What makes us human beings? Not what us work but what makes us the complex unique individuals that we are. The very concept of organic life alone is a truly incredible one, let alone Homo sapiens. When you think about it, how does a mass of Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen and Nitrogen perform such wonders as putting a man on the moon or writing Hamlet? Science will explain so much, but the process leading to the magic that occurs, allowing such wonders will always be an ephemeral series of hypotheses and pontifications.
Ancient Greece is widely acknowledged as the birthplace of many philosophical and scientific theories and practices, and it was the physician Hippocrates, nearly five hundred years before the birth of Christ who refined and popularised a notion that was supported for the best part of two thousand years. The theory of humoral medicine.
In the same way that the world was considered to be the product of four essential elements, earth, air, fire and water, humoral theory suggested that we (human beings) were comprised of four humors (liquids), which as long as perfectly balanced meant we functioned and performed healthily, both physically and mentally. The humors were designated as, yellow bile (xanthe chole), phlegm (phlegma), blood (haima) and black bile (melaina chole), and the perceived wisdom was that should the balance be disturbed and therefore an ailement detected, then the humor deemed to be in excess would be drained and as a result balance restored. Why do you need to know this? Well, when I recently received the new book by Cristiano Volk I was presented with a small elegant conundrum of a book. Portraits and blood cells, landscapes and clouds. Initially it’s message eludes, until the connection is made between the work and the book’s title, Melaina Chole was the Greek name given to the black bile secreted by either the kidneys or spleen, and was considered to be the cause of sadness and malaise.
It is also the derivativation of the word melancholy. And so what begins with a theory posed by Hippocrates distills into an examination on the nature of melancholia, or depression.
On opening the book and embarking on our journey through it, we are presented with what is Indeed a dark and foreboding prologue. We enter through a series of evolving images -identical but slowly illuminating - of an aperture punched through a rough hewn wall. As the sequence progresses the space beyond is slowly revealed to the point where an empty cold cave like space becomes visible. Our reward? All the work breaking through., anticipation, and effort, for what? Not the blue skies, fresh air or revitalising optimism so desired, so needed. Just more of the same.
Then an explosion of light, white on black. Step this way. The juxtapositions and clashes that follow are either as random as the electrical clicks and flashes that power our unconscious, or as carefully considered as the words in a sonnet. Such is the definition of interpretation. The book is split into two sections. Whilst the first refers to humoral theory, the second contains a series of portraits based on Hippocrates’ study of physiognomy, which suggested that a person’s moral character could be determined by facial characteristics and even the size and shape of their head. “People with small faces have small souls, like cats and monkeys (Pseudo-Aristotle, Physiognomonica)”
Classical Greek theory aside, the images are of course the reason for being here, but theIr abstract nature means that descriptions of single frames would in no way enlighten. The technical execution is flawless, and viewed as a series of diptychs they crackle as a series of synapses. The work should be viewed as a whole and left for each viewer to interpret and draw their own conclusions. Melaina Chole is an intensely personal and intellectual work from a wonderful newcomer to the world of the photobook. In 2019 Cristiano Volk released his debut title, Sinking Stone. A colour rich abstract comment on the Italian city of Venice, which is thematically, stylistically and aesthetically, a world away from this new collection. All of which tells us that we are in the company of an audacious talent that already refuses to be pigeonholed. That will present diverse and challenging concepts with a confidence that almost sneers at the idea of continuity.
In walking such a tightrope there is always a risk of embarking on a wantonly unpredictable and unsteady trajectory. However whilst many of our favourite creatives wrap us in a warm comfortable blanket of familiarity, and deliver work which has their stylistic DNA embedded into its very core time and time again, others are prepared to challenge, confront and risk the long fall from the wire.
With only two books under his belt, it may be a little early to tell for Volk, but he has definitely and defiantly taken those first steps, and is on his way.....and more importantly, he’s not afraid to look down.
A polished and buffed version of this review first appeared on The Od Review