What makes us human beings? Not what makes us work, but what makes us the complex, unique individuals that we are?
The very concept of organic life is truly incredible, let alone the actual existence of something like Homo sapiens. How do elements like oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen arrange themselves so that they can walk on the moon or write Hamlet?
Science explains much of it in its own language, but for most of us, these processes, and the hypotheses behind them, remain ephemeral, even magical, as if we were still looking at things the way the ancients looked at them.
The complexities of life were once explained by way of four essential elements: earth, air, fire and water. And the human, in particular, had its own elemental explanations.
Humoral theory, for instance, suggested that we (human beings) were comprised of four humors (liquids) which, when perfectly balanced, meant we functioned and performed healthily, both physically and mentally.
It was the physician Hippocrates, nearly four hundred years before the common era, who refined and popularised the theory of humoral medicine. His theory remained unchallenged for the better part of two thousand years.
The humors were yellow bile (ξανθη χολή, xanthe chole), phlegm (φλέγμα, phlegma), blood (αἷμα, haima) and black bile (μέλαινα χολή, melaina chole). The received wisdom was that, should the balance of these humors be disturbed and an ailment detected, then the humor deemed to be in excess would be drained and balance restored.
Why do you need to know this? Well, when I recently received Melaina Chole, I was presented with a small, elegant conundrum of a book: portraits and blood cells, landscapes and clouds.
Initially, the book’s message eluded me, until I connected the photographs to the title. Not only, as mentioned earlier, was melaina chole the phrase used to refer to the black bile secreted by either the kidneys or the spleen, it was also considered to be the cause of melancholy, a derivation of melaina chole.
And so what begins with an imbalance in the humors distills into an examination of melancholia, or depression.
The images continue to break through and build our anticipation, but for what?
Not blue skies, fresh air, or revitalising optimism—things we desire, things we so need. Just more of the same.
The juxtapositions and clashes that follow are either as random as the electrical clicks and flashes that power our unconscious, or as carefully considered as the words in a sonnet.
The book is split into two sections. Whilst the first refers to humoral theory, the second contains a series of portraits based on Hippocrates’ study of physiognomy, which suggested that a person’s moral character could be determined by facial characteristics and even the size and shape of his head.
“People with small faces have small souls, like cats and monkeys,” said pseudo-Aristotle in the Physiognomonica.
In 2019, Cristiano Volk released his debut title, Sinking Stone—a colour-rich, abstract comment on the Italian city of Venice and a book thematically, stylistically, and aesthetically worlds away from this new collection.
With this second book, there’s no question that we are in the company of an audacious talent that refuses to be pigeonholed. In walking such a tightrope there is always a risk of embarking on a wantonly unpredictable and unsteady trajectory. However, whilst many of our favourite creatives wrap us in a warm comfortable blanket of familiarity, others are prepared to challenge, confront, and risk the long fall from the wire.
With only two books under his belt, it may be a little early to tell for Volk. But he has definitely (defiantly) taken those first steps. And more importantly, he’s not afraid to look down.