Critics Back

Art with Animal Thread, Adam Sobota, 2008

In 2007 Natalia LL has begun realization of the series of works named “Furry Hairiness”, or “Softness of Touch”, which are based on transformation of fragments of her earlier works, made in 1977-1978 as the cycle “Animal Art”. These earlier works, were staged photographs showing the author posing to the camera, half stretched on a sofa and partially covering her nude body with a fur. Through poses and gestures she expresses the feeling of pleasure given by softness of a touch, sensation of warmth, or possession of a luxurious thing, which additionally protects her from importunity of the camera eye. In 70s, these works were received similarly like her earlier scandalizing works from series “Consumption Art” and “Post-Consumption Art”. Some considered them as the criticism of consumptive life-style and the protest against art commercialization. However others – who did not accept new art phenomena – accused her of hedonism, extreme eroticism, or even pornography. But the following realizations of Natalia LL showed, that there is the reason for more versatile interpretation of these works, the one which respects the artist aspirations for pondering over paradoxes of human nature, or understanding body – mind relationship. It was also important, that in many of her artistic actions, she was inspired by Christian interpretation of body spirituality, which comes from the dogma of incarnation. She also stated it directly in several theoretical manifestos, such as “Body Art and Performance – Consecration of Human Body and Its Adoration in Art” (1984), “Loose Space” (1987), or “Theory of Head” (1991) (1). There, the fundamental point was to get separated from dualistic interpretation of body and spirit, but at the same time, to treat the relation between these two categories as existential puzzle, rather, then falling into extreme interpretations. In this light, “Animal Art” can induce philosophical analyses. Similar possibilities should also be taken under consideration when interpreting new works from 2007-2008, especially, because they consist of these parts of old photographs on which fur was registered.

Such way of creation, Grzegorz Sztabiński proposed to call “self-quotation” (2), and included it in the essence of post-modernist art strategy. Self-quote is the return to self-created works, in order to reinterpret them, enrich the amount of reflection, but also to integrate self-consciousness. Contrary to pastiche, collage, or other ways of “parasitism” on the past, self-quote means author’s full responsibility for the content. So the artist can be trusted, that her interpretations of earlier works fragments are the quintessence of themes that she constantly explores, and not merely aesthetical game with the structure of a requisite. If the status of these works does not seem to be obvious, most probably it is because the oscillating on the edge of banal and substantial message is characteristic to Natalia LL strategy. In this case her method is simple. A fragment of a photography showing fur facture is blown up, copied four times, then these copies are assembled in such a way, that they create composition of symmetrical, mirror-like repetitions along horizontal and vertical axis. The final effect is something that reminds mandala, where hair structure and its colourful shades build rhythmical, dynamic patterns, with clearly defined centre and axis of the composition.

The semantic self-reference of these pictures, underlined additionally by the title “Furry Hairiness”, is striking. Their compact and abstract form is in contrast with narrative character of photographed scenes from 1977, which appeal though the game of meaning between various objects: human body, animal fur, interior design, or such accessories like sunglasses. Possible practical and symbolic meaning of these objects create dense network of similarities and contradictions. In “Animal Art” from 30 years ago, animal element appears as human garment, so as something tamed. But also human body appears on these pictures as an object subordinated to conceptual strategy of art, principles of photo-framing, or popular expectations of aesthetic correctness. Consequently, the part that can be associated with spirituality, reveals itself through efficiency of applied technical procedures, which a human being uses to control matter, including its own body, its animal nature. Whereas in new works of Natalia LL, the animal element seems to be of absolute character through total focusing on the fur substance, which creates its own universe. A question may be asked here: are we confronted with the continuation of author’s earlier views, or with their radical change?

Inspiring for the evaluation of this situation can be the essay of John Berger „Why to Look at Animals” (3), written also in 1977. There, Berger stated, that the balance worked out for many centuries between humans and animals, based on respecting some kind of dualistic relation, has been lost by the modern man. On the one hand, human subsistence and traction-force systems were depending on animals, and for these reasons they were subordinated, but on the other, animals’ existence was perceived as an autonomic value, parallel to human existence. Whereas nowadays, animals are treated by humans mostly as raw material (industrial way of breeding), or as an element of a spectacle (watched in zoos, natural science films, animations for children, toys, or kept in houses as living pets). In this way – concludes Berger – animals have become fully subordinated to the human point of view, with no understanding for their individuality and pride. As the result, the inner dualism of human being, based on counter positioning of body (matter) and mind (spirit), also looses its meaning. The core of the problem is, that when one tries to overcome this dualism to achieve unity, this unity may appear to be merely one-sidedness.

Specific self-portraits of Natalia LL in “Animal Art”, could also be treated as a comment on this situation. An animal – reduced to furry garment – appears there as luxurious pet, the source of pleasure, safe extract of nature in an artificial environment, created totally by man. But a nude woman’s body, partially covered by a fur, also could be accounted for a representation of animal element, similarly reduced to a gadget subordinated to criteria of pleasure and luxury. Animalism of this body also became subdued, although it seems to dominate ostentatiously through sensual bends. The body is closed in a secure interior, or rather “framed by it” seems appropriate to say, in association with photo frame. In somewhat earlier series “Consumption Art”, where Natalia LL photographed faces of models grotesquely consuming bananas, sausages or jelly, these activities could also be interpreted as animal impulses (in the sense “natural”) reduced to artificiality constructed by human. It is not accidental when “a run”, the place where models show the newest fashion designs, is also associated with a zoo or a circus, as in both cases we deal with forms of taming to achieve pre-planned perfection. However, animals in cages or in runs have their inborn possibilities and needs evidently limited, when humans seem to flourish through demonstrating ability to control theirs and others animalism.

Concern over the outcome of these civilization procedures has been seen in many aspects of the second half of 20th century art. Above mentioned essay of John Berger, was inspired by photographs from zoos made by Garry Winogrand and published in his album “Animals” (1966). Also Natalia LL, after “Animal Art”, made many other works inspired by relations of human being with nature, and especially by these referring to universal energies governing the realm of all living organisms. From 1978 these were, after all, photo-registered cycles of performances “Dreaming”, “Point of Support”, “State of Concentration”, or “Touch of Devil”, where the artist related to possibilities of intuitive insight into the nature of reality. On the one hand, she was inspired by parapsychology and astrology, on the other, by texts of mystics, literary works or myths. In some realizations she appeared posing as priestess, mythical Brunhilda, or a witch, which means someone strongly integrated with forces of nature. But simultaneously, many times she pointed out to cracks and contradictions in these relations, which aroused her anxiety or even catastrophic moods (expressed in such circles as “Eschatological Landscapes”, “Panic Zone”, “Platonic Forms”). On the one side, the feeling of submerging in nature, on the other the need for transcendence, were the frame of the drama which the artist expressed directly in various works, as for example in the installation “We are sinking”. This drama could also be disguised in works, which at first impression suggest radical departure from the problem. Here, the useful point of reference can be the text of Andrzej Partum “Animal Manifesto”, published by Permafo Gallery, which Natalia LL co-directed/co-organized in 1970-1981. (4) There are such statements as: “Every animal is in itself exactly perfect as you are” or if the universe in its being possesses conscious movement – then its matter is a total animal.” In his manifesto, Andrzej Patrum mocks the attempts of rational explanation of consciousness and dictatorial ambition of humans, revealing itself among the others, in feeling to be superior to animals. And precisely the latest works of Natalia LL seem to evoke similarly radical standpoint as to the evaluation of human consciousness. “Furry Hairiness” has, after all, the quality of cosmic diagram, seemingly saying, that the universe is made up of pulsating animal matter.

However, it is also important, that this pulsation was expressed in the mechanical way. It is obtained through automatic photo-reproduction, and then transformed by computer multiplication. Apparently, it may seem to support the widespread – especially from the Cartesian time – opinion, that nature is a recurring circle of mechanical processes devoid of substantial development. Charles Baudelaire, setting up in 19th century postulates for modem art, stated, that just in this respect human differs from nature (5). He thought, that only human-made artificial products, which culture consists of, are indication of historical creativity and qualitative development. His point of view revived with intense strength in 20th century postmodernistic strategies. Still, the mechanical procedures are just a human-made creation, and this is strongly exposed in works of Natalia LL, which deal not only with nature itself, but with its artificially created image reflecting certain level of human consciousness. For the artist, the principle of the mechanistic to some extent leads us to new horizons but also should be the subject for criticism. Its usefulness in the process of abstracting the essence of the matter from natural forms, shows to be problematic. It is striking, that elements of “Furry Hairiness” in their mechanical composition create almost geometrical figures, as if aspiring to ideal platonic life geometry, but their final outcome is rather its caricature. This effect, is actually the reversal of the situation expressed in series of Natalia LL works from several years earlier, entitled “Platonic Forms”, where the image of the artist’s head underwent grotesque deformations when made to fit into ideal geometric figures. The conclusion which may come out of this comparison, is that mechanical procedures – although human made – do not explain specifically human consciousness, and on the other hand, this mechanism with no apparent reason degrades animal sphere. For humans, the most profitable situation is the one, where each of these spheres of existence uses its own way for development and does not exert the groundless domination over the other.

Adam Sobota
V. 2008

(1) See: „Natalia LL: Texts”, Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biała, 2006.
(2) Authorized statement of G. Sztabiński in: „Art. as Thought – Art as Energy”, International Graphic Triennale, Wrocław, 1995, s. 312.
(3) J. Berger „On Looking”, Warszawa, 1999, s. 7-39.
(4) A. Partum, Animal Manifesto”, text from a paper „Gallery Permafo” 3 Ist August 1980.
(5) Ch. Baudelaire „On Art. Critical Sketches”, Warszawa, 1961.