About Jitka Hanzlová

By Isabel Tejeda Martin

“Being in a foreign country means walking a tightrope high above the ground without the net afforded a person by the country where he has his family, colleagues and friends, and where he can easily say what he has to say in a language he has known from childhood.” (Milan Kundera)

When looking at the work of the Czech photographer Jitka Hanzlová, the initial challenge lies in relating it to the statement that she made to me in her house in Essen last year and which appears at the start of this essay below the quotations from Julio Cortazar and Milan Kundera. In my opinion all her series are portraits. Experienced and analysed from that viewpoint, all those looks and expressions, shot in vertical format in distant parts of the world, reflect her statement and have a bearing on the relationship of the individual with the context in which that person lives.
In this sense, Hanzlová endows that context with the role of a character and of an element that bears meaning in the image. It is something that goes beyond a mere scenic background. Hanzlová emphasises the link between the idea of belonging and that of identity, an identity in continual, flowing transformation. She highlights the importance of this connection but also its impossibility. When identity becomes tattered and frayed, losing its strength, it manifests itself as loss or lack. In this sense the connecting argument that runs through Hanzlová’s work undoubtedly relates to the idea of political exile, given that she herself experienced this state from the time she was obliged to leave her native land in 1982 due to historical circumstances. The Czechoslovakian Federal Republic, as it was then known, was struggling under a Communist regime that became more repressive from 1968 onwards following the tragic failure of “Socialism with a human face” represented by President Alexander Dubček. In exile, Hanzlová was not allowed to set foot in her native country or to see her family until, as a result of Mikhail Gorbachov’s perestroika, the Berlin Wall fell in 1990 and with it so many visible and invisible frontiers. During those eight years, which were crucial to her evolution as a person and an artist, Hanzlová lived in her German refuge of Essen in a state of floating or weightlessness comparable to that experienced by Milan Kundera’s Terézia in Switzerland. In fact, the first works that she truly identifies with are those that she started to create in 1990 when she was able to return to her native village of Rokytník. This series marks an emergence from her creative voicelessness following the fall of all those “barbed-wire fences” and is a work through which she exorcised that trauma. Rokytník, as the series is entitled, would influence her subsequent ones in which she speaks without words and by default of the exile’s lack of a fixed anchor, of what that person lacks and of the consequent longing for home that Terézia Mora expresses in the quotation that heads this text.

From a past located in the present that looks towards the future and through the viewfinder of her camera Hanzlová projects the idea of the loss of a family environment as well as that loss of the linguistic home discussed by George Steiner. (George Steiner, Extraterritorial, Barcelona, Barral, 1973, pp. 23–24.)
She experienced this loss of her native tongue and the fact that she was surrounded by the German language, of which she knew little, alongside her encounter with what would become her lingua franca, photography, a language that does not need translating and which can also serve as an instrument of therapy and liberation. Hanzlová thus began to “talk” in that lingua franca in 1990 (and without any sign of a beginner’s stammerings) about what she knew, her own culture, her country, her earliest reference points. The discontinuous, mixed identity of the exile finds an unbroken continuum, albeit one possessed of “betweens”, in the frieze of portraits of which Rokytník is comprised, a frieze of people known to the artist or whomshe had recently met but with whom she possessed family ties or who used to be neighbours. In the profundity of the faces, serene and expectant with regard to the future, in the fresh new shoots represented by those who have recently arrived, in the absence of those who left, the passing of time is condensed, that time which Roland Barthes described as characteristic of photography, which rapidly dies and is left suspended. (Roland Barthes, La cámara lúcida, Barcelona, Paidos, 1999.)
As Hanzlová herself has said and as John Berger recalls in the present catalogue, these photographs are bridges towards recollection that become the bases for the future. This is because this situation of loss and reencounter allows Hanzlová to confront her own identity, her true inner self, given that in the process of exile, in a new context and with new experiences, one loses but one also gains. It is because of this need to recover memory but also in her fight against that alienating totalitarian gaze that transforms the individual into the mass that Hanzlová encounters people one by one, even though the return is in fact nothing more than a new exile given that this ex-patriot returns to a place where the time seems to stand still. This work with her neighbours was like a natural remedy, taken in small doses over a long period of time, over four years. In Rokytník, as if mapping it out, Hanzlová portrayed almost all the inhabitants one by one, from the forest guard to the children, creating images of the community that function for her as encounter and recognition. This process, however, has nothing of the documentary in it or of the cold, exact administrative record. Hanzlová offers a group of portraits in which recognition is based on a triggered-off memory of emotions that seeks an impossible end: to combine a past that cannot be regained and the years of loss of her German exile with the present represented by this reencounter. Rokytník shows life in a small village, the great open spaces, the sense of contact with the natural environment, the broad horizons and rural life. Hanzlová’s next series is entitled Bewohner. Once again we encounter the importance of giving a name to the work, with the title acting as a support for gathering together underlying meanings. In German the word Bewohner means inhabitant, referring not only to people but also to animals and things. Here again Jitka Hanzlová includes the setting of the work as another character. This series confirms what the artist discovered when working on Rokytník, a continuation of it created to both contrast and reinforce the Czech series. It functions as a necessary comparison on the relationship of belonging between the individual and that person’s environment. After the harmony between the natural world and the individual expressed in Rokytník we now encounter the built landscape, the artificial paradises of contemporary life. The sitters in this series are shown in a more remote and less integrated relationship with the context. This situation is presented as a wound that cannot be cured in Brixton, a series in which Hanzlová portrayed Afro-Caribbean women in a poor and socially deprived London borough. It is in Brixton that Hanzlová most overtly and powerfully portrays the idea of the lost soul with nowhere to go; all those lost souls of women living in alien, borrowed places which they desperately hope will be temporary. Another form of exile presents itself here, that of economic exile, which results in an identical sense of loss of roots and with an identical impossibility of return. Eternal outsiders, they are outside everything, even the margins. Their faces are the indelible sign of that rootlessness expressed through their gazes, their expressions, conveying a sense of profound sadness and desperation.

This continual journey undertaken by Jitka Hanzlová through contemporary western culture, presented in different locations and as a result of her nomadic photographic activities, is nothing other than an attempt to understand us and to question us through her individual sitters. It is, in other words, the portrait as mirror. In the face of ongoing exile it would seem that Hanzlová has listened to Seneca’s beautiful reflections that spring to mind in this context: “Why consider oneself a foreigner when, wherever we are, we look up and see the same stars.” Or, to pursue the metaphor of the mythological Persian beast known as a simurgh, a combination of turkey, lion and gryphon, we might paraphrase Seneca’s words thus: “Why continue to search if every bird contains the essence of all birds.” Where does Hanzlová locate herself and where does she locate those of us looking at this context which is framed, outlined and selected by photography, a context transformed into a suspended moment that becomes transportable? As Zdenek Felix has discussed in this publication, the prevailing concern in these series by Hanzlovaá “the psychic communication between the model and the photographer, which ultimately means the search for ‘otherness’, the unknown.” Although we might be remote from Japanese, German, Afro-Caribbean or Czech culture, in the place of presentation of these images a whiff of globalisation makes itself felt, the feeling of a certain relationship or similarity, of recognition in difference. On occasions Hanzlová brings together symbols, elements that are essential for the survival of a particular place, or which at least used to be essential, such as the cormorant in Japan, or the mines in Essen, then offers them outside that context and without any kind of interpretation. The images thus become questions for the viewer and seem to indicate that we haven’t quite swept everything away yet.

Like the city of Tamara in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in Hanzlová’s photographs things are signs that lead on to other things. Only in nature is a stone a stone: You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognised that thing as a sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passages; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only what they are. Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something – who knows what? – has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star. Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate behind the kiosk, to fish with a rod from the bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing bowls, burning relatives’ corpses) […] However the city may really be, beneath this thick colony of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the sky opens, with speeding14 clouds. In the shape that chance and the wind give the clouds, you are already intent onrecognising figures; a sailing ship, a hand, an elephant […] (Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, London, Vintage Classics, 2009, p. 11.)

This awareness of the untranslatable but at the same time attractive nature of the alien or the remote, and of the fact that the alien becomes a mirror of what we are, revealed itself when Hanzlová and I went together to the inauguration of an exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen. This splendid exhibition focused on the work that the artist Lothar Baumgarten undertook with the Yanomamos in the Amazon jungle in the 1970s. In contrast to the usual preference for interpretation characteristic of anthropology museums, these photographs and films by the young Baumgarten – which have no artistic intent and are markedly documentary in nature – were exhibited with no accompanying information and in a deliberately austere manner. His photographs, objects and films highlighted the fact that when faced with a culture so different to our own, located in a Bronze Age technological parallel, we need constant interpretative help in order to understand what we are looking at. The lack of any museological interpretation of the rituals or daily actions aimed at collective survival (such as constructing a boat or plaiting a hammock), the aggressive attitude towards the separation of gender roles, at first seemed baffling then provoked us to focus more closely in order to try to understand what we were seeing. However, that sort of understanding turned out to be a logical contradiction in a culture in which context and identity are one and the same. Our gaze progressed no further than mere interpretation in which we ended up translating what we saw into an artificial comparison with our own context and with what we already know. We always try to recognise ourselves and to understand images in the manner of those mirrors that I have so often discussed with Hanzlová. Her work is similarly devoid of elements that interpret the meaning, in fact she is to some extent against descriptive texts, preferring those that function in a parallel, less methodical and less academic manner; texts in which the poetic is more important than the explained, demonstrated or corroborated. It is as if Hanzlová prefers to leave the meaning open and intact, in case of the appearance of a new translator who lacks interpretative supports but who has the invisible wings of intuition. In fact, verbalising makes her nervous as it seems to her that it will make the experience banal and distance it from her. In fact, in the interview that accompanies this catalogue she politely complains about my endless questions and the fact that I make her talk about her work. As with Henri Bergson, her photographs uphold the importance of instinct and the emotions: “There are things that only intelligence can look for but which it will never find by itself. Only instinct will find them but it will never look for them.” (Henri Bergson, “L’évolution créatrice”, in Oeuvres, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1963, p. 623.)

Jitka Hanzlová has traversed contexts, identities and cultures in this quest for the meaning of belonging that lies at the heart of her images. Her last work, however, has gone even further. In the series There is Something I Don’t Know she reintroduces the factor of time, understanding it, however, as something beyond the type of time that individuals experience during their lifetime. Hanzlová’s questioning focuses on the mark left by human beings on history, which for her is “history” in lower-case letters, the kind of history not recounted in history books. Rather she looks at the history that leaves its mark in facial expressions that constantly recur over the centuries, in seemingly identical physical types, in the threads of family connections that wind through the centuries. Emphasising the sitter’s gaze in that “vindication of presence” analysed by Jesús Carrillo in his essay in this publication, the place in which the act of portraying takes place, the place of the photographer’s gaze, becomes particularly important. This questioning of the how, where and why brings about an analysis of the way other portraitists have worked in the past. Hanzlová looks at how relationships, complicity and periods of co-existence were established between sitter and painter in Renaissance Europe and how these circumstances are reflected in the pictorial viewpoint, the relationship with the horizon, the format of the work, the way the gaze is captured, the placement of the sitter and the different poses. They are also reflected in that type of suspended time that comes about in Old Master paintings, which is never born from a single instant but from hours and hours of reflection before the subject and which stubbornly continues even when the sitter is not there. The fact that the sitters turn in on themselves paradoxically means that they reveal more about themselves, allowing their thoughts to wander and losing themselves in these thoughts in order to endure the tedium of lengthy posing. During this period of expanded time the painter becomes familiar with every pore, every well-known inch of skin more even than the lover beneath the sheets: the gaze which becomes both one and many as it starts to silt up in the delicate stratification traced by the pigment on the canvas. The artist’s skill lies in offering a degree of veracity greater than that of any grimacing in front of a mirror. “Troppo vero”, an impressed Innocent X is said to have exclaimed in front of Velazquez’s portrait of him. That silted-up time, which the old, nineteenth-century photography could still produce, becomes a logical contradiction in the hands of the contemporary photographer. The immediacy of the shot in sessions that usually last half an hour, the lack of connection with the camera and the tension arising in that space between the subject and camera, which is in fact the photographer’s mask, all construct that invisible “between”, as Jitka Hanzlová likes to call it, which does not always work: on occasions it becomes dense while on others it miraculously transforms itself into a road of there and back again, a cord that connects the two spaces... As a result, the subsequent work carried out in the studio is invariably a latent phase or latent time in her photography. There are thus two decisive moments, the one that comes about in front of the subject and the one that goes in search of “that” instant after the contact sheets have been developed. Exasperatingly similar to many others, this instant should, however, be capable of summarising the time, the context and the individual. It should add the profundity of going beyond a single shot and should function as the link that “dilutes” the tension, the path that connects the here and the there. It has nothing, however, to do with the “decisive moment” of the reporter who aims to follow in the footsteps of Henri Cartier-Bresson. It is the condensed instant, the “between”.

Translated by Laura Suffield