Critics Back

Natalia ist sex, Agata Jakubowska, 2009

The activity of the PERMAFO Gallery co-founded by Natalia LL together with Andrzej Lachowicz, Zbigniew Dłubak and Antoni Dzieduszycki was inaugurated in 1971 by the artist’s installation Intimate Photography. Natalia LL used there her photographs made several years before which presented a sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. They were placed on the inside walls of an enclosure placed inside the gallery, whereas the outside walls of this construction were covered with her multiplied photographical self-portrait.

The previous year, the monthly Fotografia had published a note by Natalia LL where the author was explaining on the basis of the abovementioned photographs how she understood the goals set by the group of cooperating photographers (1). In their manifesto, the artists from the PERMAFO Gallery declared and clarified as follows: ‘We are interested only in reality. The lenses of a photo camera or a camcorder and light-sensitive materials may witness phenomena escaping our perception second by second… A high frequency of their registration guarantees minimising deformations and errors resulting from the selection based on habits, conventions and traditions’. ‘Permafo’ was, however, conceived as ‘permanent formalisation’ and this formal element was emphasised by the artist in the aforementioned text, indicating that most photographs suffer from excessive condensation of content whereas ‘the process of communicating meaning cannot take the line of least resistance: it cannot be carried out just through the registration of the state but through the poetic transposition of the phenomenon.’ (2) Terefore, that was not only ‘high frequency of registration’ but also a ‘poetic transposition of a phenomenon’ which enabled her to achieve the purpose which she wrote about there: ‘I am particularly interested in the attempts of penetrating the nude and a sexual intercourse between man and woman. I intend to present the infinite nobility of the human being through photography, which transfers the value of meaning.’ (3)

In Intimate Photography the artist created in the gallery a little enclosed space which transported the viewer who entered it into the intimate (it was intimate as a matter of fact) world of two lovers. The internal walls of the space, as it has just been mentioned, were covered with photographs presenting a sexual intercourse. They were very large and framed in such a way that the viewer seemed to stay incredibly close to, if not between them. And what I can only guess, as I was not able to see this installation live, the viewer might have felt somehow uncomfortable placed in such a position.

However, nowadays, while watching the documentation of the installation Intimate Photography, I am struck by something else which has not attracted too much attention so far, namely by these photographical self-portraits of the artist covering the external walls of the box. There are hundreds of them; they are all placed regularly but are not identical – they differ in terms of their size and relation towards the frame of the image. Some show the most classical en face life-size depiction, whereas others – by the series of five photographs with the same depiction ranging from the smallest where the model/artist is hardly visible, to the largest one, where her face seems to extend beyond the borders of the frame.

This is a formal description, but the relation between the interior and exterior of this construction erected by the artist is really interesting. Does the face presented outside belong to one of the persons presented inside (where only bodies are visible whereas heads and faces are outside the frame)? Such a direct identification is rather dubious, especially that the other works from this period do not confirm it. It does not appear, for instance, in the best-known work from this time, namely Consumer Art, where the artist does not appear among the young girls presented in the photographs who are eating in a suggestive and unambiguously erotic manner bananas, sausages and then pudding and jelly. Similarly, it is absent in her further works from the cycle Dreaming. However, there is one more production which originates from this time and which provides us with grounds for identification (but still indirectly) of what is inside and what is outside in Intimate Photography. In 1974 the artist presented for the first time in Paramedia Gallery in West Berlin the work Natalia ist sex. She used there again the ‘erotic photographs’ as she called them, but this time she used the scaled-down prints to form the title. Each letter was placed on a separate board and was made up of several photographs.

At the time when those works were being created, their erotic meaning was obvious although it was received in a different way depending on the environment a given art critic originated from. The neo-avant-garde artists who cooperated with Natalia LL insisted that her art, for instance the abovementioned Consumer Art was ‘an exploration of morphological possibilities of the sign and the capacity of the medium’, as the artist’s husband Andrzej Lachowicz stated. He added, however, that in this work the artist ‘breaks the barriers between the signified and the signifier…; we do not see, then, the presented reality but another one – the imagined.’ (4) The art critics unfavourable to the artist and the PERMAFO environment, such as the editors of the journal Sztuka discredited Consumer Art by highlighting that it was a work ‘with explicitly erotic intentions’ and it was not a depiction of a girl eating a banana which was ‘»unexpectedly«, »transforming« into an erotic fantasy but a series of photographs of a lady fawning and manoeuvring bananas around her lips and in her mouth to make her presentation evoke erotic associations.’ (5) ‘The title of the work, as the editors of the journal added, is then misleading and should be rather What a Girl Dreams About When She Starts Growing Up or If You Are to Try Bananas, Try Only Chiquita.’ It is worth mentioning that the erotic subject of the artist’s works was the reason for her problems with censorship, who closed the exhibition of Intimate Photography and prevented the exposition of Natalia ist sex.

Irrespective of the evaluation of erotic questions in the works by Natalia LL created in the 1970s, their reception of that time tended to omit or failed to notice the artist’s personal motif. The erotic (or pornographic in some viewers’ opinion) photographs of lovers were seen by all the viewers whereas the facts that the way to them was opened by the self-portrait of the artist placed on the outer walls of the box or that the photographical prints formed the title Natalia ist sex referring directly to the artist herself seemed to have gone unnoticed. What I see nowadays as a slightly impatient contemporary recipient of these works is not only the investigation of the properties of signs (although that is also important), not only the tale ‘about the unlimited nobility of the human being’ (as the artist claimed herself), but also a very personal confession or even a manifesto of her life attitude.

Those days, in the 1970s, that went unnoticed. The conceptualistic discourse which was Natalia LL’s field of activity emphasised significantly different aspects of her art, focusing on the rationality of the exploratory approach to reality. (6) The artist herself appears to have concealed the self-biographical aspect of these erotic elements, knowing that it was not the right time for this kind of manifestations. This, therefore, could be one of the reasons why her self-portrait in Intimate Photography was inscribed in geometrical shapes imposing a particular system on the area which escapes any kind of order. That is why she spoke more generally about ‘humanity’ but not about herself.

The private dimension of these productions was noticed later, in the 1990s. In 1991 Bożena Kowalska wrote: ‘Independently of all the tendencies in world art, beautiful Natalia was fascinated with life and with herself in this life, with her beauty, her body, and its sensual sensations. There was in her something of a narcissistic delight, a hedonist ecstasy with everything which tasted good and made her feel happy, what was beautiful and erotically exciting… And that was her art.’ (7) It seems that in this particular case the critic was ahead of the revision made by the artist herself, who in the same year wrote in a significantly more evasive way: ‘I support, however, the games described by Sappho in her poems because a tired woman must have a chance of self-fulfilment also in a situation when pleasure is not the purpose of procreation.’ (8)

The word ‘however’ which appears in the sentence above refers to the idea of placing the artist in the feminist context and her distancing herself from that. The art by Natalia LL was inscribed in this environment (approached it as the artist said herself) in the 1970s. She was noticed by Western artists and art critics and invited to cooperation which resulted in joint exhibitions and publications. The feminist context did not stand any chance of being understood in that decade in Poland, which was certainly one of the reasons why the artist decided to withdraw from it. Another reason was the fact that a critical dimension of feminism, which was so characteristic of that time, was not of the greatest importance for Natalia LL. Gislind Nabakowski wrote then: ‘in many sequences of movement, in the changeable position of the mouth, she exposes to ridicule the male fear of the feminine vagina.’ (9) It appears, however, that it was not fear or ridicule but pleasure which the artist focused on. Fear appeared later.

Natalia LL, after the phase of her art revealing narcissistic delight with her beauty, the beauty of a young, healthy and attractive woman, raised the motif of vanitas. In Destructs and Panic Sphere the feminine face, her own face subject to deformation, gradually disappears. It could be interpreted in a more general context as the experience of women who have left their youth behind and more and more often experience social invisibility. This problem is often talked about by the women who notice at a certain moment that the sight of men starts sliding on them and must make much greater effort than before to maintain it at their persons again. (10) The artist’s words, however, indicate another problem, which is more personal in character. What I mean is a dedication of Destructs to Alina Szapocznikow regarded as an exceptionally beautiful and cheerful artist, who died of breast cancer at the age of 47. In addition, there is also the confession of Natalia LL in the text written in 1996: ‘I experienced an authentic catastrophe (calamitas) of an amputation of my femininity.’ Nothing is said there directly and although neither the artist nor her critics develop the motif of struggling with a disease, its exposure at least in the works from the late 1980s and early 19902s seems to be important. (11)

For this text, however, the subsequent sentences which continue the statement quoted above are of key importance. She wrote:
‘In spite of my physiological shortages, my feminine personality explodes with eroticism which I noticed in the back and forth movement of a leaf in the tree. I notice multiplied erotic elements in a thoroughly ordinary reality.’ This text accompanied the exposition of the installation Calamitas erotica which consisted of a long scroll with multiple photographs of an anthurium, stretching across the whole length of the gallery, and a sequences of multiple photographs of a skull decorated with an anthurium which seemed to be
‘eating’ a banana.

Owing to its ambiguity, an anthurium became one of the main motifs in her art of that time. Associated with the buckets and wreaths decorating graves where it often appeared, at least in Poland, it has become an erotic object in the art of Natalia LL. She often presents its single flowers, exposing the part which may resemble a penis (in fact it is the masculine of the plant). It really does resemble it in the artist’s videos of this time, for instance in Dreams of Brynhildr from 1994, where the flower is filmed in such a way as if it was making friction movements.

Dreams of Brynhildr is in the hindsight of several years one of the most important works of the artist which includes a number of significant motifs and is a kind of credo for her life and art. The title character, Brynhildr is the artist herself, who once again presents her whole body and not only her face and once again does it in a way emphasising her erotic attractiveness. Referring to the myth about the belligerent Valkyrie, she performs a series of actions on the banana whose resemblance to penis cannot be denied. In this film this banana/penis becomes an object of her revenge, as a result of which it gets cut and crushed. However, at certain moments it is also an object which provides Natalia LL/ Brynhildr with pleasure. Moreover, attributing sexual roles to the heroine and her object is not really easy. Affected by her actions, the banana many times transforms into a vaginal form, whereas a wreath of anthurium on her head becomes a hotbed of masculine libido energy when the video camera approaches this abovementioned phallic part of the flower and registers its somehow frictional movement. It is immensely important that the narration of the film is not simple and linear but cyclical and irregular in its cyclic form. It becomes unknown whether the dream of Brynhildr is to take revenge on men or to marry the brave one who would get through the fire circle surrounding the hill where she is sleeping in imprisonment (that is how the opera Valkyrie by Richard Wagner, recalled here with music, finishes).

Doubtlessly, Natalia LL’s works created since then (since the beginning of the 1990s) have been loaded with eroticism and her person has been exposed there with intensifying courage. It not the time of her youth but now when Natalia ist sex refers entirely and directly to herself. In this respect the artist is even more radical than not only the other artists of her generation but also than younger ones. The extent of her radicalism can be imagined when compared with the art of Carolee Scheemann, whom Natalia LL met in the 1970s and whom she described as follows: ‘That is an ideal artist for me. The sexual orgies made by her brought her closer to the core of art.’ (12) These orgies include Meat Joy held in 1964, where an initially organised cooperation of four women and four men was gradually transforming into a tangle of bodies and fabrics filled with an ecstatic energy. It was repeated as part of A Short History of Performance in London-based Whitechapel Gallery in 2003. However, Schneemann herself did not participate in the performance. One of the viewers who was in the audience described the participants as a group of mostly shy volunteers, feeling uncomfortable and physically tense. (13)

When Natalia LL returns to her erotic works from the 1970s, she replaces the face of a young woman from Consumer Art with a skull. Since she was not this woman herself, the change signifies replacement of youth with abstract old age/death. In the works which allude to her previous productions where she acted as a model, the artist still remains the model herself. For instance, she is a model in Artificial Photography from 1975 as well as in its further echo Freedom Birds from the early 2000s.

There is also another dimension of the personal aspect of the works created in several recent years, namely the increasing presence of the artist’s husband, Andrzej Lachowicz. Like the other private motifs in her art, the presence of that person is marked in a not really imposing way but is still clearly visible to an observant viewer. It is worth considering two erotic poems written by him and published by the artist in the compilation Natalia LL. Texty. Texts by Natalia LL and about the Art of Natalia LL. The theoretical texts written by the artist and the commentators of her art are interspersed with love letters where Lachowicz admits: ‘I return old and worried / like a beaten dog / to My / Natalia’ (25th August 1991) or: ‘I love Natalia in the morning and in the evening / I love her incessantly at night’ (27th April 1996). (14) Recently, he has appeared naked as Odin in the latest series of photographs Transfiguration of Odin. This work consists of three photographs: in the centre there is a picture of the artist herself; on its either side there are photographs of Odin subject to transformation so that he appears on the one side as a young lad and – on the other side – as an elderly man who is, as described by Agnieszka Kwiecień: ‘Sitting in a melancholic pose, his head resting on the hammer in his hand. At his feet there lies his shield – he has abandoned defence and surrendered to his fate – and a white flower of a lily symbolising beauty and innocence which are not his attributes anymore.’ (15)

I saw the work Natalia ist sex for the first time in the spring of 2009 at an exhibition in Galeria Ego in Poznań, which featured the works from the two last decades. It was the only earlier production. Suffice it to mention that the display of this work at that exhibition aimed not only to update or recreate it using new characters, as it happened in case of the abovementioned realisation of Schneemann, or to present it at a historical exhibition where it could function with the works of its time in its contemporary context. The main objective was to juxtapose this work with her later art and thereby underline the relation of she was creating presently with her production from previous years.

A departure from presenting corporality and sexuality and a return to it over the last two decades is characteristic of many artists active in the 1970s in the feminist environment. In the case of Natalia LL it would be hard to compare directly the evolution of her art with the evolution within feminist art and its reception, because although the artist became a member of the feminist movement, she did not fully participate in its discussions and referred them to her own art to a limited extent. She kept a similar distance from this movement in the 1990s when it finally started developing in Poland. Nevertheless, the climate of the 1990s, with its body art, the nascent identity policy and its reflection in visual arts, was more convenient for exposing eroticism and the artist’s sexual identity than the time when conceptual art developed. The same refers to the context of women artists’ art exhibitions which Natalia LL participated in and the reflection which accompanied them. That is why the hammer (the hammer for witches) may stay aside, as it does in her recent works. However, it cannot disappear.

Agata Jakubowska, May 2009

(1) Natalia LL, Fotografia [Photography], Fotografia 1970, no 7.
(2) Therein.
(3) Therein.
(4) A. Lachowicz, Natalia LL, Sztuka 1975, no 4.
(5) Do i od redakcji [From and to the Editors], Sztuka 1975, no 4.
(6) The problem of the person of the author as a subject in Polish conceptual art has been raised by Luiza Nader in: Konceptualizm w PRL [Conceptualism in the People Republic of Poland], Warsaw 2009
(7) B. Kowalska, Przestrzeń wizyjna [Visionary Space], in: Przestrzeń wizyjna [Visionary Space], exhibition catalogue, Galeria Stara BWA, Lublin 1991.
(8) Natalia LL, Teoria głowy [The Theory of the Head], Exit 1991, no 6.
(9) G. Nabakowski, Dwa mity w przyjemnością odrzucone [Two Myths Rejected with Pleasure], after: Natalia LL. Texty. Teksty Natalii LL. O Natalii LL [Natalia LL Texts. Texts by Natalia LL. About Natalia LL], edited by Natalia LL, Bielsko-Biała 2004, p. 26 (in the original version in Heute Kunst 1975, no 9).
(10) This problem is raised for example in the books by Doris Lessing which have just been published in Poland (The Summer Before the Dark) or in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel (Bieguni, Cracow 2007).
(11) What is of immense importance in this context are the words of the artist about her screenings of Dreaming held in 1978 in Galeria Studio w Warsaw. ‘I planned a hospital bed on whose bedclothes a colour slide with the image of me naked was to be projected… Exactly on the day of opening the exhibition I was sleeping and dreaming but not in the gallery in Warsaw but on the operation table in the clinical hospital in Wrocław… Being a hair away from death completely discouraged me from all the “materialisms” and weakened my belief in the world’s rationality.’ (Interview made by Krzysztof Jurecki with Natalia LL, in: Natalia LL Texty…, p. 243).
(12) Therein, p. 242.
(13) R. Withers, A Short History of Performance: Part One, Art Forum 2002, no 9. (14) A. Lachowicz, The Ode to Natalia and I Love Natalia… in: Natalia LL Texty.., p. 118, 180.
(15) A. Kwiecień, To Be Within an Erotic Grip Between Life and Death, (access: 30 May 2009).

Translated by Dominika Kowalewska