Launched at Donlon Books in East London last Thursday, and already down to the final few copies, Index of Time by Tereza Zelenkova, Peter Watkins and Oliver Shamlou is an ambitious cornucopia of words and images, musing on the dark mythologies and historiography surrounding the second largest cave structure in the Czech Republic. Here, 1000 Words Associate editor, Brad Feuerhelm, of Ordinary Light Photography fame, gets a first-hand look at the book and offers his reflections on this unique and at times beguiling project.
Index of Time offers an interesting ménage a trois of absurdist literature and cold and ritualistic photographic Gnosticism, with approximately 40 murders by an above average Troglodyte thrown into the mix. If that were not enough to pique your curiosity, the pictures and words are well conceived and patterned, rather tethered to each other in a black and sinking maelstrom of cave-dwelling intrigue.
Not always the easiest of marriages, photography and literature in the context of a small edition of 100 is intimate and somehow eludes arbitrary measure, enabling the brooding photographs that share their pages with a humorous taxonomy of archaeology exemplified by a furrowing shaman named Slogger.
The historic tale of the collaboration alone relates to a discovery of pre-historic cave dwellings in the Josefovské Valley a vast Moravian Nature reserve. Within this valley lies the open mouth of Býčí skála Cave, which henceforth since its inception has spewed forth plenty of tales. Some tales have been told on its walls as the caves carry the earliest cave paintings from the region. The cave system which is some 13 kilometres long has housed millennia of human inhabitants each gathering and leaving some minor mark on the sweaty surface of the cave interior - glistening and palpitating - waiting for a chance to secrete its histories to future generations of intrepid travellers.
When the cave was explored by Jindrich Wankel from 1867-1873, its notion as spiritual pre-historic home became layered with the uncovering of what has since been reported to be the remains of 40 women and the potential deputy of their demise. Stories abound of ritual sacrifice and brutal dramas being played out on each of the women by a local nobleman. Conversely, in a less legendary version of the atrocity, it has since been alleged that the butchered group, were actually children, adult males, and adult females suggesting the possibility of a mass execution during WWII, possibly via gas though some were beheaded and chained.
All of these histories, which inform this photographic body of work, having been inspired by its representations in culture capture the physical environment and remaining elements of these cautionary tales in monochrome form with clarity and presumably a great deal of patience (the photographers’ car and cameras were both stolen). Within the cave’s interior are abstracted and illusory pools of molten and eroded rock surfaces, which pulse calmly with an otherworldly light while the crevices are alive with the swarm and screech of the bats. Dripping stalactites. Low light. Patience.
The works in the book project the viewer into the suffocating dirt, guano, and human remains found along the way. And further juxtaposed with these dire totems are simple, yet effective images of historic tools, blades, and further underground sublimity as intimated by the silky waters of the cistern pools. The images heave, pregnant with a heavy and oppressive air that weighs like a silken paperweight at the bottom of my lungs in this perceived environ sickly unable to breathe, unable to stop. Heat on the back of my neck joined with a cold shiver down my side, rock and gravel crushed and scraping under the sole of a twisting foot. Reverberations. Low light. Patience to venture further.
As a collaboration, the book’s overall aesthetic and supplement create an atmosphere of charged and observed mythical neglect. By photographing in subterranean climates and in capturing the origins of the written word from its pre-historic root cultures of historic abode and gathering, the three authors have crafted a slick and elegantly designed ode to a morbid yet integral part of our collective humanity. One story of many, the photographs serene and playful cavalcade of diffuse light inherit the historical lineage with aplomb. The cold dejected analogue photograph aesthetic in the hands of operators with earnest interest is as fresh as ever and without any abandon I suggest you explore it further.