Natalia Lach-Lachowicz — artist and intellectual, debating problems of photography and painting, working in the borderland between these two disciplines of art. She creates objects, installations and also stages actions-performances that sometimes go on for several hours as, for example, “Śnienie” (Dreaming), “Piramida” (The Pyramid) or “Stany skupienia” (States of Concentration). In the seventies she wrote conceptual text, was interested in European and non-European philosophy, fascinated by the Bible, Descartes, Carl Gustave Jung, John of the Cross, Teilhard de Chardin, seeking an answer to the question about the sense and mystery of life and death, good and evil, creation and destruction. She has always believed that in artistic creation the conception (idea) contained in a work of art and the form of artistic expression develop in parallel and enhance each other. She has always been convinced that intellect and intuition are equally important elements of the creative process.
Natalia’s art keeps changing: its character, expression and language take different forms. In the early seventies she became famous and widely recognized for her “Consumption Art”. In 1975 she represented Poland at the 9th Biennale of the Young in Paris with her “Girl with Bananas” series (one of her works of that period). At that time she used photography in a way derived form the methods of conceptual art, repeating the same motif, but modifying it in each successive shot. Resembling the banana series was the series of Natalia’s self-portraits sitting in a chair in a pose of abandon.
At the end of the seventies the artist gave performances called “Dreaming”. The documentation of them shows Natalia lying asleep, getting up, kneeling, walking like one moonstruck. She is wearing a long white night-gown, her hair let loose: light and fragile/mysterious and romantic, but still not without sex appeal, enticing with femininity.
At the beginning of the seventies in her conceptual “permanent registrations”, Natalia seemed to be documenting reality with investigative intention which was purely rational. She demonstrated her cool rationalism in her “categorical statements” belonging to the sphere of post-conceptual art, when she, for example, stated: “Art is the result of man’s intellectual capacity”(1). At the end of the seventies she started to tend towards considering phenomena that not only were far distant from the scepticism of empiricism, but simply fell under the head of parapsychology. These interests of the artist found expression in her performances of 1979—81 when, in a wooden model of a pyramid, she investigated the influence of unidentified energies on psychological and mental processes. She wrote about the results of her experiments: “I am also astonished at the prognostic power of dreaming. While awake, I had never thought of Afghanistan, but the events of December 1979 were revealed to me half a year in advance with astounding clarity”(2). Just like in “The Pyramid”, in her successive actions-performances of 1981—83 called “States of Concentration”, during which she was dressed in a black cloak, sweeping the ground, and had a black head-band on her flowing golden hair, the element of magic celebration began to dominate over the emanation of femininity. However, the charm of femininity, though hidden, is still present in these actions.
The mid-eighties marked a turning point in Natalia’s art caused by a change in her outlook, her vision of the world and the place taken in it by both man and art. In the text quoted above, she said: “In my opinion art is an altruistic game and at the same time a tragedy. By virtue of its definition art is qualified to investigate “artificially” what is part of our reality whose range is determined by the Absolute and Satan. The instrument of art is very sensitive to these extreme phenomena, because the precision of this seismographic instrument makes it possible to register the states of our spirit, the Person and Anti-person that being elements of good and evil, divinity and satanism are at the same time part of us. The experiment in the art of a loose space (Natalia’s artistic proposition — B,K.) seems to demonstrate the true vocation of an artist: to determine and define nostalgia and despair, fear and dread, but also Hope and Love that are true daughters of Goodness”(3).
The text on Natalia stress the presence in her art of traits of avant-garde, meaning “art which most lively responds to what is going on in the world, what characterizes the present, what causes concern or tempts with the novelty of opinions, scientific discoveries, and other social and cultural experiences”(4). As a matter of fact, Natalia’s art was undergoing transformations in rhythm to the changes occurring in the art of our times together with the ethos of contemporary artistic and philosophical thinking. The true value of her creative work, however, does not consist in what she adopted from the atmosphere of the milieu, from external influences, but in what is her own, born of her feelings, needs and experiences, of the quality of her personality.
One may find the key to her art in the artist’s texts — if one cannot find this key on one’s own by comparing her works dating from the beginning of the seventies to those she produced in the latter part of the eighties. “The space of a body/work of art shows the limitations and at the same time the infinity of man” — wrote Natalia LL in 1987. “Thus an artist is finite and limited by his body, but at the same time he presents his spirit by means of his body, reveals the common platform of infinite materiality and spirituality.” And later on: “Body art as an expression of artistic activity is probably the most honest method of artistic expression. It is art of the truth. Remarkable is also performance as an extension of body art (…) It is not (…) a new discipline but a different way of practising body art, the art of being oneself. To allow you to understand fully the essence of performance, I would like to refer to the description of Transfiguration, the metamorphosis on Mount Tabor. The Transfiguration adumbrated our own Metamorphosis and Resurrection”(5).
Having sketched the path of transformations of Natalia’s way of thinking from a rational and positivist attitude to a metaphysical one, I propose to examine her art not as one subject to temptations or the tyranny of changing art fashions, but as one subject to a natural biological rhythm with its unavoidable consequences for her psyche. I propose, what the artist herself suggests, to regard her art as being always, from the very beginning up to this day, body art, though manifested by various means of expression.
It is possible to divide Natalia’s work into two parts belonging to two essentially different periods, with a transitory stage in between, which, while joining them consistently, divides them. The first period started with “intimate photography” in 1971. Then followed “Consumption Art” and “Dreaming.” The second period opened with the 1987 series of “Panic Fear — Paradise Lost” and “Mystic Heads” to reach the apogee of dramatics in installations such as ‘”Vision Space” and “Panic Zone” of 1991 or “Alpha and Omega” of 1992. Seances of “States of Concentration” are a stage between these two distinguished periods.
Notwithstanding all the trends in world art, beautiful Natalia was fascinated by life and herself in that life, by her beauty, her body and its sensual sensations. There was in her some sort of narcissistic admiration, hedonistic delight in everything which tastes good and makes one happy, what is beautiful and sexually exciting. Her devotion to these sensations was accompanied by biological spontaneity similar to an irresistible need to sing. And that was her art.
The conceptual demands that one’s message should be objective, that one should have an anti-personal and investigative attitude towards life and art, kept Natalia’s temperament in check. As a result she invested her multiplied portraits of girls (consumption art period), girls who emanated perverse sex and with whom she identified herself, with the remoteness of a document, and at the same time with a sense of transitoriness, of something which existed only for a moment and then was gone. Natalia documented herself: the sensation of enjoying her body, the delight in looking at herself with admiration, her happiness and triumph over being — as she thought then — eternally young. She expressed all that by means of a special kind of body art invented by herself and characteristic only of her. It was discreet though fairly obvious. These series of “Consumption Art” photographs and actions such as “Dreaming” were tinged with eroticism, but their character and props already revealed a leaning towards the world of magic rituals, symbols and myths. What was most valuable in this art was the authenticity of sensations and experiences which were hidden under the conceptual corset. But from under the speculative coolness and the intention of a pure photographic record, they broke through to the surface with a lively pulsation of emotions. It was Natalia’s artistic truth which sprang both from her sensations and experiences and her characteristic reflectiveness. This reflectiveness enabled her, or maybe even forced her, to transform what was her own, personal and individual in her artistic activity into an objectified and general experience though saturated with emotion.
Youth, as everyone is due to find out for themselves, is not a lasting possession. As early as the mid-eighties, this was Natalia’s experience, too. This time the rules of conceptual art did not cramp her need to express her emotions. In these new presentations of a special kind of “body art”, Natalia arrives at the antipodes of her first manifestations of this sort which took place in the early seventies. At that time it was the serenity of an objectified message — now the expressiveness of tragedy. Then — delightful beauty — now — tragic ugliness. Then — expectation of bliss, now — the presence of suffering. Then — perverse eroticism, now — panic fear. Then — prime of life, now — a foreboding of death. Expectations of a future decked with good hope and a rational reflection on art were replaced by an awareness of evanescence and eschatological reflection as well as an evaluation of her own past. The old fascination with the beauty of body seemed to bee changing into a specific form of self-aggression or even self-destruction. She produced new series of photographic self-portraits in which her face was distorted to such a degree that it was unrecognizable. This effect was achieved by veiling her face with a piece of muslin and using the mimicry of the stark tragedy of death, a cry of despair or a sneer repulsive because of its ugliness and monstrosity. Self-aggression here consists not only in the fact that the artist distorts herself in the portrait but also in the use of painting to compound the blow-up. You can discern brush strokes on the face which look like painful cuts or searing flames or a separating dense curtain or signs of invalidation or finally symptoms of putrefaction. The transfixing expressiveness of “Panic Heads”, “Mystical Heads”, or “Vision Heads” is enhanced by their monumental dimensions.
Natalia, who was once so ardent in her hedonism, now, having donned penitential garb, is equally fervent in considering the problems of good and evil, engrossed in metaphysical meditations on the relationship between God and Satan. She falls back on Christian philosophy, ancient myths. She ponders over the ineluctability of getting old, death, and wonders what is left when a man dies. Hence the series of death-masks of her own face, hence the vernicles and the reference to Alina Szapocznikow in the “Destrukty” (Breakages) series. “Fluffy Tragedy” also has its eschatological roots, dressed as it is in the costume of the ancient myth of Cronos devouring his newly born sons. In the series of photographs showing Natalia’s face blown up big and disfigured beyond recognition, her open mouth swallows up naked little dolls — babies. Amid this environment — furniture and other objects as if taken a nursery, covered in fur softening the edges with its fluffy flabbiness. It is the same bitter and tragic irony which we find in “Panic Heads” with their tongues lolling out — there’s no telling whether in a spasm of death or in an abusive gibe.
This tragic and sarcastic duality is also to be found in “Platonic Forms” where geometric forms, usually playing an ordering and tempering role, assume the characteristic of additional instruments of torture — carries of expression.
The horror of oppressive thoughts about death and the transmutation of the body into compost matter becomes an inspiration for a moving series of “Eschatological Landscapes” in which the profiles of heads lying about, branded with symptoms of decay, are similar to hills overgrown with grass. However, the artist attains to the apogee of the tragedy of transitoriness in her installations of the nineties. The faces on limp canvases, exhausted and disfigured with grimaces of paint and agony, are additionally deformed by being thrown over the backs and seats of chairs. This invalidation of sorts or contempt of suffering and death serves to intensify the tragedy. The multiplication of the faces and their union with commonplaceness frees them from pathos and at the same time deprives them of the stamp of individual experience.
Natalia LL’s art is not repeated and it cannot be repeated. Extremely personal and strongly marked with the artist’s individuality, it has two essential qualities: a distinct character differentiating it from everything known in art and suggestive power of impression. Even if we could associate her work with the current of individual mythologies, it would not mean it would fit into this category in its entirety. For this current had nothing to do with metaphysics; it tried to substitute it. It also had no traits of self-destruction but rather of self-admiration. If one could detect in Natalia’s self-portraits some similarities to Arnulf Rainer, then it should be noted that Rainer’s self-destruction has other origins and another meaning. It gives an effect of an ostentatious gesture. It lacks the quality of authentic tragedy which we find so moving in Natalia Lach-Lachowicz’s works. And one more important thing: despite this load of emotion and though her intimate motives can be easily guessed — Natalia’s art has no characteristic of a personal effusion. Individual experiences and reflections have been transformed into a universal comment on man’s fate.
(1) — Natalia LL, Zdania kategoryczne z obszaru sztuki postkonsumpcyjnej. Permafo, Wrocław 1976, p. 16.
(2) — Natalia LL, Luźna przestrzeń (in the exhibiton catalogue) Natalia LL Puszysta tragedia. Lublin 1988, p. 1.
(3) — Ibidem.
(4) — A. Saj, Ciało i psyche (in the exhibition catalogue) Natalia LL painting, photography, installations. Zamość 1989.
(5) — Natalia LL, Luźna przestrzeń, as above, p. 2.
Translated by Henryk Holzhausen
SZTUKA I ENERGIA
Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu
8 XII 1993 – 27 I 1994