Critics Back

Interview with Natalia LL, Krzysztof Jurecki, 2001 – 2002

Krzysztof Jurecki: How did you become interested in photography during your studies in Wrocław in the early 60s.?

Natalia LL (pseudonym of Natalia Lach-Lachowicz): I started to take photographs in 1960 during my studies in Wrocław, I began a prerequisite course in photography taught by Prof. Bronisław Kupiec in my third year of studies. It was an introductory course which focused on the basics of photography as an auxiliary method for glass and graphic design. The Wrocław University of Arts in the 1950s had a special character. The lectures and workshops were held by renowned personalities, such as Prof. Stanisław Dawski, Prof. Eugieniusz Geppert, Prof. Karol Estreicher from Kraków, and Prof. Bronisław Kupiec – an apprentice and friend of Prof. Witold Romer from Lvov. With his lively personality, Prof. Dawski valued the activity of the Photographic Society of Lvov which gathered such luminaries as Witold Romer, Janina Mierzecka, Bronisław Kupiec, and others. In 1960 Prof. Dawski created a Photographic Workshop in the Department of Glass which was run by Prof. Kupiec and assisted by Henryk Wilkowski. The latter lent and then sold me a single-lens Pilot Super camera made in Germany in 1943.

K. J.: How did you understand photography at the time? How has its status changed during your whole creative activity? Did its role change, compared to other artistic areas, in later years?

N. LL: When I first came to Wrocław, I wanted to be a painter, since I had loved painting from my childhood years. For some inexplicable reason, my paintings didn’t meet with the approval of Prof. Geppert, whom I considered the authority at the time. When I finished my second year of studies, I was able to choose my specialization. I tried to enroll in Prof. Geppert’s painting workshop but failed. Thank God for that! I would probably have become a “well-behaved” painter and a mediocre artist. Prof. Dawski convinced me to join the glass design workshop where I first came in touch with photography. As I said, I loved painting, drawing, and sculpture. These were my husbands or wives of convenience. However, I was quickly seduced by photography. She became my lover with whom I betrayed the classic disciplines of art. After years I have to say that photography possesses such a wondrous magic and power that I can’t free myself. It’s my drug.

K. J.: What were your inspirations and influences at the time?

N. LL: I was fascinated by the poetics of Italian realist movies, and I read Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Camus. While doing my photography homework, I understood that the discipline gave an opportunity of visual creation, so different from graphics or painting. It seemed to me that photography enables one to change the ordinary, banal reality into a unique and mysterious event, a phenomenon. I’m sure that my photographic activities were an attempt to find uniqueness and originality in the surrounding world. It was fascinating for me that the apparently credible photograph showed this unusualness in a more complete and natural way than graphics or painting. I would call my photographic activity existential.
I remember my first photo “séances”, when my sister was a model. The university authorities sent these photographs together with other students’ works to the 1st Festival of Student Photography in Toruń, in 1961. The festival was hosted by Czesław Kuchta and his associate Józef Robakowski. The jury included two giants: Janina Gardzielewska and Zofia Rydet. By unanimous decision I was awarded the Grand Prize of the festival, and the award became a great incentive and inspiration for my later work. I decided that apart from painting and glass, I should also occupy myself with photography.

K. J.: How did you become interested in conceptualism at the beginning of the 70s.

N. LL: I think it started in the late 1960s, after my experiences with the so-called “face geography” photographs. Those were series of close-framed photographs. If fact, these were fragments of a face enlarged to larger-than-life size. But these esthetic exercises were not enough for me. I started on a big adventure in serial photographs. I aimed for art which would signify self-search and a guest for new visual and intellectual areas. I began to create new fortes of erotic photography (1968—69), in which I tried to show the untranslatability of feeling received from intimate, erotic contact.
In the late 1960s I was a member of the ZPAF (Union of Polish Art Photographers) Artistic Council, where I met Zbigniew Dłubak. Through the gallery Pod Mona Lisa, which opened in Wrocław in 1968, l met a number of painters belonging to the Wrocław Group. That association produced some of the more important artists of conceptual art. An important event for me was the exhibition entitled the Wrocław Symposium 70 (March 1970) in which Dłubak, Andrzej Lachowicz, and I presented The Optical Instruments Kit. The project was accompanied by many hours of discussion, involving also other artists, during which a new idea emerged. The essential part of this idea was the artistic process rather than result. The new project involved very simple optical instruments (an optical bench and a set of periscopes) which were to be added to the urban architecture of Wrocław so that the inhabitants could look at the banal reality of the housing settlement from a different perspective. The project, like many others, was never implemented.
In August 1970 Lachowicz, Dłubak and I participated in the plenary painting session in Osieki. At the following exhibition I presented The Upper Oder Permanent Record and The Arrest Warrant. These were attempts at conceptual art, in which I replaced verbal directives with a photograph accompanied by text instruction. That event brought on my first disagreement with other participants — traditional painters whose conventional education and a certain degree of conservatism made them distance themselves from photography. They regarded photographs as something inferior and substandard to pure painting. The event also gave birth to PERMAFO. The PERMAFO project was written and printed in December 1970 (the name PERMAFO was Lachowicz’s idea; the word is derived the term permanent art form, which he had previously designed). We needed to find a place for exhibiting our work, as well as a form of exhibition. Apart from the three of us, the project included Antoni Dzieduszycki — an active art critic at the time. We wanted to show the photograph as a transparent record in which any decorum or visual illusion is minimized. Originally PERMAFO (permanent formalization) was planned as a project revealing phenomena aimed at examining rather than expressing art. Due to technical limitations, for example łąck of funds and space, the first PERMAFO exhibition consisting of my own Intimate Photographs taken in 1969-1970 wasn’t opened until February 1971. The exhibition held in the Club of Creative Unions in Wrocław was opened by Jerzy Ludwiński and Dłubak who delivered inaugurating speeches. However, the whole affair ended in scandal, and after a few days the exhibition was shut down because of censorship.

K. J.: So it was one of the first shows of so-called critical art. l view the absence of your work from the 1970s at the Dangerous Liaisons exhibition (Galeria Arsenał, Poznań 2002) as a great mistake. What was not shown at the Poznań gallery found its place at the latest Collection at Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej in Warsaw open in 2001. The exhibition included your work created during two very important periods of your activity: the early 1970s -Consumer Art, and the 1990s – Artificial Photograph which were a precursor to postmodernism. Consumer Art became the unwritten manifesto of the Polish feminist movement. Were these works created through a stylistic evolution or through a preconceived plan?

N. LL: In the light of what I said before, it was a consistently formulated program. The Intimate Photograph and Consumer Art were attempts at grammaticalization. Through my transparent photograph l wanted to achieve the same effect as conceptual artists did with the word. I notice that a work which includes not one but a number of pictures arranged in a temporal or aleatoric sequence takes a whole new meaning. The Consumer Art and Categorical Sentences in Post-Consumer Art were attempts at the use of visual grammar. The photographs of a young girl eating bananas, hot dogs, jelly and pudding conveyed great meaning on their own. Yet it is only by juxtaposing them that we begin to see something invisible, something happening between the individual perceptions, something which is not shown, yet possible to imagine. I made the Permanent photographs with the intention of revealing the essence and philosophical premise of the photograph.
Feminism came later. I established an important contact with the renowned art critic Lucy Lippard who wrote about me, l think, in December 1971. She sent me the newspaper manifesto by Gisela Kaplan and said I should be the Polish, or even Eastern European agent of the feminist movement. The Kaplan manifesto was quite funny and its motto incredibly catchy. It said that men, by some unexplained reason, pride themselves on the thing between their legs (it’s a shame my earlier correspondence with various feminists vanished in the flood of 1997 in Wrocław. My darkroom where I kept the letters was flooded). The philosophy of the manifesto was banal and not very innovative. It postulated that the woman should achieve what the women of the real socialist 1970s Poland had already achieved. Apart from the hardships of maternity, women in our reality had already received the right of suffering, hard work and superhuman responsibility. So these feminists were a bit funny for me. l was irritated by the faith of feminists who wanted to create their own feminist theory and history of art. But since they chose me as their representative, I restrained from criticizing their ideals. In fact, l think that a true understanding of the philosophical aspect of femininity and feminism can only be fulfilled through intimate contact with a man. The Orgasm is a gift of gods. Even prudish Catholicism revered orgasm and sex. In my Consumer Art, feminists saw a clever and primeval struggle against the cult of the phallus and masculinity. Consumer Art was reproduced at the influential exhibition entitled Freuen Kunst — Neuen Tendenzes, on posters and invitation cards, as a symbol of feminism. For me it was a manifestation of life of vitality.

K. J.: Which male and female artists of the 1970-80s do you respect? Let us not restrict ourselves to just feminism.

N. LL: I respect those artists whom I have met personally and become friends with, especially Joseph Kosuth — the “pontiff” of conceptualism. Lachowicz and I used to correspond with him. Also, Carolee Schneemann — the so called beautiful body. Carolle is for me the ideal of an artist. Her sexual orgies brought her closer to the core of art. Valie Export is also a great artist — she’s a bit of a sadist who loves to humiliate men…

K. J.: She controlled her husband, another famous artist Peter Weibel, as if he were a dog on a leash! She also anticipated the work of Oleg Kulig, popular in the 1990s, who added a political aspect to his intermedial realizations. Corning back to your creative work, do you consider your Dreaming performance a step back from feminist ideas?

N. LL: You couldn’t be more wrong. Dreaming was a totally different thing. A certain idea occurred to me during a dream, and out of curiosity l began to repeat the same séances by means of transcendental meditation. It was an attempt at the visualization of my intimate “inner self”. These experiences made me realize how difficult it is to reveal the inside by means of the outside, and how untranslatable is the inner experience. I’ll tell you an anecdote. Dreaming was to be shown in Warsaw’s Galeria Studio in mid May 1978. l planned to install a hospital bed and a projector showing a colorful slide of me naked on the bedclothes. For organizational reasons, I had to specify what I needed for the exhibition. The gallery manager and a friend of mine Zdzisław Sosnowski was a bit astonished, but he arranged a hospital bed with bedclothes. Now, on the very opening day l slept and dreamt, but not in the gallery in Warsaw, but on an operating table in a Wrocław clinic. Although I’d known nothing about the disease, it must have developed in my subconscious. The fact that I came so close to death totally discouraged me from “materialisms” and shook my belief in the rationality of the world.

K. J.: Hence my previous question about a departure from feminist ideas in the second half of the 1970s which had always, or at least very often, been connected with materialism and empirism, but never with idealism and inner illumination. Feminism, although important as a critical attitude revealing another perception of reality and the world, reduces the whole question to that which is mundane and seen from the other — feminine perspective, often in an aggressive and provocative way, which finds its expression in its marriage with an avant-garde attitude.

N. LL: After Dreaming I gave the performance entitled Constellation. The main premise of this work was the perception of my body as an aerial. My body on the ground (a grassy meadow in the Pieniny Mountains) was supposed to be a copy of a geometric pattern (star constellations seen from the earth, e.g. Taurus, Cassiopeida. I impressed the individual stars with my hands, legs, and stomach. In order to reveal this to the audience I made a photographic record of the activity. Later on l staged a series of shows in a wooden pyramid built without the use of nails in the Stabłowice housing settlement on the outskirts of Wrocław. Those were séances of inner art, a true experience for me. The viewer was left only with the pyramid and very modest and incomplete photographic records. My fascination with the internal and intimate character of art convinced me that a full “transmission” of art is possible only by direct participation in the work of art, by an act of good will.

K. J.: How do see your work of the 1980s, which dealt with the issues of mysticism and Satanism, so different from conceptualism and feminism?

N. LL: I strive to complement my idealistic or philosophical motivation with a casual reflection on books which will better illustrate the meaning of my work. Undoubtedly, I was under the influence of a certain existentialist fashion popular in the 1960s during and after my studies. De Sade and Bataille definitely influenced my later erotic photographs. The spasm of ecstasy is a stale of transcendental suspense which allows one to transcend the existential perspective. It is the experience of both oneself and death.
The fact that l came close to actual death convinces me that uniqueness and individuality are a driving force of every activity. Hence my fascination with the mystical literature of St. Theresa, St. John of the Cross — especially The Road to Mount Carmel, and St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in which l discovered, to my horror, the near sameness of mystical and erotic experience! It is surely blasphemy from the perspective of orthodoxy. However, in my opinion, these extreme, radical states have a common motif.

K. J.: Art is such a broad notion, whose definition has changed many times over history. What is it for you?

N. LL: By definition the aim of art, which, in my view, is both an altruistic game, and a tragedy, is an artificial research into the part of our reality which is defined by both the Absolute and Satan. Art is a sensitive instrument reacting to extreme phenomena which records with the precision of a seismograph the states of our spirit, Persona and Antipersona which, as elements of good and evil, divinity and devilishness, are also parts of ourselves. The experience of art seems to reveal the true calling of the artist – to name and define yearning and despair, fear and trepidation on the one hand, and hope and love which are true daughters of goodness, on the other.

K. J.: Your work is beginning to embrace personalistic existentialism, or perhaps that always has been present in your creative activity, for example Panic Heads. What is the place of philosophy, or its individual offshoots, in your creative work as a whole?

N. LL: My answer to this quite relevant question of yours will help you decipher my personality. Of course, I am charmed by the refinement of Jaspers and Heidegger. I’ve always been fascinated by Husserl. His phenomenology and the concept of eidetic, essential, or rather essentialist cognition has always brought me closer to holism, i.e. seeing things and realities as whole entities. But, in fact, I am much more inclined to the writings of mystics. These sharp and often course sentences build up my philosophy, thoughts, and theories much more than even the most refined texts by Susan Sontag. I think that the writings of the mystics are much closer to the essence of my art, as art for me is a kind of mystical experience!

K. J.: Two of your works made in 2000, Birth According to the Spirit and Birth According to the Body, are a return to the issues dealt with in Post-Consumer, as well as a kind of vivisection of your own personality. However, I think there is more to it?

N. LL: I agree with you here. In my latest work l want to refer back to my earlier activity. I think the idea of The Artificial Photograph was not utilized to its complete advantage. These two works of 2000 are a tribute to myself as a hard-working artist whom nobody has fully
understood, and who has been often criticized. l strongly believe that my art, though poorly understood, carries a deeply patriotic premise: art exists!

K. J.: Finally, l would like to ask you once more what is the role of art, including photography, and what is art for you?

N. LL: Art for me is a way of life, an incredible vitality, a place where all yearnings and dreams meet in order to touch, through experience, that which is important. Does art illuminate mystery? No, it rather points towards mystery.

Krzysztof Jurecki
Wrocław/Łódź, November 2001-May 2002

Translated by Jarosław Fejdych
Proofreading Kevin Hannan