Critics Back

Being in an Erotic Clench, Between Life and Death, Agnieszka Kwiecień, 2009

In 1974 Natalia LL produced a highly erotic work entitled Natalia ist sex. Using photographs measuring 24 x 36 mm she arranged them to make an inscription that said “NATALIA IST SEX” (the new version of this work from 2008 is larger, made of enlarged photographs glued onto thirteen plates measuring 60 x 60 cm). The photographs show a man and a woman copulating. Prints make up the name of the artist and they are grey in tone – the rest of the inscription is colourful. This work was first presented at private shows held at the home of the artist. It was exhibited in public for the first time in 1995, at the exhibition called Mit Haut und Haar, at Forum Schloss Platz in Aarau, Switzerland. Dusan Brozman, the curator, invited four artists to participate in the event: Natalia LL, Valie Export, Marina Abramović and Friederika Pezold.

Because the photographs are small, one should carefully approach the work in order to look closely at each detail. The letter N is composed of 17 pictures, and in every one of them the lovers are entwined in the act of love. The frames of the photographs do not change; they contain a made up bed with lovers in different poses. Further letters offer new perspectives of this intimate scene which the camera shows in a larger or smaller close-up. We can admire whole figures or just framed fragments of their naked bodies: legs, thighs, buttocks or genitals of both partners touching. The takes are dynamic, and minute details like fingers clawing the skin or tense muscles, which manifest strong emotions that usually accompany sexual intercourse, as well as exhibitionistic poses, incite excitement and pleasure in the viewer. On the other hand, including such scenes in a concrete representation causes interest in the meanings of the performed acts, not just in the savouring of their beauty. A large close-up of the penis and the vagina of the two lovers makes the viewer think about an act of movement that transgresses all boundaries. In this way the artist who tries to arrive at the definition of her own person reaches the moment which constitutes her as a person. Photographs that make up the first word of the work explore the nature of this moment and its meaning. They are the analysis of what NATALIA can be. We see the dismantling of the act of copulation into separate activities and images; we see it as movements that follow one another and are meticulously registered on photographic film in a way that resembles scientific exploration of the nature of the inside and the outside, or of the moment of the shift between what still remains beyond the individual and what is already inside. But where is this “inside”? It has not been registered on film; it is dipped and hidden, but still devouring the outside, and therefore present. It is a black hole, concealing incessant mysteries and powerful energies – and it just might signify the beginning, the origin of the world.

We see the figures from above, entwined on a white sheet. Nothing counts but them, nothing else is important. There is only sex. Pure sex as it is. A source of pleasure and play, of diversity and fragmentation. The lens of the camera is lowered and hangs just over the lovers. Thirty eight photographs which make up the word IST show our couple in the moment of sexual unity. In each of those pictures the viewer can admire the man’s buttocks. The woman is buried under them; she is the potential possibility of the inside and of receiving him. In this act play and partnership are not the only elements that count. The woman becomes the potentially life-giving soil. The eroticism of the universe and the energies that reign over it are clearly revealed here. Natalia LL declares that she is sex, that she is nothing but sex – and that she is the erotic energy of fertility. It is sexuality that forms the nature of her identity – such a definition of the artist is brave, vivid, strong and heroic. It was a youthful, spontaneous challenge thrown to the whole world and the society of the 1970s, a provocation, but also an act of almost scientific exploration (which was, however, concealed for so long in the private sphere that it seems to be more important as an act of self-analysis). The artist is a part of “fertile everything” which longs only to be, to continue to exist. This motif can be found in Bataille’s vision of eroticism, who says that although eroticism remains in connection with sexuality which equates a man and an animal, it is something specifically human, as it exists not as the repercussion of instinct but as a spiritual phenomenon par excellence: the destruction it causes (the rule of every erotic act is the destruction of the structure of a closed entity which every sexual partner normally is) reflects the most intimate desire of man to abandon himself, the sensu stricto communicative desire to return to the lost continuity that we keep nostalgically recalling. (1)

During the séance or session called Points of Support (1978), Natalia LL marked certain points in space that reflected the structure of stellar constellations and positioned her body according to them. Photographs on which this performance was registered show the artist in the nude in the Pieniny Mountains National Park. Here Natalia LL inscribed her individual “self” in the order of the universe. She wanted to find a place for a physical body within the form of everything that exists and confronted her temporal being with the possibility of eternal being. She confronted her separate entity with the infinite planetary system. In this way the artist participated in an erotic communion with the universe. Positioning her body according to the position of the stars, she stressed the connection between an individual and Nature – conceived as the universe. The above-mentioned communion must be understood as something that takes place both on a physical and spiritual level. Delving deeper in the spirit of pantheism one can see in this action the role of a unifying substance of which the whole world is built, and the aspirations of the artist that are supposed to bring about the understanding of her attributes and finding a place in the world constructed in such a way for her own body, soul and mind. The relations of the singular to everything else in general – or of what is small to the enormity of everything that exists – often appeared in Natalia LL’s sessions and séances (Dreamings, since 1978) or video works (Menego, 1997). Not long ago Natalia LL wrote: “I will never break the chains of what had already been thought, said and written, because my individual consciousness is an atomic particle of the infinitely rich magma of the human collective consciousness – and not the most important one at that.” (2) She confronts her knowledge and wisdom with the experience of all ages and epochs. Wishing to stress especially the connection of herself with the consciousness of the universe, she isolates her own individuality (conceived as part of the form of the entire world), consisting of body and soul – two features that function in constant conflict in the multitude of personal incarnations. In this respect Natalia LL seems to notice the reality of hidden wisdom and the need to resolve the above antagonism. Violations of the borders of temporal being, opposing social order based on rationalism which defines the place of the individual in the system, turn out to lead to the desired transcendence, something all human beings need, which opens man up onto wholeness, fullness and the Other, and temporarily violates his secure, thoughtless and alienated position. The means and the method of those acts of transgression are in this case art and eroticism.

Natalia LL is a bodily subject and a personification of sex. But writing with her own body she also uses others. Every photograph in Natalia ist sex shows a man and a woman. Their encounter makes for completeness and only then does it become a possibility of fulfilment. One can search for one’s identity in contact with the Other. As in the theories of Luce Irigaray where “the activity of the Other in relation to the subject means that it is the Other who begins to act and opens the subject onto the world. The answer to the Other’s call is, on the other hand, a constitutive moment of the subject’s identity, so the Other’s otherness becomes the initial condition of the identity of one’s «self.»” (3) Natalia LL looks for the definition of the “self” in moments of sexual contact, and plays with words in the process, opposing the theories that would like to make speaking of female pleasure impossible. She penetrates language in an erotic way without giving up the opportunity to confront it. She inscribes her own abandonment in pleasure into the limits of language, and corporality into the construction of her writing – into the structures of an ordering, wry proclamation, an artistic medium which in the sphere of art is a necessity that determines communication precisely within its limits. Identical forms of the images and a simple declaration only seemingly confirm rationalization or an attempt at the objectification of a sexual encounter. True, art enables a kind of sublimation, but the self-definition of the artist rather points to everything that sex can be and that passion is.

Natalia LL speaks as a woman who does not forget about language at the moment of sexual ecstasy. She is settled deep in it and defines her identity using it. She plays with words. Her work called Word (1971) is composed of photographs that show the artist’s face in large close-up. Her lips are moving as if speaking but the work remains silent and it is difficult to make out what she is actually saying. Do female lips really have to remain a silent symbol of the impossibility of speaking logically about themselves? This seems doubtful. Strongly emphasized here, they reveal their erotic power, become a sign of a potential discourse on pleasure and of an absolutely necessary expression of oneself during the sexual act – and that is why they attract and repel us at the same time. The uncertainty as to what they are saying does not allow us to make them a sexual fetish. Her manipulation and courage shows how well the artist feels within the limits of language, body and art. She makes up another sentence: Art is sex (unfortunately this work probably has not survived). Her utterances change into a sexual act, her speech into an erotic one.

In the same year Natalia LL produced an installation called Intimate photography (1971). It was presented at an exhibition at the PERMAFO gallery (1971) and at the Demarco gallery in Edinburgh (Edinburgh International Festival “Atelier 72”, 1972). It was composed of a specially isolated space within walls which on the outside were covered by multiple copies of the picture of the artist’s head, and on the inside by photographs showing sexual intercourse. This reproduction of her own face was an attempt at reaching something that was concealed underneath, something that constitutes the core of her personality. It also expresses uncertainty – the constantly repeated registration and the confirmation of one’s functioning within the realm of art validates the identification of artistic activity with the fact of one’s physical existence in reality. The placing of self-portraits on the outside could have been the effect of uncertainty and fear of having taken part in the acts performed on the inside. It could have been a separating and controlling action which cut the head – the home of the mind – off the body engaged in passionate lovemaking. After entering the inside of the installation, the viewer could discover an authentic need to make contact with other people and an idea of the moment of closeness and communication which ultimately influenced the combination of the level of emotional erosion and the level of intellectual control in Natalia LL’s later works.

Within the limits of the language of art the artist used the naked, physical body and its representation. She has been analyzing the status, role, nature and meaning of the functioning of corporality since the 1970s. Often founding her reflections on her own image and body, in time she has made many successive discoveries and re-evaluations. However, her early reflections, based on body art and its individual understanding, never turned out to be anachronistic. Even today they still confirm their validity and attractiveness.

In the work entitled Odin’s Transfiguration (2009), Natalia LL returns to German mythology. The work consists of three large-format photographs, each presenting one figure. Ascetic set decoration, central composition and vivid colours make the scenes in the photographs powerful and decisive. In the figure of the woman we can recognize the artist herself. Odin’s Transfiguration becomes a personal confession of the experienced Natalia LL who is wearing dark glasses, sitting and holding a “doubled” human skull in her hands. She is accompanied by portraits of two naked men: a young one and an old one. The green of the backdrop clearly points to hope, harmony and nature, but at the same time it unnerves the viewer, while the black of the fabric is associated with sadness, darkness and death. Extreme emotions and two different worlds are connected by the visual aspect of the work. In her own text called Mystery and Trembling. Odin’s Transfiguration, Natalia LL writes: “[…] in each of us there is a pinch of fear and hope, of desperation and exhilaration, and of Odin himself, engaged in the process of his transfiguration.” (4)

Odin of the title is a co-creator of the world in Nordic mythology – the god of war, wisdom, poetry and magic. The artist confronts his figure with an individual human being and shows two of his incarnations. At first he is a young, brawny youth with a serious face. His hands, one of which holds the shield while the other clutches the hammer, show that he is ready to fight, but also somewhat doubtful. He is not the fierce Odin here, eager to fight a heroic war thoughtlessly or incited by “his hot heart’s frenzy”. He rather seems a brave, far-sighted man, although doubtful as to his ultimate objective. The second picture shows an old Odin. He is sitting in a melancholy posture, resting his head on the hammer he is holding. The shield lies at his feet – he seems to have given up and submitted to fate – along with a white lily, symbolizing beauty and innocence that are not his anymore. We look at him with concern: he is evidently tired and seems resigned. Having achieved knowledge and wisdom that come with age he is no longer strong enough to be the god of war. Very laconically and briefly, but also literally, the artist presents the fate of man, sentenced to continuous transfiguration.

All the actions, deeds and exploits undertaken by Odin were supposed to make him acquire the wisdom of the world. In spite of all his efforts, the knowledge of the nature and essence of being remains a mystery to him. He has not managed to achieve immortality. He is left with the capability of metamorphosis and operates in the space between two extremes. As an old man he is immersed in nostalgia, longing after his youth and lost hopes. As a young man he is torn apart by uncertainty and tormented by fear and doubt. His existence is being rankled by the constant desire for knowledge and yearning for cognition.

Looking at this work it is hard not to think of human existence. About how life, youth and old age progress. About death. About man’s changeable identity. But the woman’s figure in the photograph is one, not doubled. It is as if everything around her changed and she was sure of the meaning of those changes. Her face does not express any emotions. Only men change and even though they want to control reality, the passage of time proves that only changeability is certain – and changeability is something one cannot control.

However, there is something out of this world in those men. Natalia LL in spite of their weaknesses delights in them and lets them show their power to her like Jesus to His disciples. The skull which symbolizes mortality is also an indication of the magical powers which those men possess without knowing it – the power to feel pleasure and suffer crucifixion or to participate in the creation of potential situations which structure language based on words like “sex”, “art”, “is” and “Natalia”.

The artist is now the owner of the skull, wisdom, knowledge and all the doubts connected with it:
“To be or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.” (5)

The characters are accompanied by a special attribute – a “malleus maleficarum”. In the film entitled Brunhilde’s Dreams (1994) Natalia LL personified the mythical Brunhilde – a warrioress who opposed Odin’s will and was punished for it. During an artistic ritual, registered on film, the artist symbolically takes revenge for the injustice and unfair treatment of Brunhilde, opposing the power whose image in her hand becomes a banana which she smashes and cuts to pieces with a sword. Reading Malleus Maleficarum we learn how to recognize and overcome a witch, how to protect oneself from her evil magic and how to mend its effects. Women suspected of witchcraft were unable to defend themselves – and like them Brunhilde suffers the tragic consequences of her personal decisions. In Odin’s Transfiguration the artist became a witch/goddess, calmly setting her hammer aside. The skull she is holding is no longer the reason for her to be burnt at the stake – as it is now certainly the skull that Hamlet once held. Natalia insouciantly covers her head with a scarf decorated with small (printed) skulls – because neither humour nor distance towards herself desert her. She changes into a woman feared throughout the ages by people who followed various fanatical ideologies. She has achieved knowledge and wisdom. She has been awarded the revelation of the nature and essence of being. She has discovered the law of the universe, immortal death, and constant transfiguration. We will never see Odin in “unearthly glory”. He is ultimately human. Only NATALIA has gained the knowledge of who she is, and she is now opening up onto something completely different – but at the same time, identical with her.

Agnieszka Kwiecień
23 March 2009

(1) Krzysztof Matuszewski, Georges Bataille – inwokacje zatraty, Łódź 2006, p. 33.
(2) Natalia LL, Mystery and Trembling. Odin’s Transfiguration, typescript used by permission of the authoress, March 9th, 2009.
(3) Joanna Bator, Feminizm, postmodernizm, psychoanaliza. Filozoficzne dylematy feministek „drugiej fali”, Gdańsk 2001, p. 206.
(4) Natalia LL, Mystery and Trembling. Odin’s Transfiguration, typescript used by permission of the authoress, March 9th, 2009.
(5) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III, i, 56.