Critics Back

Existances of intimacy in the images of Natalia LL, Agnieszka Kwiecień, 2011

Many interpretations have grown around the art of Natalia LL, mainly based on the feminist approach which emphasizes the presence of the problem of sexuality and eroticism as opposed to the social patriarchal structures. Agata Jakubowska isolated the motifs of confrontation with a male viewer in the selected works of Natalia LL, motifs of objection and resistance to phallic structures, when the male organ ceases to be the source of oppression for a woman, but she also turned her attention to the significant role of the question of forming a woman’s identity. To the adoption by the woman – against tradition – a sexually active attitude[1]. In my opinion the sexual sphere is the most important element of in the process of building the identity of the artist which takes place in the realm of art. The narrative of subjectivity in the context of eroticism was already included by Natalia LL in her earliest works. In the 1970s in Poland it becomes significant not only in the individual, but also social and political perspective. Which Jakubowska mentioned; a woman satisfying her sexual needs in the picture and her desire to gain equal rights in the sexual sphere was considered at the time a manifestation of pornography[2]. Eroticism is present in most works by Natalia LL, it only takes on a different form in time. In this text I shall look at Natalia’s earliest works which I consider to be the first important declarations by this artist in the the sphere of sexual interest, leaving aside, for example, her best known and commented works like Consumer Art and Post-consumer Art. I want to distinguish the motif of the artist becoming sexually active in order to shape her own identity, not as much in opposition to the phallocentric social structures but rather springing from the existential condition of man. In this perspective sexual activity can be seen as a manifestation of positive energy. Natalia LL declares that she is sex (Natalia ist Sex, 1974) – and I find its context in Bataille’s approach to eroticism: an individual becomes a part of the fertile matter of the universe. The activation of the sphere of female sexuality becomes in the social and political perspective a means of attaining equal rights, defining one’s identity on the basis of a positive look at oneself and opposing those structures which ram femininity into conventional schematic structures, forming the perspective of the existential possibility of understanding the meaning of existence.

At the beginning of her artistic career Natalia LL produced a series of photographs entitled Existences (since 1962). The seed of the fundamental problem which appeared in many later works by the artist in question – the presence of man in an image and the world – can already be observed in these pictures. These simple attempts at registering her own image, preceded by a look in the mirror, are a process leading to seeing herself from the outside, in her whole existential magnificence. One can suppose that the young girl from the photograph is at first afraid to look straight into the camera (in order not to see a more beautiful princess). As time passes, however, the connection of the artist with the image becomes more and more intimate. The investigation of the essence of man’s existence[3] in an image and by means of an artistic medium is possible for Natalia LL only through the inclusion of the visual representation of carnality into her reflections. Why did the artist who collaborated with the conceptual circles of Wrocław consider it important to analyze the dependence of the body, art and reality by means of introducing into the image a naked body devoted to carnal pleasures? Furthermore, why did the artist decide to publically expose her intimate and private sphere? And finally, did the search for the roots of one’s subjectivity in being and the world demand this look at one’s own body, registered in the image?

These photographs, the effect of the registration of sexual intercourse, which make up the work called the Intimate Sphere (1969), are the result of Natalia’s fascination with carnality and man’s sexual potential. We can look at them them as at invasions in the intimate sphere and as exibitionist acts of courage which break the sexual conventions of Polish society at the beginning of the 1970s. Certainly we can see in this work a desire to reveal (which in later works is transformed into acts of exposition) of those parts of the physical body which remain covered in the public sphere, which are taboo, which function as pornographic images and are censored. The sexual act is also the moment of showing one’s body to the partner – a specific process of opening onto what is outside and what will influence the inside from the outside (physically and symbolically). A camera placed next to the bed documented intimate encounters of two lovers. They themselves behaved as if they were unaware of its presence. This work is, among other things, the result of a game that uses the photographic camera in order to increase the pleasures derived from revealing one’s own naked body, putting it on display and making one’s own pornographic films.

An important aspect in the case of the photographs in question is also their use as a means to define one’s individual subjectivity. In 1974 the artist forms an inscription from these photographs: NATALIA IST SEX. The fascination with intimacy and sexuality has grown to the size of a factor that might answer the question: who am I? A similar declaration – a public confession made by a woman in Poland of the 1970s that she was enchanted by the sphere of sexual activity – could also be understood in political terms. A woman aware of her sexuality, beauty and youth, as well as of power and authority resulting from them violated the conventions of social systems based on the disproportions of what was male and female. Sexuality in the 1970s in Poland (as opposed to the Western world) never functioned in the public sphere. At that time it was difficult to find an image of a woman active sexually, aware of her body and of its consequences for her identity which takes control in the spheres hitherto reserved only for men. Although welcome in certain male-dominated professions, a woman who takes control or is a potentially equal partner in the erotic sphere does not fit into the official conventional model of a mother and a wife. This corresponds to the division into the public sphere where the status quo of female-male relations has been perfectly preserved. Sexual education was practically non-existent, in the majority of our society it remained on a low level, and in the family it was often considered taboo; similarly, effective contraceptives were hard to come by. These circumstances did not help the birth of sexual awareness and needs among women and reflected the nature of pasive-active proportions between the sexes. As Izabela Kowalczyk wrote: “Natalia LL pointed to what was absent in the reality of the times: to the discourse of a liberated woman, aware of her sexuality, dedicated to giving herself pleasure.”[4]

As a young artist Natalia LL showed her naked body in the act of copulation. The sexual positions she registered during intercourse seem both intimate and mechanical, necessary in order to reach the end, just like in a pornographic flick – as if this catalogue of scenes that show the bodies in their mutual relations of closeness was supposed to reveal the truth about the entanglement of the world in a mechanism of a sexual structure that rules the world. A mechanism that demands from man that he/she should surrender to the act of copulation in order to prolong his existence in the endless process of death and birth.

Natalia LL, aware of the possibility and necessity of the analysis of her subjectivity began her studies simultaneously on artistic ground and in the real world, introducing her individual body and the human condition which depends on it into the the image. Her interest was focused on the figure of man, but clearly marked by sexuality – it was a human being entangled into the matter of the world whose transformations and survival depend on its erotic potential (a topic which was to be continued in her later works).

The exposition of the intimate sphere was the effect of her awareness of problems that were basically feminist. As a woman who began an investigation in order to define her own subjectivity as situated among artistic actions and realities, Natalia LL made the naked body visible, the body which determines the individual experience of existence marked by sexuality. The moment in which the artist saw her own face in the photograph was marked by the question about being. Seeing oneself as the body given to the rule of pleasure inevitably led the artist to explore successive areas of extatic knowledge of pleasure in the context of the matter of the universe. The exposition of bodies united in erotic embraces enabled Natalia LL to define herself as a woman and artist in the context of the society of the 1970s and simultaneously ask existential questions about being. A radical manifestation of individual sexuality through the work entitled NATALIA IST SEX (1974) is also quite significant. Even if eroticism is connected with fertility (and in this sense also with the matter of the world), this declaration also hides the interest in the pleasures and desires of the body which lets Natalia LL define herself individually as an artist and a woman submerged in the matter of art and reality.

The scenery enriched by velvet colours and the attributes of power let the artist introduce a kind of relation which characterizes not only closeness but also passion and subjugation. In one of the takes of a work called Velvet Terror (1970) we see the naked authoress in high black boots and with a whip in her hand. Between her legs that are spread wide apart, on the floor, sits a naked woman with long black hair; her face is turned in the direction of her partner’s private parts. The women are touching which suggests potential pleasure. The artist is clearly keen on watching – she is aware of the presence of the potential gaze from the outside. She photographs herself in order to be seen. The physical closeness of the women and their cuddled bodies tell the story of intimacy, eroticism, pleasure, but the whip in the artist’s hand, her despotic attitude and clearly subdued position of one of her lovers reveal that erotic relations are governed by the relations of power. They change intimate affection into a stage on which dramas of desire and pleasure of sadistic and masochistic hues take place. It turns out that the feeling of intimacy is not only the effect of nice and pleasant experiences but also of a whole backdrop of passions not devoid of the influence of violence. The artist demonstrates her power and analyzes its possible imaginings through “sets with a whip” which is the symbol of power and authority here, as well as of the control over the body. A question arises why does Natalia, an artist who openly declares her feminism, become power incarnate in this work, power of one woman over another, exposing her subjugation and her own pleasure? Why is there no naked man between her legs? Do the relations between the sexes not allow to take advantage of the vertical, cultural structure even during an erotic game? Is the danger of transferring the experiences from the bedroom onto reality too high?

The mutual permeation of the space of art and reality engaged Natalia LL continuously, but in the centre of those reflections there has always been the figure of a human being, very often the artist herself. In the work entitled Artificial Reality (films and photographs, 1975-76), the authoress analyzes her own position in the integrated realm of art and reality. We might say that following the assumption that the essence of reality can be reached and penetrated it became necessary to include individual carnality in the image. The scenes presented in photographs and films take place in the private space of a flat. By means of the camera we can see the room in which the protagonist makes gestures directed at the potential viewer. A peeping Tom has been purposefully invited into the private sphere. The sitting artist spreads her legs wide apart, she points to her private parts and suggestively touches her whole body, adopting intricate poses. All these actions seem to be a seductive game intended for the eye of the potential lover. Their intimacy results from their banality (the peeling of a banana and other not very elaborate erotic poses and gestures), as well as from the scenery in which they take place. Again we have to do with a game in which the camera becomes a gadget that intensifies the sensations known to everyone who exposes himself to other people’s eyes. The registration of the private space in which the intimate performance takes place is at the same time a penetration of mutual dependences and permeations of the borders of art and reality. The intimate performance is a way to demonstrate one’s individual personality and an attempt at the analysis of the location of the physical body, subjected to the changes of time in an artificially created space. The revelation and seduction introduced into the picture is the reflection of the belief in the sexual dimension of real, physical matter and helps in the indirect contact with it in the picture by means of building an image from the structure of real and artificial matter.

Natalia LL in artistic space exposed the body which is subjected to the distinctiveness of existence set within the limits of the human condition. The intimacy of her works is based on building them around an individual human existence submerged in the form of the universe and on the introduction of the artist’s body into the narrative and its struggle with time.

In her work Animal Art (1977) Natalia LL plays a refined and sophisticated game of covering and uncovering herself. She presents herself in successive photographs in big dark glasses – and she is covered with fur. The artist finds herself in the space of a flat yet again (which can be seen in some pictures), she embraces fluffy objects, sometimes exposes her head, sometimes her legs or pubes, or she lies down in furs in high boots, otherwise remaining completely naked. Some of these takes are presented only in the form of very small photographs which accentuate the position of the viewer as a peeping Tom who tries to enter the intimacy of the registered and artificially created space. Of course, looking at Animal Art we should recall Rubens’s Helen Fourment from the painting The Fur, Breakfast on Fur by Meret Oppenheim or the novella Venus in Fur by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch[5]. Especially nice connotations are evoked by the picture of soft, fluffy fur which touches the skin. In such a touch a whole array of pleasant sensations and imaginings is hidden: how alluring a naked, beautiful woman is when covered merely by a furry coat. Under the animal skin a delicate, soft and warm carnality is concealed. This revealing of the interior, the purposeful revealing of what is concealed causes the generation of erotic fantasies filled with fetishes. The artist simultaneously hides under the culturally produced, seductive pose, her primal instincts and the potential of animal desire which continually leads to the realization of fertility.

In the intimate process of the attainment of one’s own subjectivity and individual nature Natalia LL becomes integrated with the matter of the enduring being of the universe, accessible during sexual extasy or while dreaming (which is another story, the story of the intimacy of a dream).

Agnieszka Kwiecień, 2011

[1] A. Jakubowska, Kobieta wobec seksualności – podporządkowana, uwikłana czy wyzwolona? O kilku aspektach twórczości Natalii LL z perspektywy psychoanalizy pacanowskiej [A Woman Versus Sexuality – Subjected, Entangled or Liberated? On a Few Aspects of Natalia LL’s Art from the Point of View of Psychoanalysis of Medicine Hat], in: „Artium Quaestiones” VIII, Poznań 1997
[2] ibidem
[3] The question about the essence of existence introduces into the art. of Natalia LL a narrative which perceives the world in the form of matter that unites everything. In this perspective man is dependent on the changes which take place in his body, and he is driven by the body’s desires. The artist asks questions that structure human existence: about the investigations of the essence of being, about the mutual relations between the spirit and body, about the erotic dynamism that causes constant changes within this same, above-mentioned matter
[4] I. Kowalczyk, Ambiwalentne piękno [Ambiguous Beauty], in: „Artmix”, [29.11.2010]
[5] I wrote about the fetishism and such tropes in the works of Natalia LL in a text entitled Dotykaj mnie! Miękkość zwierzęcej sztuki Natalii LL [Touch Me! The Softness of the Animalistic Art of Natalia LL] (