Critics Back

Forms of Presence and Concealment in the Art of Natalia LL, Grzegorz Sztabiński, 2008

A photographic self-portrait by Natalia LL from 1978 shows her sitting in a slightly provocative pose, dressed in a short fur coat, with bare legs and her face hidden behind large, dark glasses. At first she is hard to recognize, but we can identify her easily thanks to a clearly visible name NATALIA, written on her top.

I believe this work to be characteristic for Natalia Lach-Lachowicz’s approach to art. Although she very often shows herself in her photographs and performances, and uses her own image or initials in installations, she not only reveals, but also at the same time hides her identity. Using an excess of signs that refer to her, she plays a game based on exposure and disguise.

In her early photographic works from the nineteen sixties an important part was played by the mirror. Even without taking into account the metaphorical sense of reflection as such – discussed by many contemporary psychoanalysts – and without limiting ourselves only to the concrete situation we have to do with in the photographs, we can assume that Natalia LL on the one hand wanted to perform an act of self-identification and on the other felt that her person was disseminated in the form of her reflections – or doubles. Later the function of the mirror in her art was replaced by the photographic camera. It also allowed her to produce images in an objective, mechanical way, taking advantage of the processes associated with reflection of light. Moreover, it allowed her to preserve the image and to manipulate it. Photographic prints – iconic signs – could be arranged in various positions and placed among other kinds of signifiers.

One of the most basic forms of labelling (designating) a human being is to use his/her first and last name. At times some first names become more popular than others, and when they grow to be common, we cannot treat them as singular discriminants without attaching last names to them. In the sixties and early seventies the name Natalia was very rare in Poland, so the artist used it as her signature. At the same time, however, she tried to deconstruct its identifying powers by complicating the relations between the name and the person that it designated. In 1971 she produced a work based on permutations of the letters thak make up the name Natalia, putting them down arranged in various sequences, like ATLINAA, TILAANA or LIATANA. This multiplicity of forms was supposed to point to the complexity of relations between the sign and its object, the name and the person it designates, similarly to the multiplicity of mirror reflections that can also reflect themselves, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to identify the person reflected in them. Futhermore, assuming there really is a connection between the name and the person, using various forms of the name NATALIA could suggest the multiplicity of egos of the person of that name.

Something like this occurs also when she uses a signature made up of her full name plus the two first initials of her last name – Lach-Lachowicz. In the second half of the seventies the name Natalia was becoming more and more popular and parents often gave it to their daughters, so it was slowly losing its individualizing character. The letters LL combined with it were, on the one hand, surprising and seemed enigmatic, while on the other one could not consider them to be a made up, artificial pseudonym since they could be easily deciphered as the initials of the artist’s last name. They did not allow to identify the artist beyond doubt; they were an element of concealment and camouflage, but they also possessed designative, indicative powers.

Experiments with the form of her first and last name were not just isolated wordgames. They were analogous to the well-known and critically acclaimed procedures used by Natalia LL in a series of works called Sztuka konsumpcyjna [Consumptive Art]. Various activities connected with eating were attributed different connotations here, mostly associated with eroticism. The objects and actions presented in those works turned out to be ambiguous and their fundamental nature was impossible to describe. Thus ultimate identification was also impossible with respect to the world of actions and objects. However, reality did not become spectral or illusory for this reason. On the contrary, it preserved its concreteness, but it was impossible to pinpoint its sense and define it.

Natalia LL’s interest in the problem of her own presence became evident in her art at the end of the seventies. The séances from the series Śnienie [Dreamings] revealed new reaches of this problem. The artist sleeping during a performance ofered the viewers her external appearance, but what was most important for her then – her dreams – remained concealed. These performances approach the question of identity in an interesting way. Does a person remain fully herself (or himself) when sleeping? Taking into account Freud’s views on the matter we could say that our dreams contain an extremely important part of our lives which is, however, concealed from our consciousness. Dreams are but a disguised form of the manifestation of a fragment of our whole psyche. Natalia LL, however, performed her dreaming séances in different places (for example, in a pyramid), and therefore she took into account not only the natural process of uncovering subconscious content of the human psyche, but also the influence of the external energy that modifies it. She was not only interested in the fact that human beings lead unconscious lives, but also in the complex internal and external interactions revealing and hiding man’s most intimate emotions and sensations.

Many critics consider the break of the nineties to be the most personal and authentic period in Natalia LL’s artistic career. Some are of the opinion that this is when the artist gives up objectivization, characteristic for conceptual semantic games, as well as other kinds of ambiguity. Such an opinion was, for example, expressed forcefully by Bożena Kowalska in her text published in the catalogue of the exhibition called Przestrzeń wizyjna [Visional Space] and held at Galeria Stara BWA in Lublin in 1991. Kowalska writes about “two basically different periods” in the art of Natalia LL and of “a transitional phase between them which connects and consistently divides them at the same time”. The first period begins with “intimate photography” from 1971 and goes on through “consumptive art” to Dreamings . The second period starts with the series called Trwoga paniczna -Raj utracony [Panicky Fear – Paradise Lost] and Głowy mistyczne [Mystical Heads] from 1987, and its culmination is Visional Space and Sfera paniczna [Sphere of Panic] from 1991. The first phase is characterized by the “objectivization of the message” and by “an antipersonal, studious approach to reality” which “under the corset of conceptualism” revealed “the living pulsation of emotion”, connected with the pleasures of the body, the magic of vision and the triumph of youth. The second phase is characterized by “tormenting thoughts about death and the transformation of the body”. The artist’s face is shown as deformed (like in the series called Destrukt [Destruct]), tormented and misshapen. Kowalska considers Stany skupienia [States of Density] to be the transitional period between those two phases. The art of Natalia LL was described in a similarly divergent way by Stefan Baumann a few years later who wrote that the artist in her series of works documented “herself: the delight in her own body, her admiration for it, the triumph of ”, and later “the image of growing old and death”.

Those opinions are based on the assumption that the expressive function of art is unambiguous. According to those who hold them, artists directly reveal their personality in their works, while the changes in their lives influence the evolution of their content and form. However, as I have been trying to show, Natalia LL’s example is more complicated. Striving for self-identification, she remains conscious of her many reflections in different mirrors. What is more, we do not know which of those reflections show the true image and which deform it. The photographic series Zdania kategoryczne z obszaru sztuki postkonsumpcyjnej [Categorical Sentences from the Sphere of Post-consumptive Art] is interesting here precisely from this point of view. In those photographs Natalia LL is shown in various poses that suggest different personalities – from narcisstic fascination with youth and beauty, through ambiguous erotic suggestions, marked by a kind of exhibitionism, to seriousness and even severity. On the other hand, textual comments accompanying those pictures resemble an unemotional, academic lecture on aesthetic problems. In my opinion this work clearly proves that art is not a form of honest, direct expression for its authoress. We can consider this to be a lesson learned thanks to conceptualism. The artist is revealed in his art, but is also hidden in it. At the beginning of the nineties this ambiguity was noticed by Reinhold Misselbeck who recalled the motif of “death and the maiden” in which – as he wrote – “…the belief that one of those elements is closely connected with the other is rooted. Death is present not only in the face of a corpse, but also in beauty”. This remark may be read as a comment to the division of the artist’s career into two parts, distinguished by the above-mentioned authors.

The proof that Natalia LL is sensitive to ambiguity can be found, for example, in her work called Seans Brunhilda II [Séance Brunhilde II, 1993]. Here the artist is shown in the pose of a dancer, with a wreath of anthuriums on her head (these flowers carry erotic connotations in her art) and a skull in her hands. In spite of the passing time Natalia in the picture is rather associated with youth than with tormenting thoughts about death. We have to do here with a combination of content which is even more complicated than the motif of “death and the maiden”. Stressing this ambiguity, characteristic for her art, Natalia wrote in her text Teoria głowy [The Theory of the Head, 1991]: “[…] consumptive art manifests the joy of living while being fully aware of the fear and the eschatological end of man”.

So – can Natalia LL be identified? Her art tells her story, but it is far off from direct confession. Her works often contain her images, her body is physically present in her performances, but this does not bring us any closer to an unambiguous conclusions. In all branches of her art Natalia LL reveals a certain aspect of herself, though clearly suggesting that it is only a part of a larger whole which is perhaps illusory – especially because the relations between her particular images often change. This tendency can be also seen in her latest works. I believe, in fact, that they are characterized by an even larger dose of artificiality. For example the photographic series called Aksamitny terror [Velvet Terror, 1970-2007] shows Natalia LL as a dominating, perhaps even somewhat sadistic woman. The artist is photographed in a black, low-cut dress, very high-heeled shoes and a whip in hand. In another series which documents her performance called Terror kobiecości [Terror of Womanhood, 2007], she makes gestures typical for women who play various roles in life. Some of them suggest childbirth, some seem to urge the viewer to fight for some probably worthy cause etc. Perhaps they reveal some features of the artists’s character or are the projection of her unfulfilled desires – it is hard to tell. What we do see is the effect of artificiality, the conscious use of expressive means in order to communicate the content emphatically. Certain exaggeration in Natalia’s gestures seems to suggest that she does not identify herself completely with any of those roles. Perhaps they serve her as forms of concealment and disguise.

Works from the series Erotyzm trwogi [Eroticism of Fea r, 2004] are similar. They refer to the earlier Narodziny według Ducha [Birth According to Ghost, 2000] and to Ptaki wolności [Birds of Freedom, 2001], being a kind of a multiple self-portrait. The artist appears in those large photographs naked, usually with a gas mask on, while her body is enmeshed in plastic tubes. The questions of “eroticism” and “fear” usually turned up in Natalia LL’s art separately. They were even considered, as I have pointed out, to be characteristic for different periods in her art. In this case they appear together. The ageing body enters an erotic game with artificial objects. Is this an illustration of what has become of sex in the post-human era? If so, Natalia’s vision seems rather pessimistic, unlike the optimistic message of Stelarc’s “third hand”.

The above examples of Natalia LL’s latest works seem to suggest that the dominating tendency in her art today is the desire to hide – to disappear while playing a given role, to find a means of artificial expression or to join those people who fashionably combine the human with the mechanical. Nevertheless, I have already pointed to the fact that the artist never defines herself one-dimensionally and does not identify her presence with any image. Not counting other forms of play in her works, we can find among her latest works realizations strikingly simple both as far the means and the message are concerned. Performances like Europa, ograniczenie terytorium [Europe, Limitation of Territory, 02.01.2007] and Europall 2007 (03.01. 2007) took place near Dom Pracy Twórczej [House of Creative Work] in Michałkowa. Standing in a large meadow in the hills, Natalia LL gives signals in the flag alphabet – i.e. she uses red and yellow flags to summon European artists to a creative convention. This system of communication is still used in the navy when the electronic, satellite means of communication fail or are jammed. In the case of Natalia LL’s actions their use suggests semantic catastrophe in modern culture. When modern channels of communication fail (in art and elsewhere), the artist refers to elementary means.

In photographs and films we see the tiny, almost urecognizable figure of Natalia LL with an extensive landscape in the background as she is trying to make elementary contact with other people using flags. We will find no dreams here, characteristic of the avant-garde in the first half of the 20th century, dreams of establishing wide-ranging human communities that were supposed to grow out of communities of artists. Here we see only a solitary figure with an empty landscape in the background. In a performance Europe, Limitation of Territory the scenery is partly covered by an enormous piece of white cloth. In some places it sticks to the ground, in others – it swells up. And this white desert makes the signals sent by Natalia LL even more touching.