Critics Back

Existence and Consumption in the Art of Natalia LL, Grzegorz Sztabiński, 1999

The art of Natalia LL is usually analysed in the context of the conceptual tendencies in the art of the recent three decades. The artist herself has not questioned this perspective. In her article Teo­ria Głowy (Theory of the Head), published in “Exit” (6/1991), she wrote: I am absolutely and deeply convinced that the conceptual approach is the greatest value we have contributed and may continue to contribute to the self-awareness of art. Thus the art of our time may be only conceptual although free of the orthodox and dogmatic purism. This declaration expresses the artist’s conviction that naive creativity, in the broad sense of the word, inspired by a spontaneous need and expressed in a direct, unreasoning activity is not so much impossible as dangerous today. It is dangerous first of all to the artist because it makes him or her vulnerable to all kinds of manipulation (political, commercial, aesthetic, etc.). This is why the self-awareness of art is so important: to know not only what one creates but also why. The artist should try to predict not only the form of the work but also how it is going to function; to enter the playground that contemporary art is aware of the consequences and (perhaps more importantly) equipped with the knowledge of the ‘fringe’ areas where the artist’s activity comes into contact with other spheres of life. This is why Natalia LL refers in her statement to the no longer feasible orthodox and dogmatic purism that informed Conceptual Art in the earlier 1970s. It seemed then that even if art was not able to shape reality (the illusion common among the avant-garde artists of the first half of the 20th century), it could at least achieve self-awareness and become a model of disinterested self-cognition. Today we recognise that the pure artistic self-awareness is not possible. Natalia LL realised this already in the later 1970s, engaging in polemics with the so-called medialism. The polemics is particularly relevant because for a time-being the artist seemed to have succumbed to the attraction herself. The contemporary artist may be tempted to believe that he or she has thus found a relatively stable place and a satisfactorily autonomous area of activity. It seems possible to concentrate on the medium by inventing new, hitherto unexplored photographic processes or techniques of filming (the same applies to the traditional disciplines, such as painting, drawing, and sculpture, if we regard them as ‘media’) and relish the thought of having thus expanded the boundaries of art. In fact, this is an illusion since the contemporary artist cannot escape from the dilemmas of the world in which we live. It is possible, however, to choose various approaches: active involvement, ironic distance, solemn reflection, or clownery. It is also possible to combine these attitudes.

A recurring theme in the activity of Natalia LL, albeit rarely prominently featured, is existential reflection. The artist appears to hide it under the disguise of permanent recording of reality and complex play with meanings and senses, the feminist ideology, etc. If one regards Natalia’s involvement with the succession of tendencies and trends (from Conceptual Art to performance to New Paint­ing and installation) as the only truth about her art, it may seem that she has been playing with what is currently relevant or fashionable. In my opinion, however, it is her strategy of searching for the truth about herself: the strategy consisting in confronting the artist with the external. In perfect accord, by the way, with Jean Paul Sartre’s observation that the path to self-knowledge leads only through the confrontation with the Other.

Her recollections bear evidence to the artist’s early interest in Existentialism. Natalia refers to the authors she avidly read as a student: Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Camus. She was also fascinated with the Italian cinema of the 1960s. In this period her interest in photography began. Later she wrote: It seemed to me that photography made it possible to transform the commonplace, banal reality into a unique and mysterious phenomenon. l think that her emphasis on the mysterious aspect should not be confused with any kind of fantasy or creation of illusory images of some exotic worlds. Her works from this period clearly contradict such interpretation. They are portrait studies, often close-ups incorporating a mirror reflec­tion. The unusual aspect related to the use of the camera consists mainly in halting or ‘freezing’ time. In his “Ontologie de l’image photographique”, Andre Bazin points to man’s primitive need to have the last word in his dispute with death by means of a form which will endure: the photographic image mummifies… time, saving it from destruction […] For the first time the image of the object is also the image of its endurance, like the mummy of transformations. l do not know whether Natalia LL was familiar with this text at the time. If not, she must have sensed the existential consequences of the pho­tographic medium. The unstoppable passage of time is one of the principal dramas of human life. The photographic image makes it possible to arrest time in some mysterious way, to mummify and save a given state of things from its inescapable transitoriness.

l think that this theme, present in the artist’s early works, appears also in some of her projects from the subsequent period of her involvement with the PERMAFO group but gets interpreted in a different way and in a changed artistic context. In the mid-1960s Natalia LLs experience of time and its photographic expression are informed by the psychological interpretation of phenomena. In the early 1970s her approach becomes more objective. Instead of expressive faces she records a common alarm clock. Permanent Recording — 24 Hours comprises 24 photographs showing the movement of its hands. There is a date on top: 17.11.70, the artist’s initials NL and her small photograph. It is a neutral image, much like a passport photo. There seem to be a hint of smile on her lips but no more expressive than Archaic Greek statues of korai and kouroi gently smiling at us. Does this imply that existential questions have ceased to underlie her work? Has the artist focused solely on the role of the camera as a transparent means of recording as she has stressed in the co-authored programme of the PERMAFO group? True, the camera lens is treated as a witness of fleeting phenomena that escape us every second but this does not exhaust the meaning of the work. The passage of time has remained a discernible albeit not primary concern. However, the drama inherent in the transient nature of human existence is not conveyed through facial expressions or gestures as it is a common practice among artists dealing with existential questions. The artist’s face on her picture remains calm and only the changing position of the clock’s hands alludes to the inescapable transitoriness of human existence and suggests a personal drama.

The urge to make artistic actions more objective becomes very prominent in the art of the earlier 1970s. Conceptual artists want to proceed in the same manner as mathematicians or logicians do, for whom any emotion related to existential dilemmas is only an unwelcome distraction from the intellectual process. Formulae, rules, operations, solutions – this is what counts. l think that Natalia LL has realised that the belief in the objectivity of the camera does not guarantee liberation from the tragic aspect of existence. By recording images of reality in a manner free from subjective stylisation and then arranging the photographs in an orderly fashion we do not free our-selves from emotional tensions but only change the mode of revealing them and the domain where this happens. Instead of being conveyed through expressively deformed images of reality, emotional tensions get transferred to the inner sphere of the artist and viewer for whom photographically recorded images of objects become correlates of emotions. Thus, our search for the truth about human life and its connections to art gets more complicated.

A popular cliché contrasts the external world of false appearances with the supposedly authentic realm of inner experiences and emotions. It must be emphasised, however, that contemporary culture deforms the individual psyche as well. The ‘external’, alien ele­ment is present not only in the external world but also internalised within each individual. Therefore it cannot be assumed that every-thing which results from expression is authentic and natural. Believing that we reveal our true selves, we usually express cultural stereo-types taken for granted. Language is the principal instrument of uniformization of spiritual life. We master its rules to make communication uniform. In the 1970 semiologists emphasise that language is the foundation of culture and society. Using a language, one must follow some impersonal rules even when one has something per­sonal to express. Perhaps linguistic structures determine our thinking as well.

Natalia LL reflects on these aspects in such works as the Word series or the Yes installation. The series of photographs show the mouth or sometimes a larger fragment of the artist’s face in the proc­ess of articulating certain sounds. The thick application of lipstick deprives the mouth of individual character; also the face, if at all visible, betrays no individuality. The human being has thus become an instrument realising the rules of a linguistic code, the maker of sounds displaying various differential characteristics.

A consequence of this reflection is the Consumer Art series. The arrangements of photographs show models representing a currently fashionable canon of attractiveness in the act of eating bananas, sausages or a jelly desert. The act of eating is shown in such a way that the uniform photographic treatment underlines the differences between the consecutive images. Thus the systemic principle based on similarities and differences, formulated on the grounds of structural linguistics, has been transposed into the realm of images. There is, however, another relevant aspect. The world ‘consumption’ referenced in the title, directly referring to the featured act of eating, simultaneously assumes a metaphorical sense related to sex. Thus, the range of the work’s meanings has been expanded. The fact that some photographs recall advertising shots no longer seems accidental. Advertising photography also aims at suggesting connections between the featured product and a broad range of pleasurable associations. While the linguistic code provides one possible interpretive key, the series may also be viewed in the light of the then emerging reflection on the consumerist civilisation.

Jean Baudrillard in his books written during roughly the same period emphasises that consumption is not some passive manner of absorption or appropriation that may be contrasted with productive activity. On the contrary, consumption involves active relations not only towards objects but also towards society and the world: it is the realm of systematic activity and global response on which our entire cultural system rests. At the same time, he stresses that con­sumption is not a material practice of satisfying needs but a symbolic act. In order to become the object of consumption, an object must become a symbol. And as a symbol it is being consumed — a symbol of sexuality, status, happiness, love, etc. It is the aim of advertising to transform things into signs in the audience’s consciousness. Later, purchasing the advertised goods, they would be buying something that in their perception is the materialisation, however illusory, of the desired spiritual values. Natalia LL did not read Baudrillard in the 1970s but her works from this period precisely analyse the process of the transformation of objects into consumerist symbols. A banana or a sausage acquire sexual connotations and thus refer to several rather than a single need. The objects function in several spheres of associations simultaneously. The individual’s desires are thus being manipulated, misguided and drawn into the area of ambiguous temptations that are being externally controlled and subjected to deliberate manipulation.

This assertion has lead to the following question: what is the artist’s role in the consumerist civilisation? He or she may become involved in the depersonalised system of advertising that creates needs by means of signs. Natalia, however, has made a different choice to which the Post-Consumer Art series is a testimony. The photographs show the artist seated in an armchair and striking various poses. Some resemble the attitudes already employed in Consumer Art. However, the accompanying “categorical statements” suggest that the aim is not to stimulate desires. The text reflects on art and its functions. The artist advocates venturing beyond the area of experiences and manipulations of art which are an attempt at integrating the world of things with the world of ideas. She postulates art as an alogical structure that should be self-defining. She believes in a possibility to free herself from consumerist manipulation by means of separating artistic actions from rationally planned social processes. In another text from the same period she stresses that art is the product of this part of our consciousness which is based on alogical cognition.

Her exploration of the problem of internalisation of artistic proc­esses begins with the series of Dreaming seances. They assume various forms: Natalia LL is sleeping in public, observed by view­ers during sessions in art galleries, or alone, for example inside the model of pyramid. She also takes pictures of sleeping persons. The Dreaming series reveals the impossibility to communicate or express a personal experience. The pieces concern the most primeval and intimate facts of human life which cannot be communicated but they do not suggest that one should isolate oneself from the world and remain confined within the boundaries of personal experience. On the contrary, they pose questions concerning the possibility of communication or co-existence on levels other than rational contact that is inevitably subjected to falsifying manipulations.

The first possibility considered is the incorporation of the body and psyche into the cosmic order. According to Adam Sobota The Fulcrum seances consist in treating the body as an antenna receiving signals from the entire Cosmos. Natalia LL would arrange her body in poses defined by stellar systems in various constellations. Then she moves on to the States of Concentration. In contrast to the preceding projects, aimed at the opening of the individual existence onto the higher order underlying nature, this time the artist pro-poses concentration on the idea and existence. Becoming one with one’s own self.

In 1981 Natalia LL begins to place her hope in the experience of transcendence. She continues the series of seances but also makes drawings and installations aimed at getting closer to the metaphysical and the transcendent. Some projects incorporate religious symbols, for example the crown of thorns or the cross, others express the longing for protection from political evil or death.

The artist also returns to painting. In the paintings and installa­tions from the Panic Fear series she does not render terrified individuals, an approach distinctly different from that traditionally employed by artists. She pursues a specific visual equivalent of fear as the basic human experience described by philosophers. However, in contrast to the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s, she does not want to explore the personal dimension of fear. Also, she does not believe in the authenticity of the free expression of existence through spontaneous painting although sometimes she resolves to the method. In her paintings, she repeats the photographic image of a female figure dressed in a closely-fitting black Jersey that deforms her facial features. This is not the story of the artist’s individual life but the representation of human fate — the universal experience of good and evil, life and death.

Her striving for generalisation becomes apparent also in connection with the use of symbols. In her paintings appear snakes and the Tree of Knowledge, ideal Platonic forms and traces left by the Devil’s touch. Then Natalia LL begins to explore ancient myths and, in a sequence of paintings and installations, she turns into a witch or the Germanic princess Brunhild. In my view, the key to this period in her art is Jung’s concept of archetypes. The universal primordial symbols enable the individual to return “home” and explore the personal unconscious in order to integrate the inherited collective uncon­scious into the individual’s experience. Considered from this perspective, the individual is no longer regarded as an isolated and accidental existence whose only certainty is death. Through myths and symbols, the individual can participate in the eternal chain of life.

The large retrospective exhibition of Natalia LLs works at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw reveals and underlines the continuity of her reflection. In a succession of gallery spaces the works defining the consecutive stages of her pursuit have been recalled. The exhibition also features a surprise: her most recent projects, completed over the last two years. These include monumental cibachrome photographs of cross-sections of a tree-trunk and paintings executed by gluing sawdust to the canvas. In the text titled The Spirit of Tree, published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the artist explains that these are the photographs or real fragments of the willow that once grew by her country cottage at Michałkowa. The machine digging in the ground to broaden the nearby brook pulled the willow out, pulverised it and spread the frag­ments around. As a result new trees have since grown all over the place. This maniacal, persistent vegetation of the tree has become an important experience for the artist who regards it as the leaven of Art as a Mystery. Perhaps, as Natalia LL suggests, the individual’s existence is not of paramount importance. Perhaps, problems get solved spontaneously sometimes since the dying mass of the tree has come back to life as matter and builds up the work of art?

Grzegorz Sztabiński

„Odra”, 1999, nr 3, Wrocław

Translated by Małgorzata Możdżyńska-Nawotka