All images © Irena Jurca.
Design by NOMMO
The series Sea in Me can be defined as a specific nexus of the author’s subjective feelings in the turning points of her personal life and the topical issue of migration. Namely, the topic of the extensive refugee crisis is not presented through the harrowing scenes of exhausted refugees but through telling images of the sea, dead sea creatures and withered plants.
The starting point of the series of twelve black-and-white photographs was the oft-written thought that the sea became a mass grave, which the author subtly accentuated with the compositional structure of images.
The monotone images of water surfaces are delivered with an ascetic vocabulary, sequentially, in dark grey and black hues, while the images of lifeless nature are depicted on a pitch-black surface.
The author thus uses the expressive power of the color black and its aesthetic impact to good effect, using the darkness to effectively accentuate both reflections of light on the water surface and the superficial structure of the bodies and objects washed ashore. On the other hand, the predominant blackness suggests a broader spectrum of meaning in regards to the depicted motives. The color black denotes the author’s inwardness, her anxieties, and feelings of unease when faced with the daily reality. Simultaneously, the images evolve into her personal critical response to the humanitarian catastrophe, affirmed by the (mise-en-scène) photograph of a dramatically undulate water surface suggestive of drowning.
The rest of the seascapes, which don’t depict ample water surfaces but rather a narrow section of the sea without the horizon are characterized by complete emptiness (with the exception of light accents) that signifies – in the words of the author herself – our own reflection, a reflection of our spiritual emptiness. It seems that the images embody the current zeitgeist that can be best described with concepts of uncertainty, hopelessness, dehumanization, pessimism. These decadent feelings are alleviated somewhat by the symbolic meaning of water, which is the source of life and one of the four elements. Its fluidity emphasizes the fact of perpetual change and circulation, and despite the procreation and passing of beings, remains forever unchanged.
With the series, Sea in Me Irena Jurca proves that it is possible to pose cogent universal questions with seemingly irrelevant fragments of visual reality, for instance regarding our future as individuals or as a society. Her images in which a subjective tone is highly emphasized are of course not momentary; instead they come across as deliberate formal studies in which the form is made subordinate to the content. However, for understanding the series it is not only the symbolic element that plays a part, but also the tonal contrasts which serve to underline the content unfolding as the perpetual drama of being.
Nataša Kovšca, critic
This essay accompanied an exhibition by Irena Jurca: Sea in me
When the ancient Greeks remarked πιστου γη - απιστον ϑαλασσα the words were not taken lightly, for this very sea that laps against the shore with its sunlit reflections and fills our nostrils with brine signifies something uncertain, treacherous, evasive; all of which resounds in the above mentioned saying “reliable land – uncertain sea”.
Everyone who walked on land and swam in the sea (therefore: everyone) knows that the land can be trod upon with a reliable step (if only there is no earthquake or black ice) while the sea simply cannot (that is if the laws of hydrodynamics are not miraculously broken): whenever we find ourselves in the sea we feel some level of uncertainty – almost anxiety – in the face of the uncontrollability of its substance, to which in Greco-Roman antiquity a divine status was ascribed.
In the context of a discussion regarding the deities of Ancient Greece, Lacan threw in a notion that deities belong to the order of the real (les dieux sont du réel), and against all expectation he did not say that deities are something symbolic but rather that they are something real (réalité) – something which manifests and reveals itself in the real (réel)«.
Possibly the simplest – indeed in our contexts the most significant – way of understanding Lacan’s provocation of our contemporary secular mind is through Herodotus’ account of an incident during the Persian wars: in the form of a sea storm, Boreas sinks the Persian fleet at Artemisium, whereby the reality of the meteorological phenomenon gains the quality of the real with the invasion into the imaginary scene of the symbolically orderly military tactics (which confirms the saying “man proposes – God disposes” or, in our case, “man wages a war – God triumphs”).
Perhaps from our present-day perspective, what surprises us about the ancient Greek experience of the Mediterranean Sea most is their devoutly awe: on the one hand they perceived the sea as uncertain, contrary to the reliable land; on the other hand the sea was a reliable certainty in which they oriented themselves with ease, and for which they not only worshiped but thoroughly loved it.
Homer attributed a face and a voice to every Greek nautical fear by depicting it in Sirens who lured seamen onto the reefs with their singing and in the monstrous couple Scylla and Charybdis who were capable of altering the already changing rules of sailing.
To illustrate the love that ancient Greeks felt towards the sea, we need to look no further than Xenophon’s Anabasis in which an army of ten thousand hoplite mercenaries hopes to return home from the deep interior of the Persian Empire. The expedition led by Cyrus the Younger, who raised the army against his brother Artaxerxes II. with the intention of seizing the throne, failed (even though Cyrus’ army fought to a tactical victory at Cunaya in Babylon, Cyrus was killed) and the Greek mercenaries were forced to march through this foreign land alone; after countless episodes along the desert and mountain paths they finally reached the top of Mount Theches and – eyes brimming with tears and gazes directed towards the Black Sea – exclaimed θαλασσα, θαλασσα (“The sea, the sea!”).
Plato’s renowned metaphor that the Greeks settled around the Mediterranean pool “like frogs around a pond” (Phaedo 109b) is a clear reference to Aristophanes’ comedy The Frogs (Βάτραχοι), in which a choir of frogs gathers around the Lake Acheron and with its comedian croaking refrain Βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ irritates the serious and tragic Dionysus while he is on his way to Hades. Furthermore, the metaphor “like frogs around a pond” has its own utterly determinable metaphysical provenance: it concerns nothing less than the classical ontological question of Greek philosophy, namely the question of the relationship between one and many. It might seem like a matter of secondary importance but the fact that in Plato’s metaphor the pond is singular while the frogs are numerous is crucial; just as the Mediterranean Sea is singular and the polis are numerous.
Perhaps insignificant, even philosophically obscure, and yet ever since Hegel and Marx we know not only that behind every metaphor lies metaphysics but that behind every ontological question there is a political issue. So the relationship between one and many with regards to the Mediterranean Sea presents itself as that fundamental ontological question which can help us comprehend not only Greek but also current reality.
In his lectures on the history of philosophy (Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte), Hegel said that the Atlantic Ocean dividing Europe and America has greater connective power than the Pyrenees Mountains dividing the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of the continent. Could it then be that if the ocean – despite the vast distance – had greater connective impact onto the cultures of Europe and America than the Pyrenees or any other mountain range, the Mediterranean Sea could function as the same common denominator on the basis of which not only European but also North African and Levantine religions could come together?
In terms of Ancient Greek ontological categories, this would mean that not only European but also Levantine and North African regional plurality are merged with Mediterranean oneness.
The sea – not only the Mediterranean – has always been subject to countless investments, not only indirectly through visual arts or the art of the written word, but predominantly through direct violent means of appropriation. With the birth of modernism and the rise of a nation state onto the world stage (when, according to Hegel, the secular “march of God through the world” began) the borders were drawn not only on land but also at sea, which is evident from the historically ever-changing map of the world.
With the industrial revolution and the “capitalist mode of production” (Marx) the sea began to be exploited to previously unimaginable dimensions: while in the antiquity and centuries after, fishing was unable to drain the richness of subaquatic life, the danger in our era when the technological advances have meant that the seabed and its population are being looted with increasing speed and efficiency, is that the water will be transformed into sand. And yet the sea – any sea – does not concern itself with nationality; does the “Slovene” sea murmur differently to the “Croatian” or “Italian” sea? He who loves the sea does not have a homeland. The sea is oblivious to race; does black skin get wet in a different manner to white skin? He who loves the sea is oblivious to race. Or money; how many coins rusted on the bottom of the sea through the course of history? He who loves the sea is oblivious to money.
On the whole, the sea does not concern itself, and in that sense is beyond concern of academic (or any other) debates arguing whether it should be saved or left inadvertently to its own fate, which, let it be known, is also ours.
Mirt Komel, Slovenian philosopher, writer, sociologist, dramatist, essayist and translator