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The Album of Presence by Natalia LL, Adam Sobota, 2009

The artistic output of Natalia LL may be perceived as an album with references to various situations related to activities in the field of arts. The term ‘album’ comes to mind as a result of the associations evoked by the artist’s identification with art and by her personal way of merging her professional and private lives while simultaneously distancing herself from particular situations and concepts. Nowadays, we can frequently encounter declarations that art is someone’s whole life and that some, for instance, are living sculptures. This does not necessarily improve the quality of such daily existence. Natalia LL approaches this problem in a different way. She confronts her inner identification with art with objective manifestations of reality and performs on their background an act of confirming her own identity. What is external, material and tangible becomes symbolic through its annexation by the painting, photography or text, and thus through its inclusion into an album documenting situations and creative decisions at a certain stage of life. Moreover, her numerous works with the use of photography, mostly self-portraits, literally make up an album which provides a chronicle of her physical changes and is a proof of the appearance of various ideas which have absorbed her mind. What is presented there is exclusively her artistic biography as even the most banal visualisations are burdened with the mission of reaching the deepest sense of the art.

This album may begin with the 1964 work The Mirror, created by her one year after graduating from the State Tertiary School of Fine Arts in Wrocław. It is a treble photographical self-portrait achieved through mirror reflections of the face. Although during her studies the author specialised more in designing glassware and graphics, she soon discovered the medium of photography, which those days was rather unusual in artistic environments. As she recalled: ‘My photographical actions were for sure an attempt to find uniqueness and extraordinariness in the surrounding world. It was really fascinating for me that seemingly credible photography presented this uniqueness in a more comprehensive and direct way than, for instance, prints and paintings did. The photography which I created at that time could be called ‘existentialist photography’. (1) In the 1960s Natalia Lach-Lachowicz (since 1964 married to Andrzej Lachowicz) focused on photographical works including mostly the portraits of people from her circles, created in interiors or in the open air as well as close-ups of faces. They emphasise the inner freedom and joy of life of the portrayed persons, mostly women. The portraits by Natalia Lach-Lachowicz presented at national photography exhibition One (Women) (1967) were virtually the only works there to have contradicted the conventional (patronisingly masculine) approach to this subject. That was a harbinger of the feminist motif which was further developed in her art. Another aspect which was definitely worth paying attention to was her solo exhibition The Geography of the Face, exhibited in the years 1968–1969, whose decisive close-ups and fresh interpretation of the body distinguished these works from the conventional stylistics of the day. Those days she developed her pursuits in the sphere of ‘erotic photography’ inspired by the writings by Sade and Bataille. These were close-ups of fragments of the body. On one hand, they could be related to the strategy of searching for one’s own self, on the other hand, they indicated the impossibility of translating the sense of an intimate erotic contact.

The form of these photographs was still classical but the artist soon decided to take more radical steps towards making the manner of her artistic expression more problematic. That was a result of her contacts with Wrocław-based artists from neo-avant-garde circles who in the late 1960s were developing a strategy of ‘conceptual art’, particularly with Jerzy Rosołowicz and Jerzy Ludwiński, who from 1967 ran the Pod Moną Lizą Gallery in Wrocław. Another person of key importance to her photography was Zbigniew Dłubak, whom she knew personally and who from 1948, through painting and photography, had proposed a radical conceptual approach to art. Natalia Lachowicz soon started a close cooperation with Zbigniew Dłubak and Andrzej Lachowicz. They participated in collective exhibitions and in the end of the 1970s set up an artistic group Galeria Permafo, later joined also by the art critic Antoni Dzieduszycki. The program of the group, in existence until 1981, covered organising exhibitions, meetings and publications presenting the consequences of the conceptual breakthrough in the avant-garde art, i.e. the art of action, system art, body art, examining the possibilities of new media (photography, film and video) and the ways of theoretical presentation of the arts. For Natalia LL – who those days started using this acronym of her surname – that meant new opportunities for developing new motifs which she was interested in. How mundane facts may be transformed into intriguing forms of art had been demonstrated already in the collective work of the abovementioned group created at the Symposium of Fine Arts Wrocław 70 (March 1970). It was the Assembly of Optical Instruments RELOP, intended to be placed in cityscape. The regular lenses in sleeves were to inspire the passers-by to make a more insightful look into the surrounding space. In a similar way, the subsequent works by Natalia LL: The Upper Odra River – Permanent Registration 10–18 June 1970 or The Natural Surroundings – 250 Meters of Road (1971) are based on the application of simple observations of the environment for generating new forms and meanings. These works feature a series of documentary photographs or movie stills which reveal no attempts to make these views look more aesthetic but which are characterised by a novel manner of indicating the process of formalising the primary observation. Owing to her great intuition, Natalia LL finds there a point of balance between the infinite stream of images imposed on our perception and the necessity of selecting some elements as well as a distinctive form of the final work of art. The same tendency is present in the work Yes (1971) composed of repeating series of photographs of the mouth that pronounce the word ‘yes’. These pictures covered the walls of the spatial installation like wallpaper.

A similar method is applied by the artist in her works created after 1970 to present the issues of intimacy or eroticism, related to the problem of identity and relation between the individual and the outside world. The installation The Intimate Photography from 1971 was a box covered from the outside with conventional photographs of the artist’s face in various degrees of close-up, whereas the inside was covered with photographs of magnified fragments of her body which could be only spied through a slot in the box. Natalia LL seems to be of the opinion that what is inside has no defined form, whereas the outside form is only a pretence. The same idea was expressed at the exhibition The Mutants (1971) organised together by Natalia LL, Andrzej Lachowicz and Zbigniew Dłubak. It focused on the question of changeability, the ambiguity of transformation and the possibilities of its registration. One of the works presented there was based on the concept of transforming the word ‘mutants’ into the names of each of the artists participating in the exhibition. Later on Natalia LL created a series of works where she placed the combinations of letters of her own name alternately with series of photographs presenting her in various accidental situations. Doubtlessly, she emphasised thereby the analogies between the functioning of the images and concepts, justified by placing art on the mental level.

The reflection on identity could be constructed both on the basis of her own image and that of someone else. The work The Arrest Warrant, from the plain air workshop in Osieki in 1970, consisted of photographs of the face, parts of body and articles of clothing of Jerzy Ludwiński. The pictures were placed on the sides of cubes which could be arranged at will. The work 24 Hours from the same year, in turn, was composed of 24 photographs of the alarm clock face made every hour, the photograph of the artist’s face and the letters of her name. In the series Consumer Art initiated soon afterwards, Natalia LL used female models. And although it was an exception in her art, it indicates, like her other works, an ambiguity of the category of the subject as an external message.

Consumption is one of the recurrent concepts Natalia LL’s art. It offers a number of possible ways of interpretation. This slogan appeared in the years 1972–1975 in the titles of a suite of works titled Consumer Art and Post-Consumer Art (1975). These were series of photographs and films presenting faces of women performing an act of eating bananas, sausages or jelly. The motif of consumption reappeared directly in the self-portraits of Natalia LL in the late 1980s, where the head was shown as subjected to different manipulations and which devoured objects such as dolls. At the same time, the author commented on this fact in the text The Theory of the Head (published in 1991), in the following words: ‘The head is not only the dignified dwelling of the brain but it is also a creature which has a cavity for absorbing the outside, i.e. various types of solid and liquid food, smells and sounds. The ability of absorbing the external matter is an unusual mystery of the head. What has been presented here in a powerful way is the rule that bread becomes the body and wine becomes blood. If not for this rule, the idea of Christianity would be unthinkable. The mystery of absorption appeared to me with such a great distinction that my entire art since 1972 has been connected with a conceptual play with consumption.’ (2)

The work of art in the form of the photograph of a consumption act can be interpreted as a provocative glorification of the mundane, especially if such an activity has been taken out of its context and, for example, does not refer to any conventional documentation or to the symbols common in the depictions of great feasts in old paintings. Such provocation may result from the willingness to counter the typical exclusiveness or abstractness of an artistic expression, which guarantees the identification of the work of art by the viewers on the basis of current conventions ascribed to the concept of art. In this respect, Consumer Art by Natalia LL is close to her earlier productions, which resulted from adopting the concept of art as a continuous process whose ‘permanent nature’ and directness is comparable only to the character of such life processes as breathing, sleeping, eating, or moving about. (3) Such an analogy – as has been proved by the artist’s works – may refer only to certain aspects of external manifestations of art but not to the mental sphere. At the level of the mind art requires an insight into life processes and then the banal becomes only a pretext for art which is, in fact, something unusual. In all the works by Natalia LL, the ordinary becomes intriguing as it has been intensified through serial repetitions and overt sincerity, which also trigger unclear and disturbing eroticism. This happens as we perceive these works more or less consciously as a tip of an iceberg made of the phenomena and desires which are usually suppressed and hidden by us.

What was unique for the air of the 1970s was that Consumer Art was interpreted in the spirit of structuralist and semiotic theories related to the process of creating and functioning of signs. On the one hand, it was helpful for countering excessively emotional and purely sensualistic interpretations of art, but on the other hand it reduced the possibilities of interpreting these works on the basis of the rich traditions of symbol and allegory in art. Remarks concerning the possibilities of changing a sequence of physical events into signs by means of photography tended to remain at the operational level. That, obviously, made sense as long as so-called ‘new media’ (photography, film, video) managed to overcome the stereotypical rules of identification with and evaluation of art. In 1973 Antoni Dzieduszycki wrote e.g.: ‘In the works by Natalia LL, registration includes mostly activities that turn into signs… The sense of this activity is probably the most explicitly visible in the last cycle of works by Natalia LL, i.e. Consumer Photography. The ambiguity of activity, which transforms from a simple act of eating into sophisticated eroticism and finally into a nearly magical gesture, into a system of signs which belong to a seemingly common but in fact unknown code, not only intrigues us but also provokes reflection on the very signs and codes which are we commonly apply to understand one another. It is this reflection, which finally becomes a reflection of art on art, doubtlessly belongs to the most valuable artistic achievements of Natalia Lach-Lachowicz.’ (4)

Consumer art might have evoked certain associations with pop-art, the artistic trend developing from the 1950s, whose artists consciously applied mass culture signs and patterns and expressed their views on the propaganda of universal consumption. Actually, at that time the sense of such art was generally questioned in Poland, with its socialist shortage-based economy, but on the other hand the 1970s in Poland was a time of a strong arousal of consumptive needs and of promoting simplified methods of their satisfaction. Even if social opportunities were reduced, the standards of visual incentives to maximised consumption were perfectly understandable to Poles. The art of certain artists associated with pop-art such as Mel Ramos, Allan Jones or Sigmar Polke reveals analogies to this ambiguous manner in which Natalia LL approaches the processes of material and aesthetic consumption. The artist constructs her works as mental clusters that merge triviality with transcendence, literalness with metaphor. She used female models of doll-like beauty emphasised with a sterile smartness of glossy black-and-white or coloured photographs, which give the act of consumption a somewhat perverse character. The most important objective of her works is to make the viewer’s attention circulate between the mouth of the eating persons and their widely opened eyes directed at the video camera, as if in order to identify the act of looking with the act of consumption. In fact, such an operation is widely used in various advertising materials for internalising the name of a certain product in the layer of visual and emotional associations. The works by Natalia LL seem to be a pure model of such situations. The result of this strategy is original in its character as well as universal, which has been confirmed by the success of Consumer Art at significant exhibitions in Western Europe and the USA. However, in subsequent decades in Natalia LL’s art, the category of consumption gains an explicitly metaphysical sense or even mystical references as can be seen in the cycles Panic Fear, Fluffy Tragedy, Eschatological Landscapes, and Platonic Forms. They feature enlarged photographical images of the author’s head, frequently expressively tinted where the face is additionally deformed by the networks of lines and grimaces, while the opened mouth exposes teeth or the tongue. Contrary to previously used faces of models, whose widely opened eyes expressed the state of satisfaction and external activity, the artist’s closed eyes suggest an inner tension, the simultaneity of dormancy or trance and aggressive absorption, of a struggle for survival and an eruption of energy. The person depicted there, represented by the head, seems to struggle for her survival and status by consuming objects and energy fluids. At the same time, however, the person is being ‘consumed’, which is emphasised by the symptoms of biological time flow in her body and by the mutilation of the images by various forms of manual aggressive interference in the photographical material. The mythological sense of consumption appears to be referred to by the images of heads whose mouths bite the doll figures, thereby evoking associations with the myths about the ‘consumption of deities’, such as for instance the Greek myth about the titanic god Cronus, who devoured his own children in order to forestall the prophecy of his loss of power. Famous presentations of this myth in art history include such works as the painting Saturn Devouring His Own Children by Francisco Goya (1821).

Myths, religious parables or mystics’ confessions are the communications of knowledge which describe archetypical situations and elementary impulses of human consciousness on the basis of a certain anecdote. Natalia LL decided to refer to this sphere of experience as early as in the second half of the 1970s through the cycles entitled Dreaming and Points of Support. She thereby widened the sense of the category of consumption, which in her previous works had been approached with colloquial literality. In recent decades, the productions by Natalia LL have been postmodernist reinterpretations of the principles of her previous art (this operation can be also regarded as an example of widely conceived consumption). The same elements and strategies appear in new garments, settings and combinations.

The bananas which were sensually consumed by the models in the years 1972–1975 appeared later as objects brutally destroyed by Brynhildr sometimes impersonated by Natalia LL herself. Bananas appeared also as an element of an installation with a skull and flowers (The Voracious Skull from 1994); their multiplied reproductions decorated extensive strips of fabric displayed in gallery space.

One of the 1973 shows of Consumer Art consisted of two parts. One of them consisted of panels with photographs featuring faces of eating models, the other, held in another gallery, involved panels with multiplied records of the artist’s name, which covered the entire floor (moreover, an audio played a verbal description of the works presented in the first part of the exhibition). The possibility of preserving the identity of meanings in spite of changing the form of recording one’s own person or despite changing the persons to be recorded, suggested in this show and in many other works, is tantamount to indicating possible analogies between a simple everyday action and a mythical or transcendental act. However, as I have already mentioned, in the case of works by Natalia LL such a comparison accompanies the manifestation of the dramatic divergence between the natures of these states, and thus their simultaneous validity becomes not only a riddle but also a reason for existential fear.

Another field of confrontation in the art by Natalia LL is a co-dependency of body and mind as areas of consciousness. Many critics perceived this juxtaposition as a dualist understanding of existence leading to tragic conclusions. (5) However, what seems more important to the artist is a correlation between various factors, which can be evaluated in the work series with the ‘animal motif’. In the year 2007 Natalia LL began creating the cycle of works called Furry Hairiness or The Softness of Touch, which are based on juxtaposing the fragments of her previous works created in the years 1977–1978 in the cycle Animal Art. The earlier works were staged photographs showing the author posing to the video camera, half reclined on the sofa and with her naked body partly covered with fur. Her poses and gestures reveal her feeling of pleasure provided by the softness of touch, the sense of warmth or the possession of a luxurious object, which additionally protects her to some extent from the inquisitiveness of the video camera. The animal element appears there as human vestment, which means something tamed. However, the human body also appears in these works as an object subordinated to the conceptual strategy of art, the rules of photographic depiction, or social requirements of aesthetical correctness. The animal, reduced to the furry clothing, appears as a luxurious toy, a source of pleasure, a safe extract of nature in an artificial environment created entirely by the human being. By analogy, a woman’s naked body covered with fur can be perceived as a representative of the animal element, similarly reduced to the role of a gadget subordinated to the criteria of luxury and pleasure. The body is enclosed in a secure interior which can be accurately described by the expression ‘the cage’, which in Polish is a homonym of the word indicating a photo still. Also in the works presenting the faces of consuming models photographed by Natalia LL, the act of consumption may be interpreted as an animal reflex (in the sense of satisfying corporal needs) reduced to the artificiality constructed by the human being. It is by no means an accident that the word ‘catwalk’ understood as a long narrow stage where the fashion models parade is in Polish a homonym of the term ‘paddock’, associated with zoological gardens or circuses. The same word in both contexts indicates some forms of training for the purpose of achieving a sophisticated level of perfection. However, animals in cages or paddocks are evidently limited in their inborn abilities and needs, whereas people seem to be blooming by restraining the animal element in themselves and others.

Initially, her works were interpreted as a critique of the consumer lifestyle and a protest against the commercialisation of art. At other times they were accused of promoting a hedonist attitude, shocking with eroticism or even pornography. However, the subsequent productions of Natalia LL proved that a more comprehensive interpretation of her works is justified. What is important, the artist has always been inspired by the Christian interpretation of the spiritual aspect of the body resulting from the dogma of incarnation. She stated it directly in several manifestoes such as Body Art and Performance – the Consecration of the Human Body in Art (1984), Loose Space (1987) or The Theory of the Head (1991). (6) The basic question of these texts was keeping a distance from the dualistic interpretation of the body and soul and approaching the connection of these categories as an existential riddle. The visual works infer that spiritual value is not directly perceivable but manifests itself through the efficiency of technical and operational procedures by means of which the human being subjugates matter, including their own body and its animal aspect. This is presented in a slightly different way in the recent works by Natalia LL, where the animal element seems to be made absolute by focussing on the matter of fur which creates its own universe there. Therein rises a question of whether these works are a continuation of the author’s previous conviction or are they rather their radical transformation.

Later works from the ‘animal cycle’ apply only fragments of the previous ones. (7) The fragment of a photograph representing the texture of fur has been magnified and copied four times so that the copies are set in a composition symmetrical along their vertical and horizontal axes. As a result, a kind of mandala has been formed where the shapes of hair and its colour hums make up rhythmic and dynamic configurations with a clearly exposed centre and axes of the composition. What is really striking in these works is their semantic self-reference, additionally emphasised with their title Furry Hairiness. This is a kind of cosmological diagram which seems to state that the world is constructed of pulsating animal matter.

It is also significant that this pulsation has been expressed in a mechanical way, i.e. through automatic photographic reproduction, subsequently processed through computer multiplications. That may seem to be supportive of the conviction particularly promoted since the time of Descartes, which says that nature is a cycle of mechanically repeating processes with no capability of development. Charles Baudelaire, while formulating the postulates for modern art in the 19th century, claimed that this development distinguishes the human being from nature. (8) He believed that only artificial products of human activity which belong to culture manifest historical creativity and quality development. His belief revived with particular force in 20th-century strategies of postmodernism. However, mechanisation is a product of human activity and that is highlighted in the works by Natalia LL where nature itself does not appear but what we can see is its artificially produced image, reflecting a certain level of human consciousness. The principle of mechanisation remains somehow innovative for the artist, but it is also subject to criticism. Its usefulness in the process of separating the essence of things from natural forms proves to be problematic. Strikingly, the elements of Furry Hairiness in their mechanical composition form nearly geometrical shapes which seem to aspire to ideal Platonic geometry but are in fact its caricature. Such an effect is actually an inversion of the situation created by Natalia LL’s cycle of works entitled Platonic Forms. Created several years before, they featured the image of the artist’s head subject to caricatured deformations in order to adjust it to ideal geometrical shapes. This comparison implies that mechanical procedures, in spite of their being a product of human activity, do not explain specifically human consciousness but groundlessly degrade the animal sphere. Perceiving the interdependence of these spheres and respecting their far-reaching autonomy is a truly important value for Natalia LL. (9)

The artist has created a number of other works inspired by human relationships with nature. Since 1978 these have been mainly performances recorded by photographs from the cycles Dreaming, Points of Support, States of Concentration, and A Devil’s Touch, which referred to the possibilities of an intuitive insight into the universal principles of reality. She was inspired by both the theories of parapsychology or astrology and mystics’ texts, literary works or myths. In certain works she herself appeared in the pose of a priestess, the mythical Brynhildr, or a witch, i.e. someone highly unified with the powers of nature. However, simultaneously, she has many times indicated the cracks and contradictions in these relationships, which triggered her anxiety or even catastrophic moods expressed in such cycles of works as Eschatological Landscapes, Panic Sphere, and Platonic Forms. On the one hand, they revealed the sense of immersion in nature but on the other hand the need of transcendence. They formed the framework of a tragedy which the artist expressed directly in various works, such as the installation We Are Drowning (1997). The centrepiece of this project was the action performed at the bottom of an empty water reservoir soon after a flood; the artist was lying naked there and covered by a pile of sawdust which could be regarded as a floral equivalent of fur, a protection for a naked body. (At the same time, the artist created a cycle of pictures The Soul of the Tree with the surfaces formed of ground sawdust of the willow.) Another symbolic attribute of the body’s protection against danger used by
Natalia LL in her recent works is a gas mask. In the cycle Freedom Birds. Volucres Coeli she uses photograph images of her naked figure with a gas mask on her head and drawings of birds.

Dream is a specific form of unifying with nature and the sphere of unconsciousness. It has been used by Natalia LL as a way of action in the seances of Dreaming, performed since 1978. The dreaming experiences make us clearly aware of the underlying impossibility of translating an inner experience into a verbal message and additionally indicate a complicated interdependence of various levels of consciousness. The artist enriched this motif by publishing a book composed of records of several dozen dreams. (10) These are not their detailed descriptions but their consciously engineered presentation. Dreams function as a medium which enables the artist to speak freely about her personal and artistic problems combining them in the way which would be otherwise difficult to accept. The memory of these dreams is obviously motivated by a desire to capture the sense of such spontaneous sensations, but respecting the complexity of their triggering factors prevents Natalia LL from interpreting them unambiguously. She makes it clear to herself and to us that the borderline between dream and reality is fluent and what happens in reality may appear to us even more irrational.

These descriptions of dreams may be compared to a journey through a labyrinth constructed of two kinds of matter, a journey which, in fact, spans one’s entire life. The construction of this book may be even regarded as a contemporary version of works belonging to the literary genre characterised by making an attempt to express allegorically the logics of human fate by describing the events set entirely or partially in the dreamworld, such as the famous work Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This work was published at the end of the 15th century and presented the character who was overcoming different obstacles in his dreams in order to meet his beloved; the work also gives an account of the stages of his journey, which correspond symbolically to the determinants of human self. Compared to this work, the records of Natalia LL and her seances of Dreaming are a structure which is much looser and more difficult to classify but in fact they artistically strive for the same goal, i.e. the conveyance of a total poetical vision of existence by means of determiners derived from daily life experience.

Adam Sobota, 2010

(1) Natalia LL – Art and Energy, National Museum, Wrocław, 1993, (cat.), p. 7.
(2) N. Lach-Lachowicz, The Theory of the Head, in: Natalia LL: Texty, Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biała, 2004, p. 120-123.
(3) Such a postulate appeared in the manifesto of the Permafo Gallery.
(4) A. Dzieduszycki: Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, ‘Fotografia’ 1973, no. 7, p. 158.
(5) Such an interpretation was presented, for instance, by Lech Karwowski who wrote in the text to the catalogue accompanying the exhibition of Natalia LL from 1990: ‘Duality is the content and obsession of a great catalogue of Natalia LL’s masks… Dualism is felt by Natalia LL as a deep harm done to the self by existence. Considering the opposites to be real, she struggles with the problem of the substantiality of evil and its demonic presence.’
(6) See: Natalia LL: Texty, Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biała, 2004.
(7) G. Sztabiński proposed to call such a method of action a ‘self-quotation’. See: a comment by G. Sztabiński in: Art as Thought – Art as Energy, International Triennials of Graphic Art, Wrocław, 1995, p. 312.
(8) Ch. Baudelaire, O sztuce. Szkice krytyczne [The Mirror of Art. Critical Studies Book], Wrocław, 1961.
(9) This problem deeply touched John Berger who presented it in his 1977 essay: Why Look at Animals. See: J. Berger, About Looking, Warsaw 1999.
(10) Natalia LL, Dreams and Dreaming, Bielsko-Biała 2005. It includes the records of the artist’s 68 dreams from the years 1957–2003.

Translated by Dominika Kowalewska