Represented in this feature are four series by the Croatian photographer Marko Umicevic: a project called Malkauns, a lightless meditation on the abandoned industrial sites of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia; another called Floating Outerworlds, where Umicevic used a pinhole camera to photograph the remote Croatian mountain region of Lika; followed by Mirror of Prague, pinhole recollections of a place dear to Umicevic’s childhood sense of wonder, but fractured by unreliable memories. The latest series, Terra Incognita, is the most abstract of the tetralogy. It’s both a return to the rural landscapes of Lika and an ongoing experiment with cameraless photography. To achieve the series’ celestial effect, Umicevic exposed light sensitive paper to the darkness beneath stones and the mountain’s willful climate. Afterwards, he took the images to his darkroom, processed them as negatives, digitally reversing the tones and colors, as if to reveal something otherwise hidden from the human eye but not to nature itself.
Umicevic’s themes suggest continuity, stemming from his interest in light’s absence, a growing aversion to the machinery of industrial life (hence the cameraless photography and the increasing fondness for mountains instead of city skylines), and a sympathetic eye toward wasted spaces. I sense an historical valence in the work as well—a reality at odds with Umicevic’s creative needs. You don’t have to dig deeply into the historical affairs of Croatia and the Czech Republic, or into their relationship with Western Europe, to read between the lines. Even to me, an outsider, that resonance feels inevitable, but what attracts me more is the strange, almost affectionate derangement of each series toward pure, exquisite abstraction. You see this kind of progression sometimes in artists who suffer from schizophrenia. The English artist Louis Wain, for example, who struggled with that condition, painted cats that became progressively more fractal, more sublime. Umicevic is not schizophrenic, just to be clear. But that aesthetic and political realities often vie for supremacy in everyone’s minds means we all, at some point, stand enthralled to ecstatic, incomprehensible kittens.
Which is why Paul Valéry’s 1919 essay, “Crisis of the Mind,” reads so profoundly alongside Umicevic’s work. For Valéry, art and reality compete in just the same way. The latter arms the void, hurling it irresistibly toward the marble porticos of civilization. “But,” he says, “it is the glory of man to be able to spend himself on the void”—a nod to the mad valor of creative thought and enterprise. “Crisis of the Mind” is a meditation on the First World War, on history’s devastations, and on what we make of ourselves within that “perfect state of disorder.” Umicevic does the same, not as a representative of history or civilization, but as a transient, mining lapis lazuli in the ash heaps. —Collier Brown
Selections from Paul Valéry’s “Crisis of the Mind” (1919)
Elam, Ninevah, Babylon were but beautiful vague names, and the total ruin of those worlds had as little significance for us as their very existence. But France, England, Russia…these too would be beautiful names. Lusitania too, is a beautiful name. And we see now that the abyss of history is deep enough to hold us all. We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as a life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join the works of Menander are no longer inconceivable; they are in the newspapers. That is not all. The searing lesson is more complete still. It was not enough for our generation to learn from its own experience how the most beautiful things and the most ancient, the most formidable and the best
ordered, can perish by accident; in the realm of thought, feeling, and common sense, we witnessed extraordinary phenomena: paradox suddenly become fact, and obvious fact brutally believed.
For all I need is a vague general recollection of what was being thought just before the war, the kinds of intellectual pursuit then in progress, the works being published.
So if I disregard all detail and confine myself to a quick impression, to that natural whole given by a moment’s perception, I see . . . nothing! Nothing . . . and yet an infinitely potential nothing.
The physicists tell us that if the eye could survive in an oven fired to the point of incandescence, it would see . . . nothing. There would be no unequal intensities of light left to mark off points in space. That formidable contained energy would produce invisibility, indistinct equality. Now, equality of that kind is nothing else than a perfect state of disorder.
Standing, now, on an immense sort of terrace of Elsinore that stretches from Basel to Cologne, bordered by the sands of Nieuport, the marshes of the Somme, the limestone of Champagne, the granites of Alsace . . . our Hamlet of Europe is watching millions of ghosts.
But he is an intellectual Hamlet, meditating on the life and death of truths; for ghosts, he has all the subjects of our controversies; for remorse, all the titles of our fame. He is bowed under the weight of all the discoveries and varieties of knowledge, incapable of resuming the endless activity; he broods on the tedium of rehearsing the past and the folly of always trying to innovate. He staggers between two abysses — for two dangers never cease threatening the world: order and disorder.
“Farewell, ghosts! The world no longer needs you — or me. By giving the names of progress to its own tendency to a fatal precision, the world is seeking to add to the benefits of life the advantages of death. A certain confusion still reigns; but in a little while all will be made clear, and we shall witness at last the miracle of an animal society, the perfect and ultimate anthill.”