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Body and Freedom, Magdalena Wicherkiewicz, 2002

l think it is no overstatement to say that corporeality and a search for freedom have been the focus of Natalia LLs art since the beginning of her career. Although they have not always been the central theme, they can be found in almost every work. Her latest work Birth According to the Body, Birth According to the Spirit (2001), and Freedom Birds (2002) seem to fulfill these ideas most thoroughly. For this artist living in Wrocław the body is the focal point of her activity, and probably, the aim of her search. Summing up the whole creative activity of Natalia LL in the catalogue devoted to her monographic exhibition in Wrocław’s National Museum, Bożena Kowalska points out that the artist has always been fascinated with the body, the beauty of life, its intimate side, and corporeality. Now it seems that this perspective allows a more comprehensive look on her work from the period of conceptualism and co-operation with the PERMAFO Gallery in Wrocław, e.g. Intimate Sphere or Consumer Art. Natalia herself is often the subject of her own work, although at times she used the bodies of other models. Nevertheless, a strong relation of the work with the person of the artist is always evident.

Birth According to the Body, Birth According to the Spirit (2001) (1) is a photographic tableaux, a record of the artist’s unique performance. This work was first presented as a part of the exhibition Die Körperlichkeit des Körpers in the Pankow gallery in Berlin (January/February 2001). Apart from Natalia LLs work, the exhibition also included photographs by students of the Undergraduate Photographic School in Wrocław. The Polish premiere, which was an extended version of the exhibition in Germany, took place in March in the Museum of Art in Łódź. Birth According to the Body, Birth According to the Spirit consists of a number of different-sized coloured photographs hung on the gallery walls, which form the space of the exhibition. They induce reflection on the mutual permeation of the body and the spirit; they seem to obliterate the opposition shaped by European culture and to be closer to the Eastern concept of balance and harmony of the opposites, which is best exemplified by the Chinese notions of Ying and Yang. Birth presents the artist sitting naked on a couch (?) covered with a flowery-patterned cloth, while her face is covered with a white mask, a cast of her own face. The long exposure used for photographing the moving body introduces a mysterious, ghostlike atmosphere of permeation and ambiguity. This effect is close in its form to the cycle Artificial Photograph created in 1975. Despite the nakedness of the artist, Birth does not evoke any erotic connotations. However, if we do follow that trail of thought, we are inclined to treat this aspect of corporeality as a manifestation of individuality and freedom. The body is, after all, the vehicle in which we are born to this world (we are born naked), and through which our human aspect is realized. Corporeality enables the revelation of spirituality, the intellect, and any immaterial dimensions of existence. The bodily mantle is a source of various experiences, also those terminal; it is a link between us and other people, as well as the whole Cosmos. The artist writes in the motto of this realization: “the spirit and its energy result to some extent from the physicality of the body. A spiritual experience is the sublimation of reflections which are embedded in corporeality”. Natalia LL does not contrast the “bodily birth” with its “spiritual counterpart”. She does not evaluate anything or establish hierarchies. Her work is a symbiosis, correlation, and interdependence. The whole creative activity of the artist thus far is a continuous effort to utilize body art in a variety of ways. After all, the postulate of individuality can only be fully realized through the body. Natalia writes in the text entitled. A word on the Body (the Body in a Word) published in 1980: “(…) so it [the body] is unique. Its every gesture, contraction, paroxysm or spasm of pleasure is unparalleled, the one and only. In the civilization of gadgets and mass production, the body is a charming garden of personality. So, body art is above all the pleasure of manifesting one’s own uniqueness” (2). Through the art of the body which makes use of corporeality it is possible to experience change close to a religious transformation. The artist writes: “Art casts a spell on and transfigures the body ” (3). The body becomes higher, spiritual, worshipped being. It no longer belongs in the sphere of physicality. This transformation holds the essence of rebirth, possible through the matter of art.

The latest work shown at the exhibition Around the Decade, the Polish Photograph of the 90s is a summary of another very important idea postulated by the artist – freedom. The large format banner Freedom Birds. Tora Bora showing a ghostlike, blurred shape of Natalia’s body in white protective overalls and a gas mask, accompanied by pastel drawings of birds evokes various associations. We would like to plant this image in the contemporary world, among its threats and strife, to give it a concrete, factual significance. The artist does not confirm these conjectures. The mysterious outline of a female body, spread on white drapery whose only strong accents are the red of the cloth and the metal of the gas mask, seems to be silent and only refer the viewer to the title of the work. The masks (even prosaic ones as in this case), the attributes are a bit like rituals, a shaman’s summoning of powers or casting a spell on oneself or maybe the world? Or maybe it is a call for freedom. This role is similar to that adopted by Natalia in the early 90s, when she became Brunhilda, a witch. The colorful, pastel drawings of birds (themselves a symbol of freedom and being unhampered) which are an element of Freedom Birds look as if they were drawn by a child — they are frank and informal, and they ignore the stiff canons of realism. Freedom is the essence of life, the source of humanity, and it should also be the goal of each kind of art. According to the artist, only art is fully able to quench this thirst in our earthly dimension. This is how she understands the sense of her activity, starting from the first work. She summarized her quest in Art and Freedom (1987) where she writes: “Art is a search for freedom. Freedom is the aim in itself, and art realizes this aim. (…) It is only in the reality of art that we become truly independent, free” (4).

The whole creative activity of Natalia LL can clearly be divided into three main stages with a number of transitional periods. The first, which lasted from the late 1960s to the mid- 1970s focusing on the uniquely interpreted conceptualism, was above all the manifestation of youth and the joy of life. The postulate of freedom was realized through the vitality of the body and a manifestation of its beauty. Of course, all these realizations relate to the systemic stylistics and the rigorous methodology of conceptualism. This creates a peculiar kind of tension between the form and the content of the work, the latter containing not only conceptual reflections on the definition and limitations of art, but also a variety of problems of modernity (consumerism, eroticism, feminism). These original subjects allowed the artist to cross the limits of conceptualism. After this period, around 1978, Natalia began to search for possibilities of recording intimate states and phenomena which are usually unconscious and ostensibly resistant to the process of mechanical recording. Thus, the artist begins her series Dreams and embarks upon a path close to mysteries and obscure rituals. These works lead Natalia to the next stage, covering more or less the whole 1980s, in which she is clearly under the influence of Christian mystics and existential philosophers. This is the road “through the dark night of the senses”; through death, fear, anxiety, and ugliness to a spiritual rebirth. The artist at that stage creates work filled with dramatic unrest. These are images of Natalia LL recorded on photographic canvass, which are subject to destruction and a symbolic injury. The series Eschatological Landscapes is probably the culmination of these practices. In this work, the artist’s face lying on the ground irresistibly evokes the idea of death, the fulfilment of times or biblical eschatology. The following transitional period in the artist’s creative activity is characterized chiefly by installations, almost abstract spatial arrangements with the use of fabrics. Although these forms often evoke fear, it is a different, transformed kind of fear. In this period Natalia returns to body art and paranormal practices. She poses as a demonic Brunhilda, produces video recordings and colourful artistic photographs. She is now a fully mature artist. Her work is a consistent effort towards change, transformation. From this viewpoint, her latest work can be regarded as a rebirth, a transfiguration, an art developed after a significant spiritual change. The cycle Birth According to the Body, and Birth According to the Spiritis a realization of the idea of corporeality, and Freedom Birds represent a quintessence of freedom which can only be achieved through art. What about the future work of Natalia LL? Towards which goal will this profound transformation lead her? It remains to be seen.

Magdalena Wicherkiewicz

(1) Natalia LL: Corporeality of the Body. Birth According to the Body. Birth According to the Spirit, 2000 (typescript accompanying the photographs).
(2) Natalia LL: A Word on the Body (The Body in a Word) at Transgressions of the Photographic Borderline, BWA Avant-Garde, Wrocław 1989-1990 (cat. exhibition.).
(3) Natalia LL Corporeality of the Body (…). op. cit.
(4) Natalia LL: Art and Freedom, quote from Natalia LLs Art and Energy, National Museum in Wrocław 1993/1994 (cat. exhibition).

Translated by Jarosław Fejdych
Proofreading Kevin Hannan