomes an astonishing phenomenon, an object of wonder rather than use, exploitation, a dumping ground for human waste.  The camera in the Human Light series treats water matter of factly; it is banally given.  In sharp contrast, the camera in the Ur, Ice, and Clouds series performs what  phenomenological philosophers call an epoché on or phenomenological reduction of the water.  The epoché is a procedure by which we no longer accept an appearance as matter of factly given, and as such ordinary and familiar, but “attend to it with wonder,” leading us to experience it without any preconceptions, and as such “astonishing,” and with that extraordinary and unfamiliar.  Baudelaire’s distinction between the “positivist” and “imaginative” artist—between the artist who “wants to represent things as they are…supposing that he did not exist,” and the artist who “wants to illuminate things with his mind,”(1) resembles the distinction between the artist who accepts the world “already there”—matter of factly and routinely given, predictably the case—and the artist who phenomenologically reduces it, imagination being a form or mode of phenomenological reduction.  It is why, in certain dreams more imaginative than others, objects stand out with a certain prominence, giving them what might be called a “surreal” presence.  

The water in the Human Light series is stale, static, old, while the water in the Ur, Ice, and Clouds series is “phenomenal,” which is why it affords what Baudelaire called “the sensation of the new.”  It is the fresh, untamable water of the primordial ocean, rather than lake water, water polluted by human use and abuse—“humanized” water, water seen in Human Light, rather than in primordial light, as in the Ur, Ice, and Clouds series, and especially the Silent Blue series, where primordial light and primordial water marry to give birth to primordial life in all its variety, as the very different fishes in the swim indicate.  The adult human body is 60% water, the brain and heart are 73% water, the lungs are 83% water, the muscles and kidneys are 79% water, suggesting that human beings are more primordial than they care to admit.  Hanzlova is clearly taken with water, whether in the form of ice and clouds, and at home in it, for had to swim like a fish to photograph those she memorializes in the Silent Blue series.  She is a kind of water goddess, like Thalassa.

Jitka Hanzolva, Silent Blue #2, 2018 (from the series, WATER 2013 - 2019). Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York.

Epoché, an ancient Greek term for “cessation,” came to mean, in the words of the Pyrrhonist philosopher Sextus Empiricus, “a state of the intellect in which we neither affirm nor deny anything” in order to induce a state of ataraxia, freedom from worry and anxiety.  More broadly, the Stoics used it “to describe the withholding of assent to Phantasia (impressions),” and the Stoic Epictetus used it to withhold assent to feeling, in effect suspending or “bracketing” it, as phenomenological philosophers, such as Merleau-Ponty and Cogan would say.  But seeing it without feeling, apperceiving it rather than matter of factly perceiving it, attending to it with wonder, as Merleau-Ponty says, and astonishment, as Cogan says, we creatively intuit its “essential necessity,” “essential universality,” “essential truthfulness,” as the phenomenological philosopher Edmund Husserl says.  The water in the Human Light series is tragically passive, not to say dead—the Central Park lake is its coffin—in sharp contrast to the water in the Silent Blue series, where the water is a alive with fish, a breeding ground of primordial life, and especially in the Ur, Ice, and Clouds series, where the water is a universal wonder to behold.  Whether cocooned in clouds or sculpted in ice it is essentially self-same.  They are the different forms water has when it is dreaming of itself.  In those works the camera is a means to a phenomenological end, all the more so because there are no signs of human presence, such as the buildings that hover over the Central Park Lake like tombstones. WM


(1)Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” The Mirror of Art (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1955), 242


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

view all articles from this author