The resurrection of the salamander. The cultural science metaphors of the creative work of Robo Kocan.

Irina Tchmyreva, PhD, Moscow Museum of Modern Art

Central Europe is full of mysteries and secrets. But they are not only in the past. Sorcerers did not cease to exist in the Middle Ages, alchemists live amongst us. They became artists.

The young photographer Robo Kocan is a light-hearted poet, ethereal, hardly touching complicated matters and hardly coming into contact with the hidden meanings revealed by them. His experiments of the early series – the childhood game, with the themes of life and death, is similar to a child’s kiss, in its purity, which gives life to marble statues, and we would not think that they were erected as a memorial to the dead. Kocan’s early black and white series, with numerous expositions, giving birth to the illusory movement of time within one subject, were true poetry. The main series of this period was called “Dialogues” (1989-1993). The photographer made these first experiments at that age, when, as a youth, he, for the first time, became conscious of death and strove towards love. Finding in his searches the object of love, they move through narcissism and develop into the Rubicon of self-aggression. It was a powerful beginning. The first bar of the prelude in the melody of the life of the artist Robo Kocan began with the stress on the first beat. A dangerous combination, requiring the support of future development. The first powerful part gives birth to expression, exhausting the artist with its passion. On such a wave the young Rimbaud lost his breath, in such tension others go to the edge and cannot stop. But, describing the creative work of Robo Kocan in cultural metaphors, let us say that he came to the art of photography, descended from it as a shepherd from the slopes of the Tatry mountains.

A new turn in the creativity of Kocan became his recourse to the stories, myths and legends of the mountains the series “By the Light into the Darkness” (1993-1997). In photography he found the form for the embodiment of the spirits of the dead, which roam in the forests, for the dances of the fairies and elves, water and mountain spirits. It is as if he became a child once again. And acquired a host of followers amongst those same sophisticated admirers of photography and philosophy, people, accustomed to the complicated form of expression, to deep self-contemplation and to the destructive experiments in the separation of one’s own ego from world harmony, cried like children, sighed, like school children in love, looking at the glow-worms in the forest and above the waters, which filled the new photographs of Kocan. It was a triumph. It was the declared triumph of the unique author’s style, the new series became, in fact, the triumph of the archaic over the individual. It was the victory of the artist over himself, the kneeling before that which is more ancient and greater than the pride of a single contemporary artist. Having destroyed the success of his first works, overwhelmed with the presence of the “I” of the artist, Kocan preserved in himself the artist and the individual: the conservatism of the visual traditions of myths became the elixir, similar to the live and dead water of the stories. How did Robo Kocan (and this is not a technical photographic question and not the rhetoric of idle interest) find the form for the embodiment of the light-radiating figures? In the Slovak photographic tradition there was a whole pleiad of authors in the 1970s – 1980s, who had been Kocan’s former preceptors, who had worked with the expressions of the light-brush. But their choice of the instrument of expression was conditioned by the fractal, the optical-physical, and op-artistic and clubbing traditions. Kocan opted for the light-brush, having seen, under its technological cover, the nature of the magic wand which had the power to make the invisible beings, which populate the air, appear.

Beyond the borders of Slovakia Kocan was the most bright representative of Slovak photography of the 1990s, it was namely his non-narrative, but visual world, embodied by legends that turned out to be natural for this culture, rich in traditions. Kocan began to be perceived as contemporary visual poetry, preserving the kinship and observing the similarities with its primitive archaic ancestors. It seemed that Kocan was the first to put his name as an artist in the long tradition of painters of spirits (amongst which are icon painters and illuminators), who had been creating for centuries. But, if one thinks about it, before Kocan there was no photographic tradition of the fairytale non-narrative representation of archaic images. But he did not act as a pioneer, as a loud progenitor of tradition, his photographs existed, and he, smiling modestly, went out into the shadow, dissolving into the air, as if it was that very tradition.

During his visits to America Robo Kocan handled the American landscapes with ease, transformed them “to his own faith”. Usually, for a photographer, working with landscape, especially his native landscape, touched by his sight and memory, the change to a different space may be torturous. But Kocan, there too, gave light to the spirits and made the New World homely and comfy, like the Tatry. Within the philosophy of the long-term project “By the Light into the Darkness” (since 1993), and the series “Shadows of the Spirits” (1998) as a part of it, was included the possibility of the mastering of new places, since, as J. Frazer’s “Golden Branch” also showed, the world of all peoples is inhabited with similar spiritual beings. Finding oneself in a new place, Kocan simply receives the agreement of the new spirits to be portrayed. In connection with the latter, one remembers the lines from the letter of the ancient Russian prince Vladimir Monomach to his children: “Go the way of all the Earth” – for Russian culture of the epoch of Art Nouveau this phrase served as a guide (it was even used by the poetess Anna Akhmatova as the epigraph to a poem), this was a manifesto of the universality of culture and the national self-identification of the artist. Strangely, in the photographs of Robo Kocan the plasticity of the ornamental culture of Art Nouveau also appears, probably subconsciously selected by him in connection with the search for the form for the embodiment of the synthesis of a whole harmony and particular, national rhythms.

Running in parallel in the creative work of Robo Kocan appears the theme of passeistic nature, expressing itself in black and white direct photographs. This can be seen in the series “The Beings of Old Glamorgan” (2004) and “Gardens of Eden” (1998). Kocan’s camera becomes a mirror, before which unfolds a theatrical play of trees, cliffs and sky. Without a doubt, Kocan has great predecessors in this grand tradition of the self-expression of nature through the observant photographer, and here it is difficult to talk of the exclusively nationalistic borders of the tradition: there is Adams, Weston, and the wonderful photographers of Central Europe, amongst whom is the clairvoyant, the poet of nature Martin Martynchek.

The appearance in the family of the artist of a little child, it seemed, would lead to the harmonisation, to the humbling of the passionate expression of the theatre of nature in his photographs. In the series “Guarded Angel” along the paths and in the clearing darts a little “man cub”, as the panther Bagheera of Kipling would say, with spontaneity playing the role of the little angel. One can discuss for a long time the line of “children and nature” in world, yes and in Slovakian art-photography. But Robo Kocan remains also in this theme loyal to his earlier self: this is the story of a spiritual being, with wings, in long light clothes, most probably, an angel. Outside of the context of the creative work of the artist Robo Kocan this series can be ascribed to excessive narration, literally following the bourgeois (Biedermeier) tradition, of the second half of the XIXth century, of the photographic staging of nice scenes of angels, so popular in the mass religious consciousness. But within the context of the creativity of the artist himself, the story about the small child with wings is itself the continuation of the search for the visualisation of the momentary happiness, which occurs at the piercing of the canvas of the profane world, behind which is revealed, for an instant, the harmony of the spiritual unity of nature, ethereal beings and man. This may appear to be controversial, but I think that in this series, in “Guarded Angel” (1999), Robo Kocan found a clearer and more whole image for the expression of the Trinity of Worlds.

The series of works, “Stories by the Night Light” (2003) and “Mysterious Spaces” (2004), signify the resurrection of the salamander, the return to the metaphysical and alchemic experiments with colour, light, shadow and visceral natures of the world. The visual harmony of these series makes one think of the perfection of the jeweller’s faceted stones; each of the works of the new series is a jewel, in a setting of those similar to it. As a result, the series transform into an endless visual tunnel. Which, in the series “Mysterious Spaces” (2004) itself becomes the main subject of representation. The self-contemplation of the artist is through his own body, through his apertures and skin. Harmony as symmetry. And symmetry like a kaleidoscope of new possible combinations, equally beautiful. Robo Kocan in the last series is in an enchanted dream of perfect geometric forms. This poetic dream is similar to the magical sorcery of the early series of the photographer, out of which he tore himself, discovering for himself new characteristics of the world. It is possible that today’s sorcery, in which video and elements of three-dimensional multi-media installations are included, is the experiment of the evaporation of mercury in the course of the alchemic wanderings of the artist through the magical fields of fantasy, over which time has no power.

Translated by R. O’Dowd and P. Glebov.