Critics Back

Constructions of a True Image Materialized on Chairs, Agnieszka Kwiecień, 2012

Natalia LL has been using chairs in her works since the 1980s. She has been building small installations from them or – since the beginning of the 1990s – large and complex structures. They are usually covered with pieces of white cloth, sometimes with photographs printed on them. Occasionally the artist projects films or images on them, using them as screens. She piles the chairs on top of one another, creating stacked forms of different shapes, or at other times arranging the chairs in rows or circles. Various armchairs or couches also often become elements of the stage-set of Natalia LL’s works.

The chair, a trivial object of common, everyday use, and a symbol of authority, power and social position. The armchair of an executive or a director general, the throne for which wars were fought, and an electric chair. The chair has been and remains an object of artistic practice and a generator of meaning – let us only mention here, for example, the yellow chairs by Vincent Van Gogh, the tautological chairs by Joseph Kosuth, the „chairings” by Andrzej Wróblewski or the impossible chairs by Tadeusz Kantor.

This piece of furniture lets us relax and rest our spine, in fact our whole body, and liberate the mind from the chains of physicality – therefore the thought for which the body is but a vessel may freely go its own way, forgetting that it is necessary for us to remain in the vertical position, sitting up. Sometimes the body has to adapt itself to the seat, forcing the muscles and the skeleton to submit to the given shape of the chair or any other piece of furniture – in such a case the body is treated as a compilation of smaller components. In other instances, when both structures, that of the object and that of the human being, are flexible, a mutual adjustment takes place – sometimes it happens that the body belongs to a man as an object could and would.

The images printed or projected on the canvas are distorted and expressive. The representations of the head – which in Natalia LL’s works symbolize everything that is inner, spiritual in man, thought or spirituality – are imposed onto a trivial object. In this way the plains of matter and thought are combined. In her text Theory of the Head [Teoria głowy] Natalia LL wrote: “I must show how important man’s head is in art. What I mean here is the significant content of the human head, which was very clearly demonstrated by Joseph Kosuth. The art that Kosuth proposes is a great glorification of the mind, i.e. of this human faculty that makes man different from other living organisms. (…) The head is not only the noble home of the brain. The head is also a creature that possesses a mouth which absorbs the external, like different solid and fluid foods, smells and sounds”1. The head absorbing external substances changes them into an inseparable part of the rest of the human body. In this way the body’s openness to what is external is revealed, but also something contrary: the inclination of space to enter inside. Absorption, excretion and transformation of physical and linguistic matter causes changes in the body, as well as in the mind and in the corporality of the head. A “chaired” head and face are, on the visual level, a decorative covering of a piece of furniture. Natalia LL places many such “chaired” images in exhibitional rooms; each of those heads symbolically contains the mind and, being the dwelling of reason, is subjected to an upsetting process of “being set down”. Multiplied self-portraits are confronted with objects. The meaningful background of the image would rather provoke us to place such an image in some more honourable place: at least on the wall.

Conceptualism appreciated intellectual operations which became the main pretext of artistic activity. What turned out to be important was not as much the form of the work as the structure constructed in the mind of the artist, transformed into a work and then perceived by the viewer. The chair in Natalia LL’s works is material, but equipped with the image of the head it completes the functioning of the intellectual sphere due to its founding in everyday reality. A multiplied chair takes up space, introduces a physically tangible stagnation and proves how deeply it is rooted in Being. It becomes an object changed into a component of an imagined form. Natalia LL examines the sphere of everyday reality, formulating the structures that make it up anew. She reveals the significance of common objects.

The installations Natalia LL produced in the 1980s usually consisted of a single chair covered with coloured fabric or wrapped in pieces of cloth (like, for example, the work called The Devil’s Touch [Dotknięcie diabła], presented in 1981 at a group exhibition entitled Labirynths of Self-awareness [Labirynty samoświadomości], which accompanied the International Drawing Triennale at Muzeum Historyczne in Wrocław, or the chair with a very misshapen image of a face shown at the exhibition Loose Space [Luźna przestrzeń] in 1988 at Galeria Mała in Warsaw).
In 1981 martial law was imposed in Poland and in 1982 the artist produced a work called Apage Satanas – a chair covered with red cloth and a scythe with the blade painted red. The work as a whole is formally frugal and distinct. The chair thanks to its placing in the context of political and social events changes into a symbolic throne over which Natalia LL performs exorcisms – repeating “away, satan”, she is trying to expel evil. The chair, the cloth and the scythe are the working tools that the she-healer uses when performing her liberating seances. “The burning emanation of evil seems to pale when we name evil, when it becomes deciphered and when its range has been delineated”2. Supposedly the exorcist at work must call his devil by its name. He must get to know what this evil really is.

In 1990 at an individual exhibition called Painting-Sculpture-Installation [Malarstwo-Rzeźba-Instalacje] at the BWA gallery in Wrocław Natalia LL presented an installation entitled Sphere of Panic. It consisted of a few chairs covered with pieces of canvas with images printed on them, showing the deformed heads of the artist. Next year during an exhibition at Galeria Stara BWA in Lublin Natalia LL built her first large (as it consisted of 110 chairs) installation called Visionary Space [Przestrzeń wizyjna]. She arranged the chairs in rows one behind the other and covered them with a piece of white cloth on which her negative portrait was projected from a slide-projector. Works similar to those described above Natalia LL presented many a time, modifying the arrangement of chairs, the images themselves or the means of their presentation, like for example in her Sphere of Panic [Sfera paniczna] shown at an exhibition called Kunst-Europa in Schloss Augustusburg in Brühl (1991) or in Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury (International Centre of Culture, 1992). In 1993 on three storeys of Galeria Baszta Czarownic BWA in Słupsk Natalia LL presented an installation called Alpha and Omega [Alfa i omega]. Much later in a text entitled Apocalypse Espylacopa the artist wrote: “The charming book of the Apocalypse contains all fears, terrors, anxieties, dreads and trepidations of Man facing the present and the future. The horror of the present is intensified because the flower of the future is comprised in it. The future, on the othwer hand, shall appear as Har-Mege-don, the Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End”3. In eschatological context the installations with images of faces on canvas become mirror reflections of ponderings about life and death. They become mirror reflections of the body of man who thinks about nothingness and whose body travels towards its non-existence. They are the only traces that can survive and give evidence to the once-existent, individual body. And the works in question were the artist’s reaction to the meanings contained in religious writings.

Also in 1993 Natalia LL produced a piling form – chairs were arranged in rows one on top of the other and covered with a piece of cloth. In this way a kind of a semi-transparent (as it was lit from behind) wall was erected, a wall on which images of deformed heads and photographs from the series called Consumer Art [Sztuka konsumpcyjna] were presented. The installation known as Energy of Space [Energia przestrzeni ] was exhibited at an individual show Transgressions II [Transgresje II] held at Muzeum Narodowe in Wrocław. In the 1990s Natalia LL was building vertical forms: Stair Pyramid [Piramida schodkowa] (exhibition Art and Energy [Sztuka i Energia], 1993, Muzeum Narodowe in Wrocław), Pyramid of the Absurd [Piramida absurdu] (exhibition Art and Energy, 1993, Muzeum Narodowe in Wrocław), Chaired Pyramid [Piramida ukrzesłowiona] (exhibition Art and Energy, 1993, Muzeum Narodowe in Wrocław), Installation XXX [Instalacja XXX] (exhibition Art and Energy, 1993, Muzeum Narodowe in Wrocław). The artist used also round forms: Circle of Peace, Energetic Circle, Secret Circles [Krąg spokoju, Krąg energetyczny, Kręgi tajemne (exhibition Art and Energy, 1993, Muzeum Narodowe in Wrocław). They were all similar to one another and modest in their expression. Their meaning is to a large extent given to them by the titles. The influence of these works lies in their form which organizes and marks the space around them.

The cloth Natalia LL uses, printed with the images of heads or faces, refers to the veraikon, it expresses the fear and the pain of existence. These pieces of cloth are like vernicles on which suffering – the deformed image of man – has been registered, the image of man who inevitably approaches death. The content of these images tells the story of the meaning of existence and of the truth of the matter of the universe which is dying of torture, in agony, and which is tormented by the fears of the mind.

Natalia LL, like the legendary Veronica, faces the miracle of the truth which is present in matter. The classification of acheiropoietos (i.e. “not done by human hand”) takes into account the possibility of collaboration of the divine power during the creation of the image. That is why the image generated in such a way is “true”.

The photographic medium employed in those installations is the kind of medium that allows us to copy the original almost perfectly. The image registered on light-sensitive plate and on the prints makes it possible to achieve far more accurate and numerous copies of the original. In some of the installations, however, the artist uses the method of screening images from a projector which takes the ephemeral and transitory nature of the image for granted and at the same time emphasizes the process of its appearance and disappearance. Therefore it plays with the possibility of a miracle performed once and for all, and becomes relative and dependent on the technologies accessible to man.
The artist uses white cloth which in Christian religious narratives symbolizes virginity, innocence and purity, and she destroys its immaculacy – imprinting on it the images of suffering and despair. However, in those activities we will not find the dualism which would expose the binary nature of the masculine and the feminine: Saint Veronica wipes the sweat off Jesus’s forehead and is given the image of God as a reward for her compassion. Natalia LL preserves self-portraits or images of other women – it is a woman who climbs the Golgotha in her works.

Natalia LL’s self-portraits contain the knowledge of man’s emotional state which can be read, deciphered, understood. Like mirrors they throw reflections in order to protect and destroy at the same time. This ambiguous role of the mirror-image in the context of the veraikon was pointed out by Ewa Kuryluk in her book Veronica and Her Cloth [Weronika i jej chusta]. The authoress (also an artist who uses cloth with prints of different figures and of chairs) quoted the mythological tale of the Medusa changed into a monster that had curling snakes instead of hair and whose gaze could kill. What facilitated the killing of Medusa was the shield of the goddess Minerva which reflected the gaze of the beast and at the same time registered its image. Later this true reflection of Medusa’s face on the shield helped to fend off Minerva’s enemies4. This mythological tale and the meanings of mirror-like reflections also give sense to the installations by Natalia LL. Her multiplied portraits perform the function of mirror surfaces in which the face is reflected and which in turn may keep enemies at bay but which also protect the artist herself. She sees herself in them and discovers the meaning of the existence of man immersed in erotic ecstasy like Medusa who was changed into a monster when lying in the embrace of her lover. These images are echoes of the acheiropoietos which were copied so that they could cure, save and perform miracles. In medieval representations of the cloth of St. Veronica, Christ’s face expresses suffering and is deformed by agony (contrary to Byzantine images which show the “true” picture). The faces in the contemporary veraikons by Natalia LL are also deformed – they present man who only reluctantly believes in the miracle of Incarnation.

Religious painting often presented the cloth with the image of Jesus spread on the cross. In the works by Natalia LL the pieces of cloth are hung on chairs. And so the chairs lose their original usefulness, they become objects of religious cult and symbolic places of suffering.

Natalia LL’s installations also resemble ambalages – they are wrapped chairs, packed in cloth like Christo’s objects. Covered. Crosses dressed in veraikons. Crosses as trivial objects. Crosses as everyday reality.

Tadeusz Kantor once explained his interest in a certain type of foldable chair: “I had to look for something (…) which would be/was completely meaningless, which would be an object of the lowest rank, and then what somehow arrived from the past was – a chair. A chair, which really is an object of the lowest rank and of common use”5.

Kantor’s chairs, as places of the artist’s possible presence, in the hands of Natalia LL become altars on which the mysteries of Incarnation are performed. They sometimes take on the monumental form of separate constructions. Consequently they assume the meaning of private altars which enable contemplation, which build the space of isolation and let us speak of ultimate matters. Pictures with images set in the context produced in such a way allow for narratives about ultimate matters. The heads caught in those pictures, permanently open because of holes in them, additionally manifest their turn towards death. They are imprints of the face of a man going to his death. They are reflections which emanate fear, the evidence of the existence of man on his way towards the end of his life. In the copied and crucified faces by Natalia LL one can hardly look for peace, as they are full of horror and panic.

Copying the images of her face, Natalia LL almost obsessively tries to domesticate its externality. She keeps reworking the meaning of the face, trying at the same time to free herself from the image that haunts her as well as to get used to it, to get to know its changeable forms. Because the faces thrown onto chairs differ from each other, they are subject to double deformation – already deformed as images, they are later additionally deformed as the result of their hanging on the back of the chair.

Some of the installations discussed above are also forms of self-reflection about the individual creative road. The artist projects her earlier photographic works on screens of cloth in the background. That is the way it was in 2011 in the Zachęta gallery in Warsaw at an exhibition called Three Women [Trzy kobiety]. A photo from the series Consumer Art was projected onto a large construction built of chairs. The artist confronted the images produced much earlier with spatial forms constructed only contemporarily. Natalia LL changes the medium of otherwise well-known works, transforms them into ephemeral constructions. What is the function of such an operation?

The process of the projection of images strips them of their materiality. The movement accompanying this process introduces dynamics and changeability. These images may disappear at any time, they may be switched off, replaced by others. Projecting images onto slightly transparent pieces of cloth through which the shapes of chairs can be seen makes them look like ephemeral reflections, unreal, incidental, unstable. The faces of the models change into memories; into images stuck in the mind, recalled and confronted with the constructions of the here and now. Older works by Natalia LL appear to be like phantoms of the past. Stripped of physicality they enter into contact with stable, solid matter and combine with it, producing new qualities registered yet again by means of instruments or by the human mind, they are material again or merely sensual.

The awareness of transitoriness confronted with real and trivial matter makes for the significant message in Natalia LL’s installations built of chairs. She finds that the all too well-known form of objects of common use is connected with reality and that its roots may be found in Being as such – which seems to be the essence of humanity. The act of sitting in the art of Natalia LL is the manifestation of the need for stability, as well as of the affirmation of everyday life. It is the desire for impossible constancy which appears after all, in spite of the presence of the face of a suffering man.

Agnieszka Kwiecień