Critical Reflection: Kamil Vojnar’s ‘Elsewhere’

Jon Carver | THE magazine - February 6, 2014

His are perhaps the most intriguingly unresolvable images I’ve ever encountered.

Kamil Vojnar, Acrobat (Prague Version), mixed media on canvas, 36” x 24”, 2013

“I photograph your face. I move your arm. And I don’t know why. I print my pictures, I cut them, glue, paint, scratch, glue again, paint again. I don’t know why. Something is pressing me on. It must be done! I don’t know why!”  
     –Kamil Vojnar

Socrates supposedly said something to the ffect that the only true wisdom consists of knowing that you know nothing. Of course, since Socrates himself never wrote anything down we don’t really know what he said, though Plato does quote lines with a similar gist in the Apology, his record of Socrates’ defense against charges of corrupting youth and failing to believe in the same gods as his fellow Athenians. While his trial ended in a sentence of exile from Athens, Socrates trumped his accusers by subsequently choosing suicide, self-imposed exile from life itself, via hemlock, rather than any forced departure from his home. Or so we are told.

The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu writes poetically, in the Tao Te Ching, “To darken the darkness, that is the gate of all wonder.” This is interpreted as an admonition to wander deeper into the unknown and unknowable as the truest source of awe; in other words, to prize above all the mystery of existence as the true, infinite basis for being.

The Romantic poet Keats spoke positively of what he called “negative capability,” or the ability of the sage and artist to accept the fundamental unknowability of reality, at a time when the European neo-classical thinkers, having derived the principles of modern science from Aristotle and his predecessor Thales, thought and sought (foolishly) to categorize, classify, and elucidate in total every knowable aspect of experience and reality. It didn’t take long, however, before Werner Heisenberg, the German theoretical physicist, introduced his uncertainty principle—essentially that the observer affects the experiment in ways that make objectivity impossible. This concept in combination with Swiss physicist Fritz Zwicky’s widely accepted theories that about ninety- seven percent of the universe is made up of substances and energies that are nearly imperceptible to humans and of utterly unknown constitution, led modern physics to the brink of mysticism, where it currently still resides.

So, when Czech photographer Kamil Vojnar writes in response to his receiving the Jacob Riis Award for photography that he hasn’t got a clue as to why he is compelled to construct his especially mysterious images, he’s in excellent company. His are perhaps the most intriguingly unresolvable images I’ve ever encountered. They are by turns haunting, neurotic, erotic, deeply disturbing, and stunningly, tragically beautiful. While the subject matter broadly defies any fixed interpretations, there are some recurring elements. In general, Vojnar presents narrative bits of dangerously achieved or frustrated dreams of power, which, if they haven’t already collapsed in failure, are precariously perched to do so. A tightrope walker balances above city rooftops, plagued by a flock of pigeons threatening to send him tumbling down from his delicate position. A woman in a diaphanous gown levitates off a red couch toward the artificial light of a large fixture on the ceiling. The sense that this is not a rational or sustainable position is perfectly palpable.

n this sense Vojnar is an allegorist for an unallegorical age. How many of our current personal and political situations are similar high-wire acts, unsustainably suspended, and fraught with an atmosphere of tragedy? His Flying Blind series epitomizes dashed hopes and impossible dreams with its multiple images of fallen or falling angels and desperate, irrational attempts to take to the air. Vojnar’s technique of multiple printings and re-printings of the same images combined and recombined through digital and physical collage, hand- painted and patinaed, mimics a process of constant interpretation in denial of fixed certainties. As Yeats put it, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The center isn’t holding. Our economies, our ethics, and our environment are all incredibly unstable at this juncture, and without ever saying it explicitly, Vojnar elegantly expresses all the sadness, uncertainty, and insurmountability that are the hallmarks of our time. He hints with a quiet strength at the cycle of tortures that is the price of our mass delusions.

Was Socrates plagiarizing King Solomon, who some four hundred or so years before the Greek philosopher stated, “Fear of God is the beginning of knowledge”? Is this what James Joyce meant by his “Jewgreek is greekjew” line in Ulysses? For sure, we will never know. Literature, whether Biblical or Modernist, like all good art, is never built on certainties. Or as my recently deceased hero Lou Reed puts it in Heroin, his proto-punk ode to smack: “When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son / I guess I just don’t know / And I guess that I just don’t know.”