Mysterious stories from Velebit forest

The place of the gods in our lives and our perceptions of the world into which we have been thrown has long ago been taken over by science – in place of religion – and it has long stubbornly attempted (in an unequivocal and narrow-minded way) to explicate the world and has persistently and ostentatiously promised an enlightened path to a future free of fear, but at the same time it has threatened with exile from the scientific heaven anyone who does not submit themselves to the severity and seriousness of its laws. But it turns out that a world populated with theories and scientific judgments seems just as inhuman as one overflowing with deities and demons – in neither of them is man in charge of his own existence. Today everything related to our very existence seems unbelievably clear, never clearer, while at the same time everything is slipping away from us. Theories, conceptual systems, laws, premises, and conclusions – curbed by starchy conventions – seemingly did not serve merely for the liberation of man from irrational fears, rather reasonable scientific logic at the end completely explicated the world, parceling it up into a series of pieces among which could no longer be perceived the mosaic connections of man necessary to seek the essence in the very fact of existence and the absolute freedom of individual humans in the world. Today it is clearly apparent that nature is one reality, and western technological society is another, with open conflict between them, as in our civilization man is isolated and excluded from nature, in such a manner that it is difficult for him to perceive nature, that which populates it, how it is structured and functions, and how the individual is anchored in nature.

Living in march to the comprehensive advance of scientific thought, the individual – in terms of the description, explanation, and interpretation of the world into which he or she is immersed – could not free itself from its one-sided dependence on the existing files of knowledge and on the ratio; it could not easily uncover the unity of its being and hence remained deprived of being capable of receiving all that had not been experienced empirically. We did not master the world cognitively, it constantly remains mysterious and immense to our eyes, our world even today is not as free from enchantment as much as we would wish it to be free of spells. Because of this, among other things, science has quietly acknowledged the failure of its own attempts at a sober freedom from enchantment, and today it even recognizes – more readily than before – its exclusivity and contritely accepts that indeed it cannot be the one and only model for interpreting the world.

The division into rational and irrational increasingly fades away, and comprehending the holism of the world, the ratio spreads through intuition, a Beuysian “higher logic”, which cannot be proven on the level of empiricism. Interest in that which lays beyond – mythic, cosmic, supernatural, strange and secret, otherworldly, a force of nature and otherwise transcendental – appeared at a moment when these conceptual antitheses became too limited and insufficient for the interpretation of the present-day world, when – in an age of ramified scientific-technological development – the integrity and significance of the world was lost. Hence, for example, Beuys considered the reign of science to be an evolutionary stage that must finally be concluded and from which an advance forward must be made. In fact it was through intuition that he was able to see the possibility of this – intuition in his individual mythology was a form of the ratio, and creative potential was immanent and logical in a sensitive individual and could be perceived at all levels of existence.

In his need to understand the final questions of being and non-being, existence and non-existence, the fate of human beings, the reason for his crisis-filled and catastrophic perceptions of the world into which he is thrown, the difficult existential questions of our time and the pessimistic state of the human spirit – hoping at least to a certain extent and even if only intuitively to penetrate into the mystery of the totality of the manifest world, in this manner approaching closer to the fundamental Law governing the entire material and spiritual world – man opens alternative accesses to the world, attempting much greater understandings than simple everyday experience, trying to achieve not merely transcendental truths – the unutterable, the unknowable, and the unimmanent – but also to peer into the spaces beyond the area of the instrumental mind, and to fathom the presence of the divine in the wonders of nature.

This practice of seizing every conceptual determination is dominated, quite clearly, by artists. A work of art can be the key to decoding reality. Any tendency to objectivity would represent a disastrous illusion; it is necessary to adapt to the empire of subjectivity. As early as Conrad Fiedler, art and insight were equated in a certain manner.

The excessive love of modern art for objectivity and truth led it astray. The totality of modern art, for example – burdened by questions of objectivity and reality – is outlined thus in the ideology of confrontation: rational-intuitive, experienced-imaginary, false-true, exterior-interior, subjective-objective, authentic-unauthentic, mark-marked… An interest in alternative views of the world – for example, for what was interpreted in modern art as illusion and illusive semblance, but also as myth and mythical – is one of the most impressive symptoms not merely of the post-modern, but also the moment in which we ourselves live. For example, individual mythologies was an expression that Harald Szeemann took from Schelling and reaffirmed in 1972, when in Documenta 5 he further noted the presence of myth in post-modern art. And while modern art mostly gave up on what is missing, and what cannot be shown, the post-modern “recognizes” the right to an alternative form of cognizance, the right to a search for a lost transcendence, emphasizing a complementary experience – the unshown exists, a higher truth! By truning to stories, gestures, histories, and auras, the mythic, the exoteric, the unspoken, the incomprehensible, and the secret, a new valuation of the senses in art returned to enchantment, again in circulation was the rehabilitation of mythemes, but also expressions such as beauty, illusion, aura, pathos… which in the current production of works of art – in individual mythologies – acquire a new definition.

The transposition of mystical experience

One author of a unique and interesting individual mythology – whose opus to date, with a specific and differentiated civilizational system of expression, points out among other things certain deficits in the culture of thought – is Josip Zanki, a unique phenomenon in Croatian art, and an author of extremely wide interests and a distinct artistic culture. As a modern, inquisitive, and involved artist, he approaches art as a form of meta-scientific perception, open to much that represents a taboo to other creative authors, and in his projects he often refers to magical-mystical and alchemical rituals, in his research he bravely frequents untried regions, turning to links that lead him towards archaeology, (para)science, but also strongly submerge him in astrology, alchemy, magic, mysticism, and esoterica. He has successfully tried his hand in the media of installations, performances, stage scenery, short films and videos, but at the same time, he is almost obsessively loyal to the traditional medium of drawing.

He is an author of astonishing imagination and exceptional professional proficiency, thanks to which his works, and especially the drawings, can be raised to the level of intriguing and multilayered formal and contextual visual factualities. His stepping beyond marks an entrance into a qualitatively different state of being without historicity and limits, of absence, transcendentalism, inexpressibility, metaphysics, indivisibility… Much of this, as is indicated by his efforts to the present, occur on another stage, although it cannot be seen, touched, scented, or examined… Zanki’s efforts attempt to transcend us, to take us somewhere we have not yet been, and not to glimpse again what we have already seen.

As his view of the world is deeply rooted in nature, Zanki often interprets local and other mythological-religious traditions, such as forgotten Croatian customs related to specific sites, and in etchings and drawings creates a paradigm for the illustration of a different spiritual reality, sending ecological and other messages. He shatters the receptor’s horizon of expectations: his morphology, syntax, and picturesque expression were not influenced, as could be expected of a Dalmatian, by the Mediterranean light of the coast where he was raised. His projects lack a direct maritime inspiration, and in place of this the curious aspects of Zanki’s work – just like the wonder that it  provokes – come from deep ties to the spiritual and material state of the Croatian heritage, and particularly the Velebit Mountains, as a specific base that Zanki visits in an attempt to come close to primeval meanings.

The landscapes of the Velebit Mountains – which he has systematically explored and memorized for years – have always determined Zanki as an artist, as he himself has acknowledged, and represent his great inspiration. Many of his successful projects are tied to the Velebit, such as Mirila, which confirmed him as a nationally prominent artist, visits to the mountains partly gave rise to his artistic procédé and exceptionally specific graphic hand, and the project Oltar/Altar itself can be interpreted in the domain and context of the Velebit and earlier created thematic and symbolic characteristics related to the Velebit Mountains.

The question arose as to how to choose which type of visual transposition of his own mystic experience of and fascination with the Velebit landscape. He has brilliantly achieved this with densely composed drawings, structured according to unique artistic elements such as astral sight and the procédé of Pythagorean geometry. Further, the drawings were not conceived as individual works, but rather as an endless series that reveal the varied experiences of the author that occurred during campaigns in the Velebit Mountains. In principle, he began from the experience of British Romanticism, when for the first time in the history of art the entire spiritual experience of a period was articulated through the perception of nature, depending in its elaboration on the freedom of imagination and invention – and on the occult and the mystical – experiencing nature as boundless, wild, mutable, exalted, and picturesque.

On Trolls, Dwarfs, and Elves

In the ambient-exhibition Altar, Zanki presents an analytically oriented artistic view, explicitly turned towards figuration and narration, brilliantly structured and precisely elaborated, but also with a poetic concept of presenting what is hidden from rational reach – which according to his experience and beliefs dwells in the forgotten nooks and cranny of the as yet untouched Velebit, and this belief – in principle something that exceeds the normal standards of human capabilities of perception – he compresses into a clear, firm and consistent visuality constructed on a mythical form of thought, presented here with certain codes and symbols.

Altar in fact consists of the documentation, interpretation, and recreation of the phenomenon of human experience based on an intuitive perception, but from the point of view of religious, exoteric, occult, transcendental phenomena that this artist ardently knows and investigates, and the experience, cognition, and verity of his own myth-creating and artistic fantasies are concretized in this artistic project, an aesthetic factum.

Zanki immerses himself into the frozen forest in which nothing moves, progressing among real trees symbiotically connected to beings that reside in them and take care of them and believe in them. The drawings reveal an unusual vision of the world – as if they refer to Breton’s thought about the existence of invisible forest animals that have escaped human perception with their camouflage. This is an anthropomorphized bestiary.

The rampant beech and pine forests breathe with distinctive life, the trunks and irregular branches are the habitat of secret residents and hide invisible beings – dwarfs, trolls, and elves – grotesque spirits of the land and soil, which thread through the stories of nomads and the mountain people. Their roguish faces seem to wink at us from the bark of the trees; they are the guides and the advisors who eavesdrop on the very breath of the Velebit.

The project consists of three parts. The first are drawings in acrylic created on 18 large drawings on canvas with motifs of individual trees from the forests of the Velebit. The second part consists of two structures – the “altars”. They are remakes of actual wooden Baroque altars such as are very common in the central European Baroque. The front side of the structure (when the altar is closed) is painted with four emblematic trees on the windows of the structure. Each tree symbolizes a given cardinal point of the world that is related to one elemental creature. The interior sides of the altar bear paintings showing the life of certain beings – trolls, dwarfs, elves, fairies. The central image is a symbolic depiction of the invocation itself, by the central tree that is the main idol in the forest. The third part of the project is a video filmed in the woods of Mozak Ridge in the Velebit Mountains, which presents the testimony of mountaineers, hikers, and local residents about their experiences in the forest and how they feel about the trees, the type of trees that grow in the woods, what they would do with them if they were the owners of that forest… The video concludes with a statement by the Academician Ivan Kožarić, who visited the forest in 2002.

The scenes depicted on the drawings are peaceful and static, almost frozen, and possess a certain sacral element, something mystical, inscrutable; the narrative structure is complex, the artist leads us into regions in whose reality he believes, into timeless scenes, mythical places, forest landscapes from fairy-tales, untouched and still unpopulated corners of the steep slopes of the Velebit, intimating concepts of mysterious and magical forces, into the wilderness of the fairy world, where everything functions as it will, from which man fled, as from the force of nature he flees into environs that he himself can rule. These scenes unfold a unique semantic horizon that lies far outside their material or formal content, but is communicable only though them. This otherness in them can be explicated and claimed only through subjective experience.

The drawings generate a field of “impure” symbols, filled with layers of mental and emotional lines of force. These are contents that cannot easily be placed within the frameworks of known disciplines, defined fields, documented artistic strategies, or stylistic categories.

Here we are talking about an ambivalent reality, which is more a premonition than a total identification, concerned with the actuality of sublime values, a world in which the true elements are stylized, realism and empirical aspects are suspended, and in front of us lies a timeless landscape, whose archetypal expanses are ruled only by nature and not man, where trees do not fall by human hand, with axe and saw, but of old age, wind, and lightning, and into which we must dive deeply in contemplation so as to find its meaning,  submitted in the form of extraordinary phenomena.

The visually attractive drawings represent a totality of precision and formal unity with which the artist wishes to create new and fresh feelings for the observation and comprehension of space. Zanki creates a sublime, subjective empire: a spiritual landscape of great spatial power and autonomy, centered on creating a zone of unclear boundaries between the real and the imaginary. The artist deconstructs space, saturates it, condenses and slows it down, imposing his own spatial and temporal grammar. A compositional and symbolic harmony is achieved in the drawings, ruled over by an impression of the otherwordly, strange, mystic, and mythic, presenting scenes of numinous realities and energies, resembling those from an oneiric landscape, real and surreal at the same time, on the border of the actual and the possible, immersed in forgotten histories and mysteries. The fine threads of a refined sketcher denote a space of simplicity and peace, known or unknown meanings, equal affirmation of the rational and irrational, presence and absence, confirmation and non-verification, that which we are or are not capable and prepared to perceive, and speak of nature – of the magia naturalis, of the other reality. A logocentric representative quality is absent, the forests speak with a secret language of intrinsic symbols, and all of the dimensions, the compositional and symbolic aspects of the drawings and the emanations of energy are visible and comprehensible only to the informed.

In Zanki’s subjective interpretation, the contexts in which he introduces these beings, they are granted a meaning much wider than that already inveterate and known. The trunks of beeches and oaks are the dwellings of trolls, and pine trunks of dwarfs. The foreground regularly features lofty trunks from which rise crowns bent by the Velebit winds. Hence the appearance of the beeches – the idols of the trolls, trunks being to them was a cathedral is to man – is unusual, as – following esoteric learning – trolls wish to inhabit the largest and most imposing trees in the forest, while the energy of the trunk’s inhabitants is expansionistic, producing tension, expanding in a series of formal and contextual associations, the trunk puffing and then deforming, acquiring strange shapes. In the configuration of the beech and oak trees, one key branch can always be noted, which feeds and emits energy to the entire tree and emphasizes the microlocation of the troll residence, and in the formal sense bears the composition of the drawing.

The pines with the dwarfs represent their opposites – in the clearings of the Velebit Mountains they grow in content symbiosis with grass; in the esoteric hierarchy, pine is closer to man, its energy is more modest, but also more positive, because of which pines retain a more elegant form. Elves live in the air – they move apart, entangle, and pattern configurations of beech and pine branches.

Such creatures were obsessively written about by Paracelsus, Carlos Castaneda, Marko Pogačnik, and Ivana Brlić Mažuranić, they were sought by Renaissance hermeticists, gnostics and theosophers appealed to them, shamans and the djedovi (heads) of the medieval Bosnian church were on friendly terms with them. “I accept their existence unquestioningly; they remind me of facts that were once a part of knowledge, but have today disappeared in a positivistic matrix. This is the result of my research into the phenomenon of the Velebit Mountains, elemental beings and places of power, mountain peaks, meadows, and karst valleys. In the format of the canvas the beings are imprisoned by formulas and spatially by the Pythagorean golden ratio, awaiting the day when all that will be necessary is a single word”, explained Zanki, speaking of the intuitive experience of the unknown existence and empathy towards creatures that he believes inhabit the canopy of the Velebit forests in the art statement printed in the catalogue of the exhibition Hram/Temple.

Zanki thus presents the individual experience of a mystic, alchemist, and above all esotericist. Esotericism – with to us strange creatures, appearances, events, and emotions – is one of Zanki’s mental spaces in which he always returns, increasingly assured, stepping each time ever deeper into the depths, and esoteric experience is also the backbone of some of his earlier investigations and explications. He is thus an author who operates with manifestations of experience and presentations of visible and invisible consequences of experience and empiricism.

As an esotericist, Zanki is a participant, observer, and reviewer of eccentric stories about trolls and dwarfs, he reports on them on the basis of glimpses from the terrain, in the reception of his resonant symbols he is depending on the potential of the unconscious section of the human psyche, inaccessible to rational logic and discourse.

He interprets the phenomenon of the Velebit forests though esoterica, in which he is evidently eclectic – he does not favor merely one school, but derives his inspiration and world view from the best offered by each of the esoteric schools. This is the source of what he refers to when he speaks of the trolls and dwarfs that can be found in classical esoterica, the books of Paracelsus, contemporary esoterica, but also Christianity, where such beings were transferred into angels and spirits…

The video was related to eight different types of Velebit trees and eight different statements by people about these trees and the impression they left on them. It is edited as usual in experimental video. The first scene defines the area – and presents the central scene, Stražbenica, the Velebit chain of crests as the macrolocation in which strange beings dwell. This is followed by an image of an entire tree or merely a detail (the texture) of a trunk with a drawing and brief statements in segments by people chosen by Zanki to testify about their Velebit experience in terms of what Altar is dedicated to, but also that in this brief statement they should present themselves and their beliefs. The segments are repeated almost like a mantra – and then details of the tree again appear, followed at the end by images of Stražbenica. The video runs on a loop in the gallery. Each statement is declared in only one sentence, and the name of the person referring to the tree appears before each statement – just like each individual tree has its own name, and so those that speak of it also give their names. The video is a documentary film, but is also possesses a unique poetic license which is furthered by the distinct black-and-white film texture that brilliantly corresponds to the silvery atmosphere spread by the drawings.

The testimony of these people in a certain manner also represents a demystification of Zanki’s story about the Velebit forests as the habitat of strange beings, but equally their presence was not definitely denied in any of the eight statements – the statements always testify at the very least that the Velebit trees are something strange and unique!

Reawakened Romantic aspirations for a return to the primordial sources of civilization

If in our stereotypical rational reassessment of everything around us we are unprepared to peer into that which is still hidden where a place is reserved exclusively for science and “truth”, and if we accept Zanki’s provocative and affective artistic declaration with scepticism, as mere dark, surreal, and bizarre fantasy, a testimony that comes down to illusion and chimera, if further we do not believe that which is unprovable – the supraconceptionalized truth – if we receive the artist’s esoteric experience with reserve and skepticism, thanks to his symbolizational abundance, it is possible to enter into reading these scenes on the basis of other keys, and in fact a wide specter of interpretative possibilities becomes possible, and the project can be read at different interpretative levels. Such reading will always be subjective and arbitrary, and hence counter to Zanki’s intentions.

For example, with an escapist element, as a mythic, archetypical landscape of pleasure, a metaphorical place of existential ease, as an appeal to the classical locus amoenus, a search for a utopian place, but also as a question of how in general to interpret something that has a metaphysical, religious, para-religious or similar aura, but is not indexed and manifested, that is beyond the membrane of everyday reality. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for example, explained that the perception of the world – which is at the same time uncovered and hidden to us – occurs in a dimension of reflexes in which the perception of the subjective world and the world in us, and imagination become forms of thought.

Further, is it more acceptable to embrace a benevolent being that crouches in the Velebit trees or to believe in our age of agony, in a world dominated by nullity and incoherent thought, uncentralized and fragmented existence, a reality in which society languishes, convulsed, uncertain, evanescent, and anchorless? Long ago clear symptoms came to light in contemporary civilization of doubt, skepticism, even opposition to promises of a supposedly uninterrupted and unstoppable advance of civilization. In such circumstances, the élan of optimistic projections of the future becomes exhausted and weak, leading to ever more marked strengthening of critical views.

The drawings will, at the very least, in some observers embody the Romantic aspiration of a return to the primodial sources of civilization. The plasticity of the material – the constructional elements and the very drawing-painting materials used in these drawings – emit an atmosphere of tranquility, gentleness, serenity, some endemic state permeates all these scenes, and they can be experienced and interpreted as signs of the author’s yearning for some holy primeval state that no longer exists, but which he would like to discover and to dwell in it. The project Oltar can be interpreted on the basis of the truth that ecological consciousness developed quite by chance in the southern Velebit, simply because there were no more inhabitants on the mountain, and hence no development whatsoever took place that would cause the degradation and contamination of the landscape. However, the project does not even in a single moment transform itself into either a performative accusation or a lamentation.

Even a superficial and unambitious decipherer of Altar and its message will find items of value, at least in the media presentation of the project, which like all of Zanki’s projects is always respectable conceptually and in terms of execution. The ductus of these canvases is fully directed to the radical subjectivism of the drawings. Zanki is above all a master in optical illusionism, i.e. in the manner of suggesting a space and above all in creating a unique atmosphere. By drawing on a cold monochromic background he skillfully expresses the spirituality, the atmospheric condition, the serene and melancholic aspects of a specific landscape. It cannot be said that that a feeling of intimacy or any direct contact exists between the remarkable scenes and the spectator – the silver color of the scenes embodies the aura of mysteries and the extraterrestrial, and even a certain frozenness and coldness – the solitary wooded wilderness are bathed in a strange and mysterious light, far from a bucolic peace. The comprehensive and stifled atmosphere of the forest overwhelms the observer and draws him into the scene at the same time inspiring a feeling of being bewitched and fear, created primarily by consciousness of the predominance of nature over man. The scenic element has evolved into a higher, cult area even in the absence of a living, ritual act.

The quality of Zanki’s realization is evident from the fact that the drawing formulation requires persistent observation as a constituent element of the drawings, just like the tiny, carefully formed details from which the scenes are constructed from the unfathomable depths of the forests and from which can be discerned the totality of surprises that ardently betray the observer’s horizon of expectations. First of all, the drawings are characterized by a flirting with space that is constructed on a principle of different visualities – we note a lack of rational systematization, more precisely the classical compositional and hierarchical structures, the usual division of pictures into backgrounds and foregrounds, a lack of a compositionally calculated relation between the trees and the background, in place of that we note a flatness, the disappearance of optically diverse depths of grounds within the drawing, which endangers the ease of perception, a non-expansion into depth and three-dimensionality – the trees singled out by Zanki on the canvas do not contribute to the procédé of the classical golden section, but rather are ordered by the principles of the Pythagorean (spatial) golden section, which embodies elements of esoteric, almost Kaballistic teaching and presents connections and color systems that have a certain symbolism. This is the consequence of viewing the forest through esoterica – with astral eyes – from the point of view of another world, from the other world. When reality is observed, as Castaneda says, with crossed sight, things acquire different forms. In relation to this, a symptomatic element of the project is horror vacui – the forceful need of the author to fill completely the surface of the drawing.

Although these are works on canvas, the signature remains entirely graphic – the lavish network of lines and the lively linear background point to Zanki, the graphic artist. The creatures in the trunks pulse with power and energy and sensory energy, which – imprisoned in the wooden membrane or evaporating into the surroundings – create the pulse and heartbeat of the hidden beings – which swell beneath the drawing, as illusionistically suggested by the painter through the use of attractive relief elements reminiscent of Japanese woodcuts. Certain arcane and intricate details stand out in the drawings, created with decisive lines, and the very first associations that spring to mind are the manuscripts of the medieval illuminators of the Creation of the World.

Ivica Župan