H2O is a tribute to water through Ivan Mikolji’s photographs. The artist’s philosophy is to inspire through aesthetics to preserve one of the most important elements on the planet, on which all living beings depend. They are pictures that have transformed scientific magazines and books related to the subject, by mixing scientific rigor with the artistic dimension.
Eduardo Planchart Licea
PhD. Latin American Art History, UNAM
IVAN MIKOLJI: H2O
IVAN MIKOLJI: H2O
From an early age, Ivan Mikolji is attracted by rivers, lakes and estuaries, this empathy that he has cultivated throughout his life made him a renowned explorer and visual artist. His pictures, as well as the articles he writes, have a prominent presence in scientific magazines and books specialized in aquatic ecosystems worldwide. Wild Aquariums, the movement created by him in 2007, becomes fishkeeping into learning about biotopes and the fight against the extinction of fauna and flora in the freshwater bodies of our planet, to the point that their documentaries are currently a YouTube trend, with more than 5,000,000 views on some of them.
One of Mikolji’s visual and conceptual influences on his education as an explorer and visual artist is the life and work of the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough (1926). Life on Earth (1979) and The Living Planet (1984) are mandatory references that he revisits for years, like other books and documentaries by the British scientist, a source of inescapable inspiration for him, whose frames he carefully analyzes to understand how scenes that fused science and art had been accomplished. Mikolji owes the biologist, Sir David, the understanding of the plot of life and the fragility of biomes.
Having become an explorer and photographer, Mikolji knows the work of Swiss explorer and photographer Karl Weidmann (1931), whose photographs are paradigms of the visual history of Venezuela. An example of this is the image of the jaguar on a branch sunbathing itself after torrential rain (1959), taken while Weidmann glided silently with his kayak through riparian waters. This was the first image of a wild jaguar; the angular reflection of the branch with the feline has similarities to Mikolji’s compositions, without being an underwater reflection.
Mikolji began this search decades ago when he saw the beauty of an angelfish or Altum (Pterophyllum Altum): “The first time I saw an angelfish, I immediately fell in love with it. They looked majestic, elegant as a beautiful creation of nature.” Seeing the first adult fish in a friend’s house, he thought about its origin and habitat, which had to be as magical as they are. He made inquiries through his ichthyologist friends and sealed his fate: he had to go to the Pavoni River, near Puerto Ayacucho, Amazonas State. He headed towards that space-time, and after days of unsuccessful immersions, he decided to ask the Curripaco chief of the Pavoni community where he could find those fish that he drew on the sand while he spoke. The information was immediate:
“That’s an Altum, the scientific name for the angelfish.”
When he asked why the chief called it like that, the answer was decisive for his life:
“We ate them all!”
They were fish of presence and massive upbringing, and the channels were poisoned through the barbasco technique to kill them by hundreds. On the other hand, he knew that ornamental fishermen captured this beautiful fish at night by using blinding lights around it and then selling it. This made Mikolji identify himself even more with the conservationist passion that has guided his life, with the commitment to find endangered aquatic species – the holy grail of every explorer. And he set himself the challenge of finding, photographing and investigating them to make them know and raise awareness to minimize the impact caused by the destruction of these species and their habitats.
The artist has carried out more than one hundred expeditions in the Colombian-Venezuelan Amazon Basin, showing an unknown Venezuela. He has travelled almost 800,000 km of highway, moving through inhospitable places in the country, documenting and identifying new species of fish and wild flora. In his performance, he has participated in international projects on registration and documentation of the region’s biodiversity, such as those carried out in the areas cleared by the guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the framework of the peace process.
To achieve the desired frames of his underwater images, he submerges for six or eight hours in rivers and channels, for which he has created location techniques that help him not to get lost in his immersions. One of the most beloved sites for him is the estuaries of Venezuela’s Llanos where the Oscar fish (Astronotus sp), also called Peacock Bass, are found. These fish, from the Cichlid family, have been published on the covers of important scientific and aquarium magazines in England, France and Chile. He has returned to this estuary for more than seven seasons to photograph and learn about the behavior of this fish, in which he has spent more than 64 hours. Every time he arrives, “(…) I start to put on the equipment and become very impatient. I submerge in water and start looking for old friends hoping piranhas, crocodiles, or people haven’t eaten them since my last visit. I swim, looking from side to side, hoping they are still among the living. Once I recognize them by their unique features, I feel happy and can relax. It is like going to visit the family, my family of Oscars fish that are so incredible. Over time, this fish has achieved a charm beyond the fact it is an ornamental fish, as it can recognize its owner and interact in a friendly way with the person that has earned its trust. Double O is the name I gave to that one who has a double stain or ocellus. It is a great fish. Leaving its habitat is always a very sad moment for me. They may think I am crazy, but deep down I feel part of their world. Before leaving, I look at the landscape, take a deep breath and wish them all the best. The habitat of the estuary dries up completely in the dry season. Where do they go? How far do they travel? It is a mystery, but I am so happy to see them again year after year”.1
In these lines written by the artist, his empathy and the mysticism that surrounds his work are perceived; he shares the same pantheistic feelings of J. J. Rousseau in his solitary reveries. He transmits this feeling to each of his pictures, highlighting the majesty of the Orinoquia in the riverside landscapes; open compositions, with defined visual centers that trap the cosmic space. Traces of light that capture primeval realities in seconds, which in turn lead the other to imagine the origin of life, as perceived in the Cosmogony series. The mysterious and unusual color scheme of these landscapes – the metallic grey of the Raudales de Atures, for example – is due to the patinas left by the river on the rocks with their acidity, transforming them into reflectors of light. From dawn to dusk, he observes these changes and this allows him to take pictures of unpublished and recovered realities thanks to her virtuosity.
Immersed in these investigations, he realized that of the more than 1,180 species of freshwater fish in Venezuela, some could disappear before being scientifically described. Then his philosophy of action was born and summarized in the motto: “You cannot preserve something that you don’t know”. And he decides to commit to explore and photograph the fauna and flora of these freshwater bodies, diagnosing through their images and documentaries the state they are in these biomes. Because of his passion, will and discipline, he is today one of the best underwater photographers on the planet.
“Ivan feels at home when he is on a river, whether it be from the United States or the Amazon. He says that he enters “Mikoljilandia” when he works, he is in a state of absolute concentration that allows him to stay underwater for a long time.” “At that moment, time flies: time and everything around me are distorted,” describes the photographer. I only get out of that trance when my battery runs out or my camera’s memory is full, so I can’t continue”.2
Each of the pictures taken is characterized by the transparency and the color contrasts of these biotopes. They create glances that seduce the spectator, that have transformed scientific magazines and books dedicated to the subject by mixing scientific rigor with the artistic dimension. They are images that surprise with their unusual and revealing content. The underwater reflections in his pictures are of special interest, and to make the creation he looks for the exact angle where the bottom is reflected on the reverse of the aquatic surface by creating optical illusions or visual traps in his compositions.
Eduardo Planchart Licea
PhD History of Latin American Art, UNAM.