Critics Back

On Art and Erotism – Interview given by Natalia LL to Wiesława Wierzchowska, 1994

Wiesława Wierzchowska: The problem of eroticism is apparently essential to your rich, multi-threaded and multi-medial oeuvre. Always present, it is at times ostentatious, at other times metaphorical or barely perceptible as the deep ground of projects on a different subject.

Natalia LL: Yes, in my philosophy of eroticism, I rely on the Platonian myth of the human being originally constituting a whole that the wrath of gods split into man and woman. In an erotic act, we go back to that unity, we join again and thus reach self-fulfilment. An erotic act generates life; there is something divine in it.

W. W.: Have you been aware of the significance of this element to your art since the beginning of your work? Still the problem has been rarely picked up, let alone publicized, in Polish art.

N. LL: Awareness grows with life experience. Since the beginning, l have been interested in the profundity of erotic fulfilment, the inner quality of the experience, the very essence of eroticism, not in superficial aestheticism. I have always read a lot, at first mainly existential literature, Sartre and Camus. Kierkegaard and some of his dark philosophy has also found their way to my art. For eroticism is on the one hand vitality, the joy of life, and elation, and on the other, fear and suffering. Later, l was fascinated by libertine literature, de Sade and Bataille, which added openness to my work.

W. W.: In which works is it manifested?

N. LL: At first, in the 1960s, in erotics that l called Fleurs du mal, featuring the coming together of two bodies, an act of elation or even ecstasy. They were romantic in character. In the early 197Os, my images of coupling grew more powerful.

W. W.: Do you mean your Permanent Registration?

N. LL: That was an apparently objective registration of the successive stages of the sexual intercourse. Yet l have always sought to grasp form in such a way as to produce art, not pornography, which is very difficult. Pornographic magazines seem to offer the same, but in what l do, there is artistic form and aesthetic order, which quite alters the significance of an image.

W. W.: Where does the difference lie?

N. LL: It cannot be verbalised. It is like trying to define art. There are only questions about what art is that everyone tries to answer themselves, but art cannot be defined to the very end. Perhaps it needn’t be verbalised. And so it is with pornography: the difference between pornography and eroticism is rather evasive though it exists. There is no pornography in my erotics. What I do is art even though it breaks a taboo. l have always been interested in crossing the border; l have always wanted to go beyond the invisible though powerfully drawn line. This must have been shocking to the visitors to my exhibitions. My Intimate Art show at the Gallery of Creative Unions in Wrocław featured a specially constructed box with my self-portraits on the outer walls, and an erotic space within. Only one or two persons could enter, there was no room for more. Inside, there were photographs of a man and a woman engaged in an intercourse. The censorship was rampant at that time, sensitive primarily to political issues, but also to moral ones. The censor was quite dismayed and only gave me permission to put on a closed show. The exhibition was about things known to all from private experience, but still considered a taboo when publicised.

W. W.: Is this why in the Consumer Art series you showed eroticism in a way less direct though not less drastic?

N. LL: That was certainly not the reason. At a certain point, l realised l was not satisfied with the literal image; l felt that something in eroticism evaded me, and that was when l was beginning to alter the meaning. Eating is an elementary activity without which we cannot live. l had so transformed it, that it suddenly became something different turning into something reminiscent of uncanny eroticism. l called it the “mystery of soaking things in”. Then l wrote the text, just for myself, which is what l occasionally do to define my art for myself. It went:”.. The mystery of soaking the external presented itself to me with such sharpness that since 1972, all my art has been connected with the conceptual consumer play. Naturally, the waywardness of consumer art was a mockery of the world of mature palpability. Thus, our wayward imagination could transform for instance a banana in a charming submissive mouth into a caress-thirsty penis. In a way, l have come close to the Feminist movement, though I am aware that the xenophobia of feminism is not so much the liberation of woman as imprisoning her in the grip of the vulva and the uterus. Being a half of the whole, the woman may only find fulfilment with the missing half, i.e. the man. But l also support the play described by Sapho in her poems because a weary woman should also have the chance of fulfilment in an arrangement with no procreation in view. This may be why consumer art is the manifestation of the joy of life though fully aware of fear and the eschatological ending to the human being”.

W. W.: After which post-consumer art made its appearance, didn’t it?

N. LL: It amounted to the examination of the significance of the jelly-like, slippery and sticky quality of the essence of life. The power of sperm, of which we are not fully aware, does not only serve the prolongation of life. It is also like being on a skating-rink where the power and force come in with biological vigour.

W. W.: There is an important erotic aspect of some of your performances though it is less direct.

N. LL: l think that the use of one’s body in art is an act of exhibition-ism, often with an erotic underlayer. In my Fulcrums performance, l touched the ground with my naked body. l was like an antenna connected with the cosmos. l wanted to reproduce the appearance of a constellation through my body. That was a very sublime form of eroticism: l linked up with the earth with my hand, belly, legs and mouth.

W. W.: Your installation at the Ars Erotica exhibition in the National Museum in Warsaw seems very important to me. l saw it as a peculiar summary of your earlier artistic achievements; it showed the presence of the same existential problems in what-ever you did; it was the outcome of what you had done until then. It consisted of a hospital bed, a table and two chairs covered with quasi-fabric with what looked like a design in black and white, which, in a close-up, turned out to be sheets of photographs recording stages of intercourse. There were several such series on the wall in addition to artificial white calla lilies, a symbol of death or a wedding bouquet That was a most penetrating image of daily routine and the final interpenetrating.

N. LL: Since the 1980s, l have been interested in existential fear and mysticism, and my art has become more traffic. Let me quote myself again: “…The spasm of erotic delight is a condition of transcendental suspense that permits us to cross the existential perspective. It is both an experience of oneself and death. Having come close to death, l think that the uniqueness of the individual, my own uniqueness, is the engine of every action. Hence the fascination that mystic literature has on me; St. Theresa the Great, St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, in whom, to my dismay, l have found almost the identity of mystic and erotic experience. From an orthodox point of view, this is probably blasphemous, but to me the extreme states spring from a common ground”. Well, l have crossed what Conrad called the shadow line. and my thinking has changed. So have my awareness and my art.

Wiesława Wierzchowska, 9 July 1994

Translated by Joanna Holzman