4 generations of women topography

Fragments of text, film and photography: artist Tereza Stehlikova explores the bonds between the 4 women within her family.

An exterior world conveys an interior landscape. Emotion materialises as a moving topography.

~ Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion, 2002


It’s August and I am walking with my daughter along a meadow, past a wayside cross. It’s hot and the air is summer-still, interrupted only by numerous butterflies drunk on nectar. We arrive at the house, but inside the atmosphere hangs heavy. There are tensions, repressed feelings, taboo subjects. I hide behind the camera to observe, to study this female universe I am the product of. My work is an attempt to see through a fog which obscures things, making it hard to orientate myself, to understand my place in the world.

At first I simply watch.

I study the texture of the skin on my mother’s and grandmother’s arms.

I film them sitting in different rooms.

There is a sense of distance, of all that is unexpressed hanging in space, heavy.

I film objects inside the houses, marked by traces of their use, pregnant with stories.

I feel like an alien observing life on a different planet. I am disconnected, somehow apart.

I place a white chair outside the house and ask my grandmother to sit there, as I film her, staring into the open landscape. Towards what?

Later I string these shots into a short film. I call it The Thread Between Us, words taken from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Yet somehow, the film is more about gaps, the silences, the distance.

In the final edit I use fragments from a radio interview with a cosmologist. One sentence remains echoing in my mind:

“We are alone in the Universe.”


The Learned Pig


Summer Rituals, 2013

Tereza Stehlikova

It’s August again, and my mother and I are dressing my daughter Anna in flowers. I am interested in capturing the sense of summer: the way everything becomes more immediate, closer, while the borders between things (us and the world) become blurrier. I devise a simple ritual of initiation: First I pour honey over my daughter’s golden hair and over her hands. The honey is from our local beekeeper Ludva, whom I visited the day before and watched as he extracted the honey from the honeycomb, using a fine comb. Later, we ceremoniously adorne my daughter in flowers and other vegetation from our garden. Her eyes itch as her hay fever comes on. She sneezes. The bees are buzzing around us, attracted by the flowers. We drink the honey as if it were mead.

I try to immerse myself in the atmosphere by exciting all my senses, with the hope that this multisensory knowing will help me look and see and film with a new awareness. A haptic visuality. Embodied looking. I want to feel connected to the world I am filming, I want to be involved. I want to touch and be touched.


The Learned Pig


From You to Me, 2015

Tereza Stehlikova

This is the year of my Grandmother’s 90th birthday. The film is a celebration of this moment. Our ritual consists of making a cake together, one that is my grandmother’s speciality: an adaptation of an existing recipe for “Malakoff”, an Austrian cake of mixed origins.

Once the cake is done, it becomes a metaphor for something else: a gift that is carried across a landscape, passed between generations.

The long stretches of time when we are absent from each other’s lives, living in different countries (Czech Republic and UK), heighten the experience of being together when we reunite. It is this painful intensity of the embodied presence, amongst other things, that I try to convey in my work: the world and the people in it, as seen from a place where they no longer exist; a waking dream of being in a world that is no longer present – an experience that can be so much more vivid than the one we habitually occupy.

Between 2015 – 2017 I make three short films: one is a kind of anomaly, it takes place in Prague and in winter. My daughter is filmed being dressed in a traditional costume made by her great great grandmother. In the next film, we dress my grandmother in flowers, echoing the earlier works. The third one begins with studying our features in front of the mirror, exploring family resemblances. We share a feast of fruits around the very same white table which has now become such a central feature of our (art)ificially constructed universe. The film ends with us in the forest again, holding hands.

The mapping of these threads of narrative upon a landscape, the distances as much as the connections, generates a new kind of awareness. The spaces of separation, the gaps in between that make up our ordinary lives spent elsewhere, make the moments of closeness more palpable. But I am also starting to believe that the process of creating and filming these rituals is something akin to a magical act: a transformation in which new forces are being unleashed. In order to get to this release, a lot of resistance has to be fought. Internal and external.


The Learned Pig


Water Rituals, 2018

Tereza Stehlikova

I return to South Bohemia pregnant. I am conscious of the reality of my unborn daughter, submerged in amniotic fluid, reminding me that we all emerge from a liquid state of dreaming. Water is the conductive medium of dreams and we encounter it time and time again, at different stages of our lives: as a form of initiation, a way of cleansing and purification, as well as in more sinister forms. In C G Jung’s interpretation it is the symbol of the unconscious.

During our 4 Generations conversation on camera, inspired by ideas of psychogenealogy (where various patterns of behaviour are transmitted across generations), dark water themes emerge. My grandmother tells us that on her mother’s side, her mother’s mother committed suicide by drowning. Her body was found by the glitter of her ring in the lake’s water. Some years on, the daughter she had her argument with lost her son to suicide by drowning too. And on my grandmother’s father’s side, her grandmother’s mother tried to drown herself and her two children. She was saved and ended up in an asylum. There seems to be so much grief associated with water. No wonder I keep returning to Ophelia’s drowning in my work.

We also speak of touch and its lack in the female line, going back to my Grandmother’s mother, who lost her first baby to an infectious illness. Out of fear of contamination, she avoided kissing and hugging her daughter, a habit which got passed down the generations.

As part of a filming ‘exercise’, I make everyone hug. We also use water as a conduit of touch: we splash and pour it over each other on a hot summer afternoon; we touch without being conscious of it. There is a sense of delight and exuberance as we use water to cool ourselves, while laughing. It is an artificially created moment, for the camera, but its effect is real.

One early evening we sit by a small lake and tell each other stories, mainly about swimming, as my friend and I film. Just before leaving for home, I decide to take a dip in the water, still wearing my white undergarment. The outside air is already cooling in the evening sun. As I walk further in, I am surprised by the profound pleasure of feeling the warm water on my skin. Soon the fabric is touching my skin gently, it’s light and floaty, rather than weighty. Finally, fully submerged, I decided to lie on water.

All along, I am conscious of my unborn child, floating inside me. With my body supported by the water’s mass, I find myself suspended in time and space, weightless, the boundary between myself and the lake dissolved: I am feeling borderless, spilling into the landscape around and above. With my ears under the water, I experience the most profound moment of peace and silence, the perfect moment of solitude in the water’s embrace.


The Learned Pig


Welcoming Clementine, 2019

Tereza Stehlikova

I return to the filming of 4 generations of women with a new addition, my 10 month-old daughter. I feel it makes sense to continue the thread of the previous films, in particular last year’s Water Rituals. The aim this year is a performance of a simple ritual involving a “baptism” with water. I also want to bring in a sequence which mirrors From You to Me. This time, rather than a symbolic object (a cake), we are to carry a true embodiment of the re/generation of the female line – the new baby girl.

I decide to revisit the locations of previous years’ filming, such as the small garden behind the house, where we prepared our cake. We dress here for our ritual of welcoming the new baby. To connect all the women and also to bring in the reality of the modern family, divided by distance and connected by technology, we phone my older daughter on FaceTime. She is in Greece at this time.

We also shoot sequences in the forest: I take my shoes off and run barefoot across moss and prickly branches, carrying my daughter. The following day we return to the lake where the year before I swam pregnant.

It is only after watching the footage of emerging from the lake, with my new daughter in my arms, that I am struck by the way time seems to move circularly, like a three dimensional spiral, so that we return to the same locations in space and season, but never quite the same place in time.


The Learned Pig


From My Roots, 2020

Tereza Stehlikova

In this most recent work, I decide to focus on the idea of roots: on being rooted, root vegetables, soil, earth. Maybe because this is the year of the Pandemic. The year of a pause. The year of a virtual existence creeping in, making me feel ever more ungrounded.

When we arrive in South Bohemia, I begin filming 4 generations as soon as I can: in order to synchronise my inner rhythm with the place, to feel grounded. The ritual of filming has also become the ritual of being at one with this place. The landscape, its genius loci, has become inseparable from the people and their story.

As part of my research I return to Mercia Eliade’s book the Sacred and the Profane, which I discovered because of a conversation with the writer John Berger, when visiting him in the French Alps. In this book Eliade writes:

There are for example, privileged places, qualitatively different from all others – a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the foreign city he visited in his youth. Even for the most frankly non-religious man, all these places retain an exceptional; a unique quality; they are the “holy places” of his private universe, as if it were in such spots he received a revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.

I realise it’s not by chance that it is here, in this particular part of South Bohemia, that the idea of filming 4 generations inspired me and is being sustained, annually. It is slowly becoming evident to me that the 4 generations project cannot be divorced from the place where it was conceived. And while not the very location of our ancestral home – our immediate female line is from Prague – it is a place we have adopted, made “holy” in the private narrative of our family history and being here has become integral to our story. It is equally important these rituals happen in the summer, when we can be in close, visceral contact with the landscape, nature, with minimal clothing, able to feel the texture of the vegetation, the breeze and the scent of flowers, as we walk barefoot, feeling immersed in the here and now.

But perhaps there is even more to this, beyond a connection with a place, the rootedness. It is also about time. According to Eliade religious man lives in two different times, a linear one, but also a circular time: “reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites”.

Without being fully conscious of these hidden meanings, I have, in my annual and to a great extent ‘artificially constructed rituals’, nonetheless touched on some of the elements of the sacred time. In my insistence on these rituals being re-enacted year after year, I created a sense of a circular time (or even a spiral time), where one returns, in the same configuration, to the same place and season. This return is both an acknowledgement of the circular rhythms we are all governed by, as well as the celebration of the transformations that occur within the given time period: most notably ageing and gaining of experience. In the context of the 4 generations of women, this circular rhythm further re-enforces the feeling of interconnectedness between us, bringing with it the profound sense of being grounded in a life that extends beyond the individual, within a place that has become sacred.


The Learned Pig


November 2020

Now the Bohemian summer landscape with its 4 generations of women is once again out of reach.

I am back in London, sitting in front of a screen of the computer: feeling static, disconnected, frustrated.

I decide to take a walk in a local park.

It is a foggy day, one can hardly see beyond a few meters. Walking across a familiar terrain, transformed by the fog, I begin to muse on how traversing is a form of mapping internal states onto the places one moves across, and how these emotional maps are layered on top of each other, with each new experience.
I also think of Guiliana’s Bruno ideas on the cinema’s fusing of motion and emotion. According to her:

motion pictures move, both outwards and inwards: the journey, that is, through the space of the imagination, the site of memory and the topography of affects…cinema creates mental and emotional maps, acting as membrane for multifold transport.

As I walk, I decide to listen to a podcast a friend recommended. It is from a series called The Digital Human, and this episode is called Sacred. At the beginning, the presenter discusses an old camera which she has kept after her father died. She muses on the idea of the camera being a sacred object, retaining in its physical presence her father’s gaze, as well as herself, as she was being looked at by him, over her years of growing up. The camera bore witness to a relationship whose power has not diminished even when one of them is no longer here. Far from just a symbol, this object is charged by magical power that makes it sacred to her. There is also a woman for whom this sacred object is a phone of her late mother. The phone helps her feel connected to her mother not just by holding onto it, but also in a different way: she calls her mother and leaves messages on her answerphone. This woman laughs as she shares her hope of the voice messages reaching her mother somewhere deep in cosmos.

I have never thought of my camera as a witness, although that is true. But I have thought of the filming as a form of mediation, of channelling, of making sense. It focuses attention; it requires a point of view and instigates motion. The act of capturing these emotional routes is a form of map making, of drawing lines and connecting points on a complex multi-dimensional map: threads weaved between us, the 4 generations of women, between the geographical locations we occupy when together and also apart, between ‘here and now’ and the distant past of those other women who came before us. But perhaps also lines drawn towards those waiting in the future. What is materialising here is part of a much larger family mythology, a grand map that is still in the making. This is a living map, whose meaning is far from fixed. Viewed in this way, the films begin to reveal new meanings, new connections, while also hinting at some other forms of significance that are not yet apparent.

I can appreciate how my camera has thus been a powerful tool of revelation, transformation, even magic. The kind of magic that artist Jan Svankmajer talks about, when he insists on humanity’s underlying irrational nature, which can only be served by a return to magical thinking.

And the films are a product of this process: each film is also like a window open into presence, a means of transportation across time and space. Each one is like a bubble floating in ether along an invisible spiral, like a bead on a necklace or a DNA thread: from you to me and me to you. A brief message sent into the future for us to find and ‘hold’, when meeting in the ‘here and now’ will no longer be possible. A reminder that we are not alone in the universe, but part of a continuous female line, woven into the larger landscape we are part of.

Do not move, do not let the swing door cut to pieces the thing that we have made, that globes itself here, among these lights, these peelings, this litter of breadcrumbs and people passing. Do not move, do not go. Hold it forever.

~ Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931



For more work by Tereza Stehlikova, take a look at Sensory Sites, an international collective she co-founded in London, generating collaborative exhibitions, installations and research projects that explore multi-sensory perception and bodily experience. Tereza also just launched an online arts journal Tangible Territory, featuring essays and articles by established artists/authors from the world of arts, science, philosophy and other disciplines, all centred around the role our senses play in creating meaning in art and life. You can also find out more at Tereza’s personal research blog.


This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.


The Learned Pig