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Staging the Body – The Photo and Film Works of Natalia LL, Walter Seidl, 2009

Since the 1960s, the photo and video works of Natalia LL have revolved around the role of the body as a cultural signifier for the construction of artistic versions of reality relating both to the vulnerability of physical representation and to the desire to create bodily narrations in mythical situations.

Being married to photo artist Andrzej Lachowicz, Natalia LL has since the 1970s used the first letters of her officially registered last name, Lach-Lachowicz, to create a trademark as well as an artistic persona for all her visual appearances. This artistic strategy is in keeping with the increasing commoditization of products that has taken place since the 1960s, as well as with the theories of writers such Marshall McLuhan, who saw the onslaught of product placement in the media as a precursor of Western image ideologies. On an artistic level, however, this trope is not meant merely to turn the artist into a product; it much rather relates to Marxist theories. For Marx, commoditization is assigned to something not previously considered in economic terms which, in this case, relates to artistic thoughts, identity formations and representations of gender. Natalia LL’s strategic positioning puts her in line with fellow artists such as VALIE EXPORT, who drastically altered her real name for the sake of artistic representation in order to engage in performance and create media art focusing on the subjectivization of the female body within a male-dominated society.

From the very beginning of her artistic career, Natalia LL used her own self in combination with various props and prostheses in order to relate to the changing parameters in terms of which issues of the body and the body’s representation as a mythical and sexual object/subject are treated in contemporary visual practices. Focusing on the media of photography and film, Natalia LL’s work questions the ontological aspects of bodily representation, which visual output oscillates constantly between reality and fiction, between what is culturally significant, concealed or unmasked.

In the field of visual representation, one of the prevalent issues regarding the body metaphor has to do with processes of visualizing the Self and its Other which go beyond the representation of typical female or male characteristics, much rather crossing the boundaries of what is anatomically possible as well as culturally and socially feasible. This dualism between the Self and the Other is grounded in Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic investigations of the 1960s and his writings on the process of identification, which a child first experiences towards the age of eighteen months when he or she perceives the Other by looking into the mirror. The mirror stage constitutes the central moment when the subject perceives its reverse, other identity, which can be seen as the starting point for reflecting on the dispositions of the self, on the self’s visual alterations and distortions, and on cultural forms of recognition. The latter has been applied to photography’s capability to construct the limits of the Self and the Other as visual practice. Natalia LL’s photo and film work approaches these limits of physicality in scenarios whose contents stem from moments in real life, but whose visuality transcends the issue of the human condition as such. Natalia LL similarly describes this condition in her analysis of the ‘Truth of Photography,’ writing that ‘everything which happens in the process of the reception of a photographic view is a mixture of our inner self and the physical record. Only the sum of these two factors can build ‘the truth’ in inverted commas, as the truth is a mixture of physics and our inner self’. (1)

Having grown up with parents who were amateur artists or Sunday painters, Natalia LL was frequently exposed to the Polish countryside during her childhood. The landscape and its vegetation have been influential for Natalia LL as a reference to bodily environments and free-floating sexuality. Natalia LL found – especially in the shape of tuberose flowers – an equivalent of bodily gestures and erotic stimuli. Flowers as components of mythical elements became frequently used props in Natalia LL’s art, for example in the Brunhilda II photo performance of 1994 and in the Walkyrie series of 1995. Brunhilda’s predilection for pagan rites such as tree-worship is taken up in a big headdress made of calla flowers on Natalia LL’s head and a skull in her hand. These symbols of life and death counterbalance the Catholic doctrine into a fixed belief which has remained dominant in Poland right up to the present day. Walkyrie shows the artist with a headdress of colored flowers, a sword and a shield with which to fight evil forces– or, according to the myth, to decide who is to die in battle. The fishnet tights and knee-high boots, however, clearly symbolize the erotic components of a dominatrix-inspired woman who is well aware of her own bodily aura and female characteristics.

The shift away from traditional forms of representation and one-sided political interaction has been at the foreground of Natalia LL’s thinking from the very beginning, when she turned away from traditional art practices and decided to get involved in media art after having won the first prize in a student photography competition in Toruń in 1962. Natalia LL’s interest in feminism was another strand: this was not only incompatible with the Communist mindset of the period, but also a very personal means of expression, since there was no connection to the outside world or to colleagues in Western Europe and the US. It was not until 1974 that international curators and writers such as Giancarlo Politi and Gislind Nabakowski became acquainted with Natalia LL’s art, which was soon to find recognition outside Poland.

One of the central pieces of that period is the film Consumer Art of 1972–1975. In this film, Natalia LL confronts viewers with the social conditions inscribed into the human body, deconstructing male and female bodily rituals derived from male cultural dominance. According to Gislind Nabakowski, men invented both male and female myths in order to find a credible position within society and to rule over women. (2) Consumer Art focuses exactly on these myths of sexual and bodily classifications, with a woman sucking lasciviously on two bananas, on bread sticks and on other objects of phallic gestalt. Hence, the protagonist of the video lives up to the normative male gaze, an act which at the same time discloses the boundaries of a heterosexually standardized matrix. The linkage between sign and sculpture puts Natalia LL’s video in line with the psychoanalytical approaches of the time and the analysis of phallogocentrism, questioning the privileging of the masculine in understanding the meaning of social relations. Entering the feminist discourse on Western language and its male-engendered politics, Natalia LL combines the female body with objects as male super-positions in a discourse which is organized throughout via implicit recourse to the phallus, both as its supposed basis and as its prime signifier and power source.

While Natalia LL’s work exposes the male gaze as being a psychoanalytical construct which defies social and visual aberrations, the use of the banana in early-1970s Poland also questions modes of an all-too-easy commoditization of goods, since bananas were almost impossible to obtain there at the time. Thus, the video not only refers to the fetishization of the phallus, but also to the fetishization of Western consumer goods, which could not be taken for granted in Communist times. Bananas and even some types of sausage were foreign products which Polish censorship did not allow. Thus, there was a constant desire to break out of Communist behavioral patterns and experience a Western mode of living. Natalia LL’s desire for a differently lived outer world could be realized when visiting her aunt and uncle, who lived on an island off the coast of Denmark. There she frequently went to sex shops to ponder the nature of sexual behavior, since Danish society has always been very liberal about sexual predilections and favored all kinds of inter-sex and same sex constellations, all of which go back to Plato’s ideas about sexuality, as well as to the belief that men and woman were originally one gender and only became separated after the fall.

Bananas became recurrent symbols in Natalia LL’s work, used by the artist as symbols of paradise in its sexual, stimulant and luxury-food components. In the 1975 photo series Artificial Photography, the artist is seen in several poses, which are superimposed on top of each other, creating several layers of depiction in the final photograph as linear approximations of the sequence of actions. The technique of photographic superpositions is a trope which the artist has continued using into the present day. In one image of the Artificial Photography series, Natalia LL sits naked in a fauteuil with a banana – or something that looks like one – between her legs and in her mouth. In the video performance Brunhilda’s Dreams of 1994, with which the Brunhilda II photo is also related, Natalia LL used bananas which she had cut open in different ways – thereby exposing the flesh of the fruit like body fluids. The cuts into the middle of the banana make it appear as an oval object with the gestalt of a vagina, which is lasciviously shown to the camera. The phallic mode recurs when the artist rubs the entire banana between her breasts, which are exposed merely due to the plunging neckline of her black dress. The pagan-like rites performed in this video have the protagonist oscillating between an innocent saga-fairy and an omniscient narrator who deconstructs paradise, sin and sexual obsessions.

The artist’s use of her own body as the playground for sexual practices is most clearly shown in the 1974 piece Natalia ist Sex. Here the artist chose a German title which translates as ‘Natalia is sex.’ In several scenes, one sees Natalia LL and her husband Andrzej Lachowicz copulating. The images are in the format of the individual photos on a contact sheet, and they are arranged in such a way that viewers primarily read the caption Natalia ist Sex. Relating to the mechanisms of a peep show, the little images have to be examined more closely, either with a magnifying glass or at close distance. Moreover, the text operates as a linguistic surface and signifier, describing the signified action not only on the level of language, but literally due to its direct relation to the visual/photographic vocabulary. Although uninfluenced by most of the other conceptual art going on at that time, Natalia LL did relate to an unspoken zeitgeist of artistic approaches to photography and to visual poetry of the 1960s and 70s. This was also the reason why her work was recognized within a wider circle and was shown at Ursula Krinzinger’s Innsbruck gallery as early as 1975. Under the title Frauen Kunst – Neue Tendenzen (Women’s Art – New Tendencies) Natalia LL’s 16 mm film Consumer Art was shown together with the works of Marina Abramović, VALIE EXPORT, Rebecca Horn, Joan Jonas, Maria Lassnig, Annette Messager, Gina Pane, Carolee Schneemann and others.

A lack of reputation and acceptance in her own country eventually moved Natalia LL and her husband to establish their own gallery in Wrocław in 1970. Together with Zbigniew Dłubak and Antoni Dzieduszycki, they founded the PERMAFO Gallery in December of 1970 and ran it until 1981. Their main aim was to relate to conceptual tendencies in photography and film which were underrepresented in Poland at that time. One of the gallery’s credos was formulated accordingly: ‘The lens of a photographic camera or a film camera and light-sensitive materials can witness phenomena that escape us from one second to another… The state of ideal registration results from receiving and recording all signals coming from reality.’ (3) This conceptual approach of capturing moments of time and space was also expressed in Natalia LL’s photo and film work Permanent Measurement of Time of 1970. On November 17, the artist placed a Russian MIR alarm clock on the table and, over the course of 24 hours, took a photo every hour. This technical registration of time and space via photography, however, only produced a visual document which did not allow for an experience of the various stages of the day. Thus, the conceptual approach of the work lies rather in the personally felt moments when trying to stay up for 24 hours and seeing the postman bringing letters, neighbors ringing the bell to ask to borrow sugar or money, etc. Permanent Measurement of Time poses questions as to the conditions of reality and photography’s capacity to putatively convey objectiveness, but only in a conceptual sense, since the subjective qualities entailed in the making of the work occurred outside the realm of photographic exposure. Said subjective qualities were carried over into another work entitled Permanent Measurements of Every 1 km of the E22 Motorway. This film work was made from inside a car while driving along motorway E22. In this case it was not about the measurement of time, but of space and distance. The central motifs in this film are the recurring milestones indicating the distance covered on the motorway. The black-and-white imagery suggests an anonymous encounter with the Polish countryside, which bears a certain resemblance to the road movies being made in the US at the time.

In light of her awareness of the discrepancy between visual registration via photography and deviations in individual perception, Natalia LL called her 1971 exhibition at PERMAFO Gallery Intimate Photography to emphasize the inner needs of creation which are not always in line with the work’s ultimate aesthetic result. She explains this as follows: ‘Photographic shots, made with a fascination of an immediate fixation of an event, usually suffer from one serious defect: they in some way merely skim over the surface of the essential. The situation is even worse because of the rich tradition which imposes rules of composition that artificially help to create »artistic picture«. The only sensible photographic method for me is a registration of an assumed a priori conception, a notion.’ (4)
Natalia LL developed her theories on photography during a period in which a general discourse regarding the medium itself did not yet exist. Susan Sontag’s seminal publication On Photography was not published until 1977, yet a general interest in this medium as an artistic tool had been widely expressed. With regard to Natalia LL’s concerns about the qualities of photography, Sontag was to argue: ‘The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate – all activities which, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.’ (5) Natalia LL has experimented with most of the aforementioned characteristics, yet she has always felt a personal distance from the medium as a presumed record of reality.

For Natalia LL, the body has always remained a central metaphor in her works – even in the Measurement pictures, which lack a direct depiction of the body but instead convey the inner feelings involved in the process of photographic recording. This also accounts for her photo series Word of 1971, in which a woman speaks a word and is captured in several close-ups which only show parts of her face and, most of all, the changing movements of her lips. As is the case in many of her works, the action performed in reality is transferred into another reality as the result of artistic reflection. The main feminist agenda in this work addresses the relationship between woman’s simultaneous roles as subject and object. Similarly to the claims VALIE EXPORT has made for her art, the issue in the 1960s and 1970s was to move the perception of woman away from that of an object (of commoditization and sexual pleasure) to the status of a fully recognized subject within society. The difficulty of achieving this goal becomes manifest in Natalia LL’s work, in which the depicted woman tries to utter a phrase which her beholders are unable to grasp. Thus she remains silenced and deprived of her right to speak. The action performed in the photographs is turned into an interrupted speech-act, where the signifier is visible but the signified is absent. Hence, what remains to be perceived is a woman whose bodily features are emphasized in lieu of her power of willful self-expression, reinforcing the dichotomy between object and the failed attempt at its subjectivization.

The multiplicity of personae in the form of photographic superpositions has been developed in many of Natalia LL’s works, relating to the multiple manifestations of gender and the difficulty of proposing only one sexual or gendered identity. One of her latest works is called Transfiguration of Odin (2009), which goes back to the myths Natalia LL has dealt with since the 1970s. Odin is considered one of the main gods of Norse paganism, and he rules over Valhalla, the afterlife hall of the slain. There, the valkyries bring their chosen ones who have bravely died in battle. Hence, the mythical components from the poetical Edda, to which Natalia LL has already related in her Brunhilda and Walkyrie series, recur – but with a different goal. The main characteristic the artist has been interested in is Odin’s immortality. Although he is for the most part depicted as an old sage, he also has the ability to transform himself into a young and handsome man. Questions about the divergence between biological and mental age automatically apply when considering the photographic triptych and the manifold mental implementations of Natalia LL’s work. In the central image, one can see the artist in her black minidress, wearing sunglasses and a headscarf with sculls. In her hand she holds a skull, something which she has repeatedly used as an artistic prop symbolizing life and death. The other two images show a naked Andrzej Lachowicz reclining on a rod-like object, demonstrating the pains of old age which cannot be avoided despite good mental health. The third picture shows a muscular young man, who sits equally naked on a pedestal but upright, with rod and shield ready for action. This process of transfiguration engenders the hope that the power to effect change can be retained along with the ability to fight not in a physical sense but in a socially and intellectually driven manner. The duplicity of the male image reinforces the dichotomy between the Self and the Other as proposed in Lacan’s mirror stage, and it invites viewers to reflect upon the shift in identity and the reversal of perception. One of the main connotations of this work is the aspect of the desire for eternal youth, a chimera standing for the many myths evolving in life and art. In a Lacanian sense, desire is developed at the entry into the symbolic order at the time when the unconscious forms. According to Kaja Silverman’s reading of Lacan, desire is ‘the product of the divisions by means of which the subject is constituted, divisions which inspire in the subject a profound sense of lack.’ (6) Natalia LL’s work testifies to this notion of lack, which occurs at an older age but is filled with the desire to continue living with the youthful elements present earlier on in life.

The desire to create bodily narratives in mythical situations is put forward in many of the works Natalia LL has created over her decades of artistic activity. She has often dealt with the female body as a sexual playground, a phenomenon which psychoanalysis mostly bases on the notion of the (woman’s lack of a) phallus. Writing on the role of women, Silverman argues that she (woman) ‘continues to “be” the phallus as fullness-of-being long after the male subject has been alienated from the real. This phenomenal plenitude precludes her ever having the phallus, i.e. ever acquiring symbolic power and potency, but it provides her with a jouissance denied to man.’ (7) The pleasure principle has always been a factor expressed in the many female roles and characters Natalia LL has addressed in her works. There, the body becomes a cultural signifier to determine the real or what is believed to be such due to the various stages of medial representation.

Walter Seidl, 2009

(1) Natalia LL, The Truth of the Photograph, in: Natalia LL Texty, Bielsko-Biała, Galeria Bielska BWA, 2004, p. 463.
(2) Cf. G. Nabakowski, Zwei Mythen werden mit Vergnügen preisgegeben, in: Natalia LL Texty, Bielsko-Biała, Galeria Bielska BWA, 2004, p. 292.
(4) Ibid.
(5) S. Sontag, On Photography, New York, Penguin, 1979, p. 13.
(6) K. Silverman, The Subject, in: Visual Culture: The Reader, edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, London, Sage Publications, 1999, p. 350.
(7) Ibid. p. 354.