from Landscapes to Abstraction
Ivan Mikolji counting more than one hundred expeditions and innumerable publications in diverse countries, he has demonstrated the authenticity and originality of his artistic passion through photographs and pictorial representations. The philosophy that drives his creative force is an urgency to preserve aquatic ecosystems, and he considers it necessary to reveal the richness and beauty of these biomes as a first step in doing this. It makes sense that he would say “you cannot preserve something that you don´t know exists.” And so, he has dedicated a large part of his life to this labor.
In the portfolios of the Orinoco River, Quebrada Jaspe, Apure, Guárico, Meta, Caño Cristales / River of Five Colors, Colombia, and lakes like the Valencia Lake, between swamps and estuaries, reveal landscapes of a surprising nature, mysterious and sacred, creating edenic glimpses, motivated initially by the search for capturing in their natural habitat – in fingerprints of light – the fish that the artist is impassioned by.
Each one of these pictorial and drawn tributes are a homage to the beauty and diversity of the chosen species. Through these images he has developed an artistic language founded in expressionism and abstraction, fusing the anatomy of a fish with elements of the river landscapes like the rocks and flagstones of the rivers and watery reflections. In each one, organic, inorganic, and scenic elements mix together with his life experiences.
Eduardo Planchart Licea
PhD Historia del Arte UNAM
“The first time I saw an Angelfish, I became passionate for them. They looked majestic, elegant, like a beautiful creation of nature.”
Ivan Mikolji from Landscapes to Abstraction has been exhibited at:
Sala de Exposiciones del Centro Cultural Eladio Alemán Sucre, Naguanagua, Venezuela. 2018
Ivan Mikolji: From Landscapes to Abstraction
By creating a beautiful register of natural aquariums, Ivan Mikolji has created a robust photographic language in his aquatic and underwater landscapes. His visual language transits from a poetic realism to pictorial photography dominated by abstraction, a fundamental step in his drawings and paintings.
He has made more than one hundred expeditions to the Guiana Shield (also known as the Guiana Highlands) in the Colombian-Venezuelan territories, the most recent in October 2016 to Caño Cristales / River of Five Colors, Sierra de Macarena Colombia. These portfolios were created in one of the largest lungs of the planet, an area that contains the most important fresh water reserves in Latin America and serves as a shield for forest-dwelling societies. It is this space-time that many species of fauna and flora are still to be discovered, and others are becoming extinct. The cruel rubber fever of the XIX century is not the cause of this extinction, it comes on the back of the utopic search of the new Dorado, an episode equally as tragic. Thousands of miners, with their predatory culture in search of precious minerals, dredge, poison, and destroy this primordial landscape along with its societies.
These images of the rivers Orinoco, Quebrada Jaspe, Apure, Guárico, Meta, Caño Cristales / River of Five Colors, Colombia, and lakes like the Lake of Valencia, between swamps and estuaries, reveal landscapes of a surprising nature, mysterious and sacred, Edenic glimpses, motivated initially by the search for capturing in their natural habitat – in fingerprints of light – the fish that the artist is impassioned by. As a researcher and explorer, Mikolji created a photographic language that is in debt to the refraction of light in the water, its transparency, opacity, and physical-chemical qualities.
These photographs are born of an adventure towards the unknown that, upon centering itself in the flow of the waters, confronts us with the Heraclitan notion that “everything changes, nothing is permanent,” which sums up in the metaphor that no one bathes two times in the same waters of a river. This negates the notion that is born from common sense, that we exist on a stable planet. Instead, the planet revolves around its own axis of the equator at 1.670 km per hour in a universe that has been expanding since the Big Bang. A reality as shifting and dynamic as the waters of a river that do not only flow, but also undergoes alchemical change from liquid to gas. Through art the creator comes to face with these realities thanks to his vision of the world, creative spark, and a masterful use of aquatic and underwater photography. He can be submerged for hours with a mask, snorkel, and photographic equipment until he achieves the frame he desired, not ending each session until he gets the shot. He eternalizes the changing essence of the water to transform it into visual tricks that on occasions make the water appear to be a gelatinous material, on others, an effervescent reality. Each one of his photographs is a reminder of the other; that we exist on a planet where approximately 71% of its surface is covered in water and of this, 96% is ocean and only 3% is fresh water in rivers, lakes, underground, and on the Poles in the form on ice that is being contaminated. This reality is little understood by humanity. It is urgent to recuperate the equilibrium between civilization and the water cycles.
For Ivan Mikolji art is a path for us to come close to awareness of this problem and for humanity to act in defense of this vital resource that is indispensable to sustaining live. By not having this consciousness, we will destroy the planetary ecology upon which civilization depends. Motivated by these reasons, Ivan Mikolji creates photographic series to make these river landscapes eternal.
In “Cosmogony, 2014 (6096),” this meaning becomes visually poetic. Through the two giant rocks covered with patinas that resemble graphite, the composition seems to recreate an origin myth, it is a metaphor for a sun detained in the torrents of Atures, in the Orinoco. This photograph is reminiscent of how the rock, before being solid, sprouted from the earth in the form of magma, then became dense. The potency of this significance is made by the surface of the water which, surrounding it, assumes the color and texture of stone. The elements present in this composition are micro-universes that uncover a river aesthetic dominated by materials that are qualitatively opposite – the hard, millennial rocks, millions of years old, and the waters that constantly renovate themselves in their natural cycles.
The sacred character of these glimpses is evident in the series “Cosmogonies, 2014” (344), where a rock in the Orinoco was eroded and carved, taking on a serpentine shape that stands out various centimeters from the surface. The formation appears to be a boa of stone skin, perhaps the origin of this universe, an idea that is present in diverse cultural traditions and ancient civilizations.
“In the beginning, all was water and darkness. There was no earth, no sun or moon, nor was there anything alive. The water was the Great Mother. It was the mind within nature, the fountain of all possibilities. It was life being born, the void, pure thought. It took many forms. Like a virgin it sat down on a black stone in the depths of the sea. Like a serpent, she circled the earth…, placed an egg in the void, and the egg became the universe. The universe had nine layers, four in the underworld and four in the world of the heavens, with a plane of contact, the world of human beings, that was the fifth.”
(Kogi origin myth, Sierra Nevada, Colombia: http://mamancana.co/nacimientodel-mundo-segun-la-mitologia-kogui/)
Characterized by a minimalist aesthetic, these philosophical and cosmogenic connotations make themselves known in the rocky landscapes, which in photographs transmit the impression of weightlessness, such as in the image of the series “Cosmogony, 2014 (344).” The visual center of the frame are two rocks modeled into triangular shapes by the water, transmitting an illusion of floating on top of the water. This creates a sensation, lightness, and liberation from gravity that reminds us of aspects of quotidian Japanese aesthetic and the sensation of emptiness in Japanese gardens. On the surface of the rocks, the bands of erosion of the floods of the Orinoco create a rhythm that harmonizes with the waves on the surface of the river.
River Passages and Converging Opposites
One of the characteristics of this visual language is that it makes new dimensions of reality, and shows another perspective. In this visual series we stand before a metaphor about the clouds. Through the unfurling energy and the entropy of the river, the wildness of these paradoxical perspectives is transmuted, dynamic, potentializing the feeling of the photograph with the intention of changing the vision of reality of the other, creating empathy between the public and the cosmos.
This convergence of opposing material qualities can also be perceived in the river passage of the series Cosmogonies No. 987, where the sand of the Torrents of Atues creates a beach in which the diverse layers, the changes of the levels of water, and in the background of the image a group of rocks with similar traces can be observed, harmonizing the hard rockiness with the softness of the grains of sand.
In some of these photographs, the viewer stands before the power and hardness of the rock, like a metaphor for the immutable, stable, and eternal. The static contrasts with the dynamic wildness of the water and its symbolic meanings. Like the sand, it is linked to transformation, evolution, and to the cycle of life-death-rebirth. This landscape, dominated by horizontality, contrasts with the set of vertical rocks on the opposite bank of the Orinoco. In a composition similar to some of the Megaliths of the Orinoco, the floods relocated these monumental rocks. With significance associated with fertility and phalluses, stone formations dominate. This landscape shows how water and its flow can crack, sculpt, and pulverize these voluminous giants, creating unique vistas on the planet, converting the path of this Amazonian river into an aesthetic experience that confronts us with an archaic and mysterious reality. Taken with a bluish sky, the plane on which the sun and full moon meet became the visual center of the composition of this photograph. This image translates the other to a time and space that reminds us of the origins of life and brings us to a primeval reality. Recuperated and recreated by contemporary art in a compelling and authentic manner, this image could very well be an installation by an artist like Richard Long.
A smoke cloud stands out in this sunrise, betraying the presence of Western civilization, which itself stands in opposition to nature. This subtle element responds to one of the pursuits of artist – to confront the public with an Edenic beauty that provokes empathy and at the same time generates nostalgia before the raw truth, that each day this paradise is being threatened and could become a lost Eden. It represents the metaphor that the “Amazon is an illusory paradise,” as Betty Meggers affirmed in her paradigmatic book, that the chains of life in the tropics are extremely unstable – despite appearing to the contrary. This visual iconography expresses its truth in this series. The reasoning that moves the photographer to plunge into these forest scenes is to reveal the other, that we are before a sublime, fragile reality of Gaia. He suggests the necessity of protecting these ecosystems to prevent their disappearance and the tragic consequences that it will bring to the cycles of human life. These visions create feelings of nostalgia, by bringing us closer to the paradisiacal and mythological expulsion from Eden through comparing this reality with the waste from rivers and lakes close to urbanity. Thus, one comprehends the urgent necessity of civilization to change direction considering nature.
Within this visual typology, the series of underwater reflections creates alternate realities, non-existent, springing from the duplicity of reality. It creates images foreign to our daily lives and everything known to us, as can be observed in photographs like the one of the rocky bottoms of the Great Savanna, where the spectator is confronted with realities far from their cognitive patterns, that give the impression of being before something fictitious or landscapes on an unknown planet. This is made evident in the image where two rocky surfaces, one real and the other a phantom, display contrasting textures and color schemes. Hollows, stripes, lines, fissures, perforations, and ochre colors can be perceived through a transparency that seems to be almost atmospheric and not underwater. In the same series of The Great Savanna, another underwater vision almost seems to be a gas Big Bang; centrifugal forces seem to sprout from a central point, seemingly a metaphor for the cosmic explosion from which, hypothetically, the universe sprang. These visions are only possible through a creative eye, capable of creating beauty from the ignored.
In Mikolji´s work the palms of Moriche become part of the iconography of the Orinoco landscape, transforming into an essential part of his visual language. One is before underwater photographs that duplicate and make fiction out of reality, just as in the images from the series Reflections of Moriche create a composition of two triangular forms, arranged in a series, with opposing vertices. The photographer creates a non-existent reality under the water, with the search for the right angle and light conditions, to make this illusory gaze materialize.
The turbid personalities of the waters of the river Apure and the estuaries of the Plains create underwater reflections dominated by greens, browns, and ochres. In these dark and green waters, this spectrum of colors and a kaleidoscopic reality dominate the compositions This is a reality to which the author gives birth, and allowing us to have an idea of the amount of pleasure that is generated with each one of these clicks.
The macro reality that centers this collection of images are the underwater reflections of a tree trunk submerged under a few centimeters of water, generating a chromatic spectrum dominated by black and greens. In some of these images bubbles appear, transparent areas that become windows to the outside, taking on a radiant form, or distorted realities. In this series one reaches total opacity, creating abstract and surrealist landscapes in a variety of green tones that appear to be dense liquid surfaces, creating folds that negate the fluidity of the water, recalling the plasticity that Dalí´s melted clocks transmit. Others transmit seeming flamboyant visions. The underwater reflections of leaves combine the colors of the underwater layers with the depths, materializing abstractions where it is difficult to distinguish the real leaf from the visual illusion.
Caño Cristales / River of Five Colors, Colombia:
Ivan Mikolji used underwater photography to capture the images of the torrent of colors of the rainbow at the so-called River of the Gods in Sierra Macarena, Colombia. He credits the color palette of the image with the plants that exist in the river. These photographs manifest these colors in the waters during diverse periods during the year. This can be observed with how the red color creates surrealist compositions where forms and textures can be made out due to the reflection of the plants, creating organic visions that seem to be formations of unicellular layers that contrast with the red colored Macarenia clavigera plant, visions that reach abstraction and display a pictorial quality.
Plants with cottony textures, whose stems have the quality of blood vessels. Creating unique photographs with its diversity of textures and perspectives, Mikolji makes it so that each plane is different from the others, just as in the underwater images in “Caño Cristales.” Colors like red, green, and brown mix together between bubbles of oxygen to transmit a radiant light. Arriving at the extremes of the photograph, organic layers of red melt together with mercurial resplendence. The aesthetic of the river generates in these images a dimension apart from the river itself, which would appear to be the origin of the first emanations of life. When the diverse colors are projected in the reflections, the photographs assume atmospheres of unreality and fiction. Generating visual situations outside of all logic, they are meta-universes. Through these visions, the artist transmits expressionist, surrealist, abstract, and conceptual characteristics to the photograph, filling it with emotions, premonitions, and paradoxes.
Between drawings and paintings
The art of Ivan Mikolji centers upon pisciform shapes and landscapes with which he has been in contact with for a large part of his life as an explorer, researcher, and photographer of fish in rivers, lakes, estuaries, swamps, and canals. His passion for aquarism together with the impact that first time he saw an Altum Angelfish had on him sealed his destiny: to become an explorer and visual artist.
Each one of these drawn and pictorial tributes are a homage to the beauty and diversity of the chosen species. Through these images he has developed an artistic language founded in expressionism and abstraction, fusing the anatomy of a fish with elements of the river landscapes like the rocks and flagstones of the rivers and watery reflections. In each one, organic, inorganic, and scenic elements mix together.
The artist´s favorite medium for drawings and sketches is wax pastels, for the softness of how it glides over the paper and for the quality of the lines that it permits him to trace. When painting, he prefers acrylic, because of his need to quickly see the results of his creation. As a drawer and painter, the artist links together creative rapture and the speed of perception of the frames that digital cameras permit.
Each one of these pieces is the result of arduous work in the studio. Thus, he has created an artistic language, intimately linked to the aquatic and underwater landscapes that can be observed in the predominance of curves, angles, geometric shapes, seriality. And the line is restless, a dynamic eco in the external form, just as the colors that are linked to the kaleidoscopes reflect light over the surface of the water and the backdrops that characterize much of these works. This can be seen in “Altum 92,” which was created with wax pastels on Canson paper, and in which the blue lines echo the underwater reflections of a clear sky on the water. The reds and yellows relate to the sunrises and sunsets of the river scenes, but in some cases, they echo the colors of the aquatic plant life. The pectoral fins of the Altum fuse elements of solar colors, for example the green of the aquatic plants and of the underwater reflections. We are before a synthesis of elements.
The thickness of the lines and the spontaneity in the drawings of the Altum reinterprets and symbolically distorts the aquatic life. The artist recreates the features of the Angel Fish using constructive geometric shapes. Its color scheme is associated with the reds, greens, and blacks that characterize the plants of Caño Cristales / River of Five Colors in Colombia, and the angular and serialized structures that make up the bodies of this series aren´t only linked to the fish´s anatomy, but also the rocky formations of the Orinoco, which are present in the artist´s photographs. The colored areas that go from grey to blue tones and the black lines are inspired in the reflections of light on the surface of water, with its undulating and dynamic forms, realized with quick strokes as the base of the iconographic elements belonging to the artist´s vision of the world.
Within this piece are elements associated with the rocks, molded by time and the strength of the currents. The dominant colors unite atmospheric, aquatic, and earthly elements together with the underwater depths in a singular visual discourse. Within the photographic and artistic languages there are constants. In the iconography of the image, the triangular heads of the Altum angelfish have similar forms as some of those in the photographs from the “Cosmogony” series. The false eyes that protrude from his drawings and paintings are related to the rotund sun shapes in the symbolic petroglyphs of the Atures Rapids. It is important to emphasize that Ivan Mikolji does not aim to create a three dimensional illusion in his two dimensional work; this effect is due to the echo that the surfaces make against the stone slabs, like those that can be observed in his photographs of the sunrises of the Orinoco.
The elements of Mikolji´s photographic iconography are an integral part of his paintings and drawings, just as can be seen in the painting “Orchidochrome Altum,” 2016, where the sensation of seriality is transmitted through the curves of the Angel fish, inspired in the forms of the stone slabs that cover the crisscrossing lines associated with the reflections of light over the water, making the visual impression that there is a potential for movement in the painting.
In the center of the painting, there is a labyrinth, and one of the external lines departs beyond the bounds; the thread of Ariadne. This symbolism relates the moon and woman to water and to the earth. In this piece, earthly valences are accentuated, creating a visual similarity between the serpent and the labyrinth. It recalls cycles of life and death, due to the changes in skin that ophidian species undergo. In this pictorial tribute the recreation of spear-shaped leaves is reminiscent of the photographs of underwater reflections.
The spiny characteristics of the sea urchin could be linked in the paintings and drawings to the Lionfish, which the artist has photographed on various occasions. Thus, parts of diverse kingdoms and species are fused together in each one of these pieces, transmitting a sense of cosmic communion. This unity is made palpable in the underlying strokes used to paint Altum 1, whose chromatic tonalities belong to an Amazonian sunrise. The circle in the upper part of each of the tributes has connotations to the sun and to the false eyes that the fish use to elude their predators. The dissolving reality that the artist creates occurs through lines overlapping with chromatic layers, dominated by a seriality of geometric forms. This can be observed in the painting Green Angel Fish, 2016. Drawing sets of fish shapes forms part of the artistic language of the artist, just as can be seen in the small-form series which has the objective of transmitting the social character of certain species of fish.
Symbolism of the Tributes Angel-Altum Fish:
“The first time I saw an Angel fish, I became passionate for them. They look majestic, elegant, like a beautiful creation of nature.” (Ivan Mikolji)
And upon the first time seeing an adult in a friend´s house, he asked himself:
“Where do these beings come from? Their habitat must be as magical as they are.” (Ivan Mikolji)
Without thinking twice, he asked his ichthyologist friends where he could find this fish in its natural place. And when he heard the response, it sealed his destiny – he had to go to the Pavoni river in the Amazon region. And towards this space-time he went, to arrive and hear the chief Kurripaco, from the Pavoni community, identify the fish from a drawing using its scientific name: Altum. The chief did not use the common name for the fish, which surprised the artist. He asked why they called the way they do, and the response was a defining moment in his life:
-“We ate them all”
The community employs the traditional mass fishing technique of using barbasco root to poison waterways to kill the fish by the hundreds. And he then found out that the resident hunters of this beautiful fish capture them after blinding them with lights in the night. Being before this species of fish that is on the path to extinction made him identify more with the passion that had led his life. It gave him the challenge of encountering them and photographing them in their habitat to make them known, and to minimize the impact on their habitat. What he didn´t know in this moment is that they would become one of the axis of his artistic language, and that through his paintings and drawings that he would become linked to them. And he became aware of the philosophy of his life: “One cannot preserve something they don´t know exists.” (Ivan Mikolji)
That is the story of how the first of more than a hundred expeditions in Venezuela and Colombia contributed to giving the Angel Fish a fundamental role in Mikolji´s training as a photographer, researcher, and visual artist who is in search of this dimension of life on Earth. And in this search, he encountered a new reason for life, to create a planetary conscience that will conserve these species as well as their habitats and the forest societies that coexist with them.
“When you spend a lot of time in the wilderness, you can feel nature becoming part of yourself, like a caress. You begin to pay more attention to the light of the moon when it lights up the bushes, trees, leaves, sounds, and noise of the earth…You begin to perceive that living world as part of yourself, just as when day breaks or the sun sets. And when you are in overwhelmed in urbanity, disoriented, and you see the same sun as when you immerse yourself in wilderness, you think:
“Hey, alright, the sun always accompanies you and you begin to feel these rays like they were a part of you, like comrades, you feel protected and they give you comfort when you enter into the cold waters of the rivers to encounter their hidden and secret beauty. These fish are not just one species, rather they are all species and the universe in which they exist. That is why it is a tribute to the sun and the moon, that is what within them there are lunar eyes, solar tails, waves of water, reflections, aquatic plants, leaves, and flowers.” (Ivan Mikolji)
Eduardo Planchart Licea
PhD. Art History UNAM
(National Autonomous University of Mexico)