Evelyn Bencicova

Evelyn Bencicova

You were born and raised in Bratislava, Slovakia. What things interested you when you were young, and how did you discover photography?

Even though now I live quite a nomadic life, I can still observe how my upbringing in Slovakia and visual references from my early years largely influenced my work and vision.

I was always a very curious, adventurous child, eager to see and know the world. I remember that my favorite “toys” were books and pencils. Quite opposite to most of my peers, I loved to go to school and enjoyed almost all subjects, but especially history, literature, mathematics and physics, later also philosophy, psychology and history of arts. To this day I believe that every topic can be interesting and worth attention if you look close enough and allow yourself to dive deeper.

I don’t see photography as my main focus but rather as a medium through which I can explore what interests me, both in reality and imagination. It is thinking through seeing and seeing through thinking.

I was always interested in visual arts in general but it took me some time to track the moment when photography became the language with which I decided to express my thoughts. It brings back a few inconsistent memories, which seem like milestones on this quite unpredictable journey, which still has not reached its end.

I think about the days I spent growing up in a huge post-socialist era housing estate, where the view from any of our windows would always be only the windows of others. I remember watching them at night, trying to glimpse the life on the other side of these hundreds of rectangles. But the truth is that I saw much more than what was visible. Out of a few details, I imagined the whole room, an alien life, and an infinite universe centered on the person who was hidden to me, yet so vivid in my imagination. These and many other moments have made me realize that I became visually creative long before the moment when I first grabbed a camera and started taking photos, because I was already creating pictures in my head. Photography just gave form to an inner world, which I have spent years constructing.

You study Fine Arts in Vienna. How is that environment different from what you were used to?

Yes, I study Fine Arts at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. I travel by train from Bratislava to Vienna every day. I have also lived and studied in London and Berlin, and while travelling through most of Europe, the differences are one of the most fascinating topics I try to explore.

There are many different ways, many layers, in which I can describe the differences between Vienna and Bratislava. Influenced by my own background and interest, the difference I would pick as an example is a cultural one, even though we cannot forget that culture consists of, and coexists with, many other aspects such as politics, economic situations, etc. People in Slovakia are not so aware of, or proud of, their cultural identity–maybe because it existed as the Slovak Republic for less than 30 years, or maybe because of the time of socialism when the arts and intellect could not develop freely, or maybe because the overall mood in the country tends to ignore the past and forget it, rather than face it in the challenges of the future. I felt like I was growing up in a culture of denial, when there was not much to identify with as a nationality, not because of the absence of history but by that history being denied.

We looked closer into this at project Asymptote, which was shot at former socialist official buildings, massive brutalist structures out of use or abandoned, almost forgotten but still standing as ghosts of their former glory. In the architecture, we saw the symbol of the regime itself, of the people as part of the pattern, which functions only while it holds together. At the same time, we explored how the old system leaves behind not only buildings but also many deeply embedded ideologies, patterns of thinking and behaving, which take generations to change.

Quite recently, young creatives from Slovakia, mostly from post-socialism generations, started to re-explore these topics both visually and conceptually. Probably a certain distance of time and mindset was needed to discover an interest in, or almost fascination for, these themes which would be too painful or evocative for those with firsthand experience. It brought the ability to look at the “ugly past” with fresh eyes, the courage to touch it, because either we don’t feel the danger, its immediate consequences, or because it is increasingly important to look at and learn from what happened. Like one of my favorite quotes says: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”  We should repeat it in words; reflect on it in works, in order to not return to it in the future.

Your winning project, “Alice” is a form of self-portrait. It tells the story of what is probably a very difficult phase in your life. What can you share with us about this?

Alice is a self-portrait done through another character (as I don’t find my own face or body necessary for representing me emotionally). It reflects a certain moment in my life and the state of mind I was in at this time, based on the notes in my diary: “They say that I need to be in an empty space; with empty hands. Every time I touch an object, there are two ways of thinking: how can I destroy it and how can it destroy me. Depending on the fragility of the moment, even the most functional item looks to me like a weapon or as a threat. Like a very thin line between cure and torture.”

Alice finds herself in a perfectly sterile, “beautiful” world, so clean because it used to be dirty. All traces are erased. The nothingness of it only shows that everything is happening inside. (this space is a rehabilitation center in a mental hospital)

Alice looks at you because she wants you to look at her.  More than look, she wants you to see. The imaginary scar is like a window, a tiny fracture on the surface of glossy skin, which breaks everything apart. It’s the only thing that matters. It opens the door but not to outside; the door in. Pay attention to the details, they sometimes tell more than people do.

Why did you decide to create a project around it?

I often create projects as a form of self-therapy; a way to face fears and answer questions that lay deep inside. Even though many of my works come from personal stories and emotions, I hope they contain something universal, what people will observe, feel and understand. I believe that my story is not only mine but I might touch topics that another person deals with.

Alice is a reflection of many of my other projects. It can reflect me as well as you, like a mirror. The view changes according to the person looking at it. I usually prefer to leave the interpretation to the viewer, even with the risk that it can be “wrong” because there is no right or wrong in this. Rather than offering an explanation, I would always ask a question. What do you see? How do you feel? And why?

In a project like “Alice”, the visual is just an outside layer that takes so much attention, but the meaning hides in subtle gestures or the tiniest detail.  I cannot influence who sees it, who goes through those layers and enters behind what is obvious. If one person sees the way, that is already enough. If not, maybe this person was me.

What were the main challenges in the realization of this project?

The main challenge was probably the desire to capture the feeling rather than an event. These photographs are, for me, like frames of a movie; it is still but you feel it moving. It continues in one’s imagination.

I started with space but I needed to find the person. I’m quite careful in selecting models and muses–both professionals and the ones with little or no experience (many times close friends). Responding to a description of this project, I searched for beauty but with something hidden under it, something I cannot explain but can see and feel. When I saw Alice in the space it felt like it was me without losing her–Alice herself. I always search for a balance of all the elements on set, energy equilibrium where magic can happen. This series is an auto-portrait, but also a portrait of Alice (who gives it its name). It is the ability to relive our story through someone, through memory or a vision, even through a photograph.

You were selected as TIFA “New Talent of the Year”. What has receiving this award meant to you?

I’m happy for every opportunity to share my work with new audiences – this time in Tokyo. You never know who will have a glimpse at your work. It might be crucial for you as the artist as well as for the observer.

I’m grateful for the appreciation and support of my vision. It is such a rewarding feeling to watch the project living its own life, as if the pictures continue to develop long after being taken by the camera.

Where do you get motivation and inspiration from in your work?

My motivation is curiosity. Desire to know more about the world, about myself, and others. I usually see any work as only a part of a bigger development, and with the distance, I can observe where am I evolving as a person and as an artist.

I see myself as an author who often switches between different topics and visual approaches. Any formal decisions (like the use of a camera, light-mood, editing) are influenced by the theme, which remains the most important until the end.

I’m inspired by life, by the world. I have become a kind of information addict.  Reading especially fuels my imagination and feeds my mind with ideas. I often reflect on topics of the past, but recently I started to be very interested in the future, especially shifts in our perception of reality.

Visually one of my biggest sources is classical painting and sculpture. I study fine art and history and often spend free time in museums and galleries, sometimes just silently observing whatever I like for a while. Your brain remembers what it is shown and will later build on that, so I would advise anyone to carefully choose your sources because as in diet, you become what you eat.

What are you working on now? What is in the pipeline for you?

Currently, I’m exploring other mediums than photography, learning new methods for approaching a topic. I’m always fascinated by the challenge of stepping on as yet unknown grounds. The first steps when adapting to a different atmosphere and gravity are very slow. But I’m quite good at not giving up!

I often understand the form of research and project only after it is done, as my way can bend and turn many times during the process. Only in the end, everything comes together like a puzzle, so even now I could only talk about inconsistent fragments of thoughts. For that reason, I rather recommend you to follow my work and find out for yourself.

What is your ultimate goal in your work and your art?

To stay true to what I believe in and to create work which will matter. As an ultimate goal, this would be to create work that can be part of creating a better world. And this leads me to the question: Does photography (or any artwork) have the ability to do that? I was always aware of pictures’ ability to tell a story, to bring attention to a particular topic, to capture history as well as envision the future, to be the mediator that brings a message to the public.

In an ideal world, photographs should be viewed not only for the sake of seeing. Or to be specific, my photographs or any outcome I want to create. I wish for the viewer to notice and look closer, to think, to understand or question, and then to act on their emotion. I dream of having a voice that can speak the truth clearly; a voice which is heard without being too loud; which resonates. I want to get a deeper understanding so I can use this voice for a purpose. Getting the space to express brings the responsibility to one’s own words and I want to challenge myself to enter not only into what is interesting, but mostly what is important. Whether it’s photography or any other medium that is used, it does not matter. My goal is knowledge and understanding; a mind infinitely open; the world as a space for empathy, creativity and sharing–not just for me, but for everyone.