THE STORY OF OPHELIA

Summer Rituals, Tereza Stehlikova, 2013
Summer Rituals, Tereza Stehlikova, 2013

Tereza Stehlikova talks about her ongoing Ophelia project featuring a character who became trapped inside a virtual world during the pandemic.



Ophelia appeared inconspicuously to me.

She was inspired by an image: Millais’ painting of a young woman floating peacefully in a stream. I imagine her suspended on the threshold between life and death: like the transitional stage which one enters when drifting off to sleep. Neither here, nor there. A state of letting go, a liminal space.

In-between spaces are what I have always been drawn to in my work. I like to explore the threshold where our inner reality meets the external one and interesting new worlds emerge. I approach this as a form of travel, an adventure somewhere between reality and imagination. Sometimes the journeys are inspired by studying a landscape or a place, at other times the journey is evoked by other means, such as food and its ingestion. Either way, using my camera, I enter a kind of meditative state of pure attention.

I never felt I fitted into a single discipline or a medium. I studied illustration and animation but was never an animator or an illustrator for long. Instead, I turned to artist video and also participatory performance, as the expression which enabled me best to explore my hauntings. I am drawn to philosophy and science and have used collaboration with other disciplines to draw inspiration and to find new ways of working and exploring. At a talk by the highly original cross-disciplinary maverick Sissel Tolaas at the Whitechapel Gallery, I identified very much with her term of a “professional in-betweener”.

While I am drawn to stories and love writing, I am also weary of being literal. Instead, I find that the surrealist tradition of games and instruction manuals is what allows for the best kind of structure as well as freedom. In 2013 I wrote a script for a film I wasn’t planning to make. It was inspired by F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook and the various imaginative scenarios for dinner parties and lunches. I have been intrigued and amused by the multi-sensory dimension of his writing, as much as the imagination and humour involved.

In my script Ophelia drowns in a bowl of soup, served in a fine restaurant. It is a story translated into a culinary experience: a theme of much of my work. It is also a form of ritual, a way of entering a liminal space. Rituals too are a strong element in my work.

A few years later I decided to use the script to create a short film. We spent an afternoon in Kensal Green cemetery, using the exterior of one of the chapels as the set. We had the (rewritten) script, framed as a set of different courses, including specific tools for Ophelia to use with each of them. These defined the rules of the game. Beyond this, Ophelia was free to play, guided by her feelings and whims.

Through the camera eye I became drawn into and immersed in Ophelia’s experience, imagining her sensations and emotions spilling across as she ate her way towards her final dish: a soup bowl filled with edible flowers, into which she took her final plunge.


Ophelia’s Last Supper, 2018 (film still), Tereza Stehlikova
Ophelia’s Last Supper, 2018 (film still), Tereza Stehlikova. Ophelia is Tereza Kamenická.

But rather than an end of Ophelia, this was only the beginning. She came back the following year, as a shadow version of herself, as part of a live performance. She was dressed in black and invited those that dared to share a table with her in her underworld.

Many did come close, they touched her hand, took food from her, being so close that she could feel their breath, smell the sweat and perfume of their living bodies. That was March 2019.

Then came the pandemic and everything was different.

We became imprisoned in our small apartments, many of us without access to nature and certainly deprived of collective experiences in shared spaces. Some deprived of a sense of smell by the virus.


Ophelia in the Underworld, 2019, Nevra Topcu
Ophelia in the Underworld, 2019, Nevra Topcu. Ophelia is Tereza Kamenická.

I thought of Ophelia. What is she doing now?

Having spent days on the computer, communicating with friends, work colleagues and students on Zoom, I began thinking of Ophelia as somebody deprived of physical experience, trapped in a purely audio-visual world. A kind of ghost.

Stuck in our homes, disconnected from friends and also our working lives, our reliance on technology became heightened. The whole scenario could appear absurd at times: symposia conducted from a bedroom, with a patchy internet signal breaking up the speaker’s voice and image freezing. Over and over, we were reminded these were technologically mediated experiences, not direct ones. And they were diluted emotionally: unattached to shared spaces, these events remained unanchored and free floating. The next day they were very nearly forgotten. Our physically grounded lives had ironically become more abstracted.

My work helped to process some of these feelings. I made a film called Self-isolation Dinner. There she was again, Ophelia, now a disembodied character trapped inside a screen, in her modern-day underworld. She shares a Zoom dinner with her date. We never see her as a whole, she is always shown only from the point of view of her dining companion. She copies her partner’s gestures in her desperate need to participate as fully as she can. The ritual of sharing a meal is a magic ritual of invoking a mutual multi-sensory world of shared sensations and emotions. It is a form of grounding.


Self-Isolation Dinner, 2020 (film still), Tereza Stehlikova
Self-Isolation Dinner, 2020 (film still), Tereza Stehlikova. Ophelia is Tereza Kamenická.

As the lockdowns continued not just Ophelia but her everyday reality became a preoccupation of mine. Everyone has to be somewhere. So where is Ophelia? What is her home like? Does she have a home? What does a home inside a computer feel like? What does it smell like? And how would this lonely two-dimensional existence affect her psychologically?

I decided to explore Ophelia’s feelings through a dialogue with various experts in their fields, via Zoom. I chose a choreographer, perfumer, astrophysicist, philosophers and cognitive scientists, an artist and a long Covid sufferer. I asked them to playfully reflect on how Ophelia, deprived of nature and of social reality, may feel and behave and how she may be helped.

Together we pieced together Ophelia’s current experience. What emerged was a woman detached from her own body, feeling half real. Somebody under the threat of becoming less human. A being powered by electricity that could be turned off at night. We explored how she would move, what she would focus on in order to survive. We even sent her to Mars and thought of her as a future human whose disembodied qualities become her greatest strength, a future human.

With a desire to help her, we also equipped Ophelia with a sensory toolbox filled with textures and scents. We gave her an Instagram account and filled it with moving images of a natural world.

Then in October 2021 I created a living room for Ophelia in Notting Hill, London, to give her a temporary address and allow public to come and visit. There, trapped inside various monitors, you can catch Ophelia moving around, as well as watch and listen to the Zoom conversations about her predicament. You can also touch and smell some of her domestic objects. You can even send her small gifts, objects she could enjoy. Or you can simply email her a message of support. Her email is opheliainexile@gmail.com


Ophelia In Exile exhibition, Czech Centre London, 2021-22, Petra Reznakova
Ophelia In Exile exhibition, Czech Centre London, 2021-22, Petra Reznakova. Ophelia is Tereza Kamenická.

Ophelia embodies the essence of my conundrum. This conundrum has consciously begun about 20 years ago, inspired by Jan Švankmajer and his tactile experiments as well as watching my first daughter getting to know the world through touch. How to communicate the fully embodied experience by a medium of film/video, which is essentially audio-visual? How to touch and connect with what is there, on the other side of the screen? How to break, fragment or otherwise subvert the screen, so that it is no longer monolithic? How to find an opening in it so that a whiff of a fresh spice can drift through? How to ground an imaginative audio-visual representation in a fully immersive multi-sensory reality?


Self-Isolation Dinner, 2020 (film still), Tereza Stehlikova
Self-Isolation Dinner, 2020 (film still), Tereza Stehlikova. Ophelia is Tereza Kamenická.

What filmmaking offers me is a form of play as well as a meditation, it is an opportunity to construct worlds according to my own beliefs and desires. It brings me closer to this magic door, beyond which the impossible can take place. Each film is a kind of search. And a game. And a ritual.

Here are two new scripts (or recipes), as an offering.


Sensory Initiation for a Filmmaker during a Covid pandemic

Get up in the morning and wrap yourself in cling film.
Put your regular clothes on top.
Put on your N95 mask.
Put your sunglasses on, make sure they are old and scratched.
Wear all the above for 12 hours without taking it off (make sure you set your alarm).
Do this on:

  • Very busy public transport, while wearing headphones
  • In a shopping centre while trying to buy fresh fish
  • Inside a café, sitting at a table, without ordering.
  • While in bed, trying to sleep.

Wait desperately for the alarm to ring: DING DING

Now get up, peel off the cling film ceremoniously.
Take a cold shower.
Step outside the shower, do not dry yourself, keep naked.

Spill:

  • A bag of sugar
  • A large bag of coriander seeds
  • A large bag of turmeric powder
  • A large bag of ground paprika
  • Small bag of star anise
  • 10 cinnamon bark rolls

into the middle of your kitchen floor, and watch the powder contaminate each surface.

Put on your old wooden clogs. Dance joyously over the seeds and spices, observing the sound of cracking and grinding, until everything is crushed, mixed, oozing clashing scents and compelling colours.

Lie down and roll across the dusty fields, making sure your body is covered on all sides with these delicious textures and smells.

Now place two slices of star fruit over your closed eyes, while lying down. Add two slices of a cucumber, two thin strips of apples, two round slices of carrots, honey melon, watermelon and pear, followed by a slice of mango, orange, blood orange and kiwi, until there are two chimneys towering where your eyes normally are.

Breathe in deeply. Can you taste the cinnamon bark with your feet? Can you hear the whiff of caramel behind you ears? Can you smell the deep yellow of the turmeric in the folds of your skin?

Now get up (let the towers fall off and splatter on the floor).
Pick up your camera, turn it on, and start filming.
Your whole body has become an eye, your eye is now your ear, tongue, nose.


Ophelia’s Break Free Feast

Ophelia sits down at a glass table.
She is wearing white pyjamas, a face covering and white gloves.
A hand (also in rubber gloves) appears and wipes the surface with a disinfected tissue.
Ophelia sneezes and looks around apologetically.

First dish arrives.
A small white parcel, wrapped in layers of white tracing paper.
Sheet by sheet, Ophelia unwraps it.
She finds a small ice cube with a small daisy inside.
Ophelia puts it in her mouth.
She sucks it slowly.

Second dish arrives.
A small white parcel, wrapped in bubble wrap.
Below the bubble wrap, a tracing paper.
Inside the tracing paper, a transparent jelly cube.
Inside the cube, a sardine.
Ophelia cuts the jelly and eats the sardine.

Third dish arrives.
It is a large box, wrapped in foam, bubble wrap and finally tracing paper.
Inside the box is a large glass plate, covered by a large glass bowl.
Under its transparent globe is a real world:
A mountain range of egg white, a lagoon of green gazpacho,
a coriander and mint park, lined with paths of couscous and cinnamon.

Ophelia places her palms over the bowl.
She lifts it up ceremoniously.
She takes off her gloves, rubs her hands together,
then runs her fingers, like wild horses, across the open landscape.


More about Tereza Stehlikova.

Ophelia is performed by Tereza Kamenická.



Click for more articles in this issue: