Tereza Zelenkova The Double Room

    Tereza Zelenkova, Birdcage, Campbell House, 2020. Courtesy the artist
Tereza Zelenkova, Birdcage, Campbell House, 2020. Courtesy the artist

Drawing on mythologies and historical events associated with actual locations, Prague-based artist Tereza Zelenkova creates photographs that are often informed by her interest in literature and local histories, and convey a mysterious, timeless quality. CONTACT invited Zelenkova to create a site-specific installation of her work at Campbell House Museum—built in 1822, an inimitable landmark in Toronto’s urban centre.

The current realities of self-isolation were unforeseen when Zelenkova embarked upon this project, and the exhibition concept uncannily foreshadowed the present-day urgency of domestic confinement. In the essay that follows the artist introduces her project:

The phenomenon of doubling, or the one of doppelgänger, produces the sensation of something uncanny in the viewer, something that can seem familiar yet deeply unsettling to us. The most common experience of doubling is the act of looking into the mirror, where right becomes left and left becomes right. Photography is often compared to a mirror, for its ability to reflect the world and translate it into two-dimensional images, preserving the spectator’s point of view. Of course if one moves in front of the photograph, the reflected image remains the same, unlike in the mirror in which it is never fixed. The photographic image separates itself from the reflected reality and therefore is not bound to any particular place or time. We rarely encounter this fixed reflection in the same moment and place where it was originally taken. For this reason, photographs are also compared to windows, because they do not usually reflect the space in which they are encountered, but rather open up to another world beyond the image’s surface.

In The Double Room, I examine these different ways of mirroring and reflecting reality, hinting at a different existence outside the present moment. The works in this exhibition come from two different series photographed in two different houses—Dennis Severs’ House in London, United Kingdom, and Campbell House Museum in Toronto, Canada. They are both distinctive locations with specific histories but they share some commonalities. Both buildings are examples of Georgian architecture that find themselves surrounded by modern high rises, which only amplifies their origins in another era. Neither is permanently inhabited and both function as museums of sorts. While Severs’ House is filled with what he called “still-life drama,” lending the house a lived-in feeling, Campbell House presents itself to me as a stage to be filled, peopled, brought back to life. I do not want to suggest that these houses are each other’s double, as there is an equal amount or more of differences as there are similarities, yet I’d like to reduce the distance between these two places through my work and bring some aspects of Dennis Severs’ House to the Campbell House Museum.

Taking inspiration from the history of the Campbell House, which is bound to the legal justice system in Toronto, I created new works onsite that are based on 19th-century crime scene photographs. These images point to some unexplained occurrences within the house and suggest another reality—hidden situations that take place in the same space but in a different time, or some parallel existence beyond the image’s surface. The photographs function as both mirrors reflecting the spaces in which they are exhibited, such as the dining and drawing rooms, and as windows presenting false memories and fictional narratives that represent the possibility of a hidden past or doppelgänger house that occupies the parallel space beyond the mirror.

Upstairs, photographs from the series The Essential Solitude (2018) fill the domestic spaces with the mystical presence of a lone figure with long flowing hair, depicted among the folds of draperies and decomposing upholstery. These were produced almost entirely in one room at Dennis Severs’ House. Although at first sight a derelict ruin, the room in the photographs is also a folly created by someone I’d like to imagine as the 20th century’s answer to Des Esseintes, a decadent character from J. K. Huysmans’ infamous 1884 novel Ă€ Rebours (Against Nature). Des Esseintes had transformed his house into a sensual feast in which he surrounded himself with historical interiors, carefully arranged objects, and an array of smells and sounds. These photographs seek to capture and question the profound experience of seeing, reading, dreaming, and thinking; experiences that can never be fully shared and that one always necessarily experiences alone.

Curated by Bonnie Rubenstein

Organized by CONTACT in partnership with the Campbell House Museum