Critics Back

The Game of Photogenicality, Jan Kurowicki, 2004

While the world was abandoning the traditional religiosity and began to sink into the humdrum reality of everyday life, it slowly became preoccupied with the human body, filled with a peculiar sacredness which replaced religion. That attitude endures and now dominates the imagination. It is not by accident, after all, that the decisive majority of modern allegories and metaphors refer to the human body and its various activities. They often have an aura and taste of intimacy, and make even the most complex issues understandable. Shivers run through the body at moments of intellectual enlightenment, as well as times of distress or rare fulfillment. This occurrence has always been an indication of an omnipresent privacy which, like the body, has a pretence of tangibility and obviousness. Furthermore, the body has a pleasant scent or nasty reek; it tautens or shivers; it aches or basks in idleness or pleasure.

Beckett in Le d’peupleur saw the body from a distance, in the pale, yellow light of the dying sanctity. The skin resembles parchment, and when it rubs against another body, it rustles like dry leaves. The mucous membranes are dry, too. A kiss, hę says, defies any description. The eyes, through constant effort, become blind. This dryness deprives the body of its charm. It turns from pink to grey. This is how the body appears at the level of artistic and philosophical generalization when one observes it in the context of both the mod­ern history of the all-powerful sanctity, and the world of man.

Meanwhile, within the sphere of sacred privacy, the body, with its parts and organs, is sanctified. This process is almost en passant in everyday life, but in activities and products of the cultural industry — which affect everything, from “nature-friendly” cosmetics, through internal design, fashion, leisure and entertainment, to sex — it is a well-planned and refined activity. This dissolves the emptiness of the disenchanted world, which now scintillates with different colours and forms with the body perceived as its centre and the substance of seemingly unchanging values. Yet this is all a sham, which exists thanks to the objectification of man. The question arises how to present this sham in artistic practice, and simultaneously, how to show its premise through everyday life and cultural industry? The issue may be approached from a number of different angles.
Natalia L.L. has been using various means of artistic expression for a few dozen years. The most important for her is the photograph (followed by film and video). That is no accident. After all, the photographed person is automatically perceived as a concrete individual, unique, like a thumb print in the police records from Sandburg’s work (quoted below). His face, figure, and the whole body form are individualized.

One of the fundamental aesthetic values of the photograph is photogenicality which consists of two parts: personal and cultural. The former refers to that which is associated with everyday life and the spheres of human intimacy, while the latter relates to symbolism expressing the essential values of a given culture. Both manifest themselves in the way we see photographs, which either give or take away something difficult to name; something created as a result of specified relations between the pictures created in our mind and their photographic counterparts. These relations may connote either consistency or inconsistency between these two types of pictures. The consistency means photogenicality; inconsistency signifies lack of photogenicality. The mind pictures develop in one’s lifetime; and photographic images constitute visual forms of cultural standards.
A shadow is like the spectre of an individual who, exposed to sunlight, casts it on the ground. Thus mind pictures throw their content out to the world in the form of spectres. Before the invention of the photograph, people had always striven to give some sense of being to a whole array of their spectres, as well as the spectres of their friends or foes, gods and demigods, animals and objects. They took the form of drawings, paintings, statues, taboos objects, totems, etc. They were also present both in hallucinations and ordinary reflections of objects or individuals in the mirror of calm water or an ordinary looking glass. They could be helpful or do harm; they could protect one from danger or give one the comforting feeling of companionship. They were used for magical activities, they were (and still are) present in religious cults, as well as spiritual and occult practices.

Natalia L. L. has been a mistress of the artistic game of photogenicality for several decades; a game rather than production for the sake photogenicality itself. The object of the game in the majority of her exhibitions, performances, and installations is her own body and face; mobile or still; clad or naked; clothed in “ordinary” clothes or ones that transform her into a mythical or fabulous being; or covered with sand up to the head; and finally, alone or with partner. The most striking feature of her slender face (first young and pretty, and then touched by the teeth of time) are the bottomless, black eyes that endure in their charm. They want to drown in themselves the content of vision, and at the same time, they want to push it away. They seem to be searching, and yet, express discouragement. That, however, is only a part of the meaning hidden in her photographs and not the reason why they were created, though it is very important for the artist. The photographs speak about the artist’s openness to the world (hence, the melting of its content in her eyes) and disillusionment, as on closer inspection the world becomes a mere monotony of every-day life (hence, probably, the pushing away). Thanks to photogenical­ity, Natalia L.L. is a restless spectre for herself and its embodiment.

Although she has always been fascinated with the unique values of photography, she uses them for various artistic and intellectual reasons. Besides, her photographs combine the individual and the cultural into a single unity. She knows that they give a credible sense of being to a variety of spectres, and by combining various spec­tres, she creates a peculiar short-circuit, and kind of grinding noise and sparkling sensation between the viewer’s imagination and consciousness, and a concrete photographic embodiment of her mind

Let us look at the photographs of her face from the beginning of the 1970s which identify her as a private person. They are pasted over the outer wall of a special box built for the purposes of the exhibition. One can look at them and see the differences, as well as the ever-larger close-ups until the picture is completely blurred, i.e. until the destruction of photogenicality. Consequently, the pretence of identity, visible in other photographs, becomes blurred. Pasted over the walls, they only offer the possibility of existence or collapse into non-existence.

However, the inner walls of the box are lined with different kinds of photographs — the ones showing bodies given to intimate, erotic play with a varied level of proximity. Yet, as it was pointed out by Adam Sobota, “the freedom of observation from the outside is contrasted with the tight inside of the box”. That is understandable. The artist says through the spatial arrangement itself that the recognition of identity through the photograph of a face (as through the thumb in the poem by Sandburg) is in a sense something official which can be accomplished both in private and in public. After all, anyone can have access to the face. However, it is not so with erotic intimacy — everyone carries their own imagination or memories of it which are kept tight in one’s own self, and which consequently, become private, sacrosanct, and not readily accessible to others.

It is all well and good, but something still needs to be clarified. Indeed, even the tight space of the box is meant for viewing, and that deprives the photographs of their private character. The spatial internal and external arrangement is only a metaphor which became an integral part of the exhibition as a public phenomenon. And so, a peculiar jarring sound and sparkling sensation appears; not in the order of the exhibited photographs, but between the eyes of privacy which are always individualized, and the eyes of the faceless public. And it is the public eyes that give the content of the photographs aesthetic frames, and transfer them from the order of experiences to the world of individualized erotic abilities; even though the viewer may cherish the illusion that they have been allowed into the intimate and private sphere.

That is the only possibility, anyway. It applies not only to plastic arts, but also to any kind of contemporary art which perceives the human body as the last reservoir of sanctity covering the emptiness of human existence and the illusiveness of the sanctity of privacy. Alyhough Ludwik Flaszen, in his Pact with the Devil commented mainly on the theatrical practice of Jerzy Grotowski, his words in fact define the whole art: “The avant-garde of the 1950s was evidence of the impossibility of achieving the traditional tragic effect in the theatre. Tragedy can only exist if the values are of transcendental character; when they are regarded as a kind of substance. When gods die, tragedy is replaced with the grotesque — a painful grimace of the jester in the face of an empty heaven (…) The question arises how to achieve the true tragic effect, as opposed to just a pretty and at the same time lifeless pose, which will also transcend mere clowning? How to achieve the primordial feeling of pity combined with awe, now obliterated from the emotional memory? The tentative answer is: by discrediting values — those ultimate as well as those elementary. One of the ultimate values is the integrity of human body. When everything is gone, the human body remains the asylum of dignity. It is a living organism and a kind of material guarantee of the identity of an individual and his autonomy from the rest of the world. When the actor divests his intimacy, and unhindered exposes his inner feelings incarnated in the material reactions of the body, when the soul some-how confronts the physiology, when the actor stands defenseless and naked in front of the public, and sacrifices his defenselessness to the cruelty of fellow actors, as well as the cruelty of the audience, then, paradoxically, hę regains pathos. And the discredited values are revived — by shocking the viewer — and moved to higher level. The wretchedness of the human condition, unclad and exceeding in its truthfulness the barriers of so-called good taste and good behaviour, culminated in an excess, allows to reach catharsis in, l dare say, its archaic character”.

These words could serve Natalia L. L. as a motto for her whole creative work. After all, she also divulges her whole intimacy, even when she only uncovers her face in front of the camera in order to play with photogenicality. She writes that “the art of the body, as an expression of artistic activity, is probably the most honest method of artistic expression, it is the art of the truth”. But she submits more than just her intimacy when she creates photographic cycles, such as e.g. The Consumer Art, in which a sumptuous blonde with pig-tails eats a banana (or a piece of sausage), as if she were sucking a penis; or when she has jelly or pudding on her face and licks her lips as if it were sperm.

Bananas, sausages, jelly, and pudding, like the face of the young girl, carry no artistic significance when analysed separately. Together (and also in a series) they form sexual metaphors in which the neat photogenicality of everyday life disappears; its monotony is exposed, changed into shamelessness and sacrificed to the cruelty of the viewers. Corporeality and its influence escape the order of inti­macy. They aim at specific symbols of popular culture and consequently they too become ironic symbols of this phenomenon.

This irony is complemented by a peculiar exhibition entitled TONIEMY, TO NIE MY, TO NIEMY, even though it deals with a different idea, and is separated by a substantial period of time from The Consumer Art. The exhibition consisted of series of her photographs arranged in words which show a skull with a banana in its teeth against a dark backdrop. Although the combination hardly evokes any erotic associations, and looks more like a morbid joke, its clash with the sumptuous blonde with pigtails eating a banana lustfully (as if it were a crooked phallus), is the unique, ironic closure of The Consumer Art. One can interpret The Consumer Art as an image of the symbolic facades created in popular culture, which the artist mocks by showing the “backstage”.

The facades pervade one another and are X-rayed, which allows us to see the actual reality. And so, the eroticism dissolves into the cadaverous emptiness of existence. The aura of photogenicality and the presence of an individual (at least that in the photographs) who possesses private identity also disappears. A symbol appears which no longer belongs in the popular culture, but is a part of the order of grand intellectual syntheses. After all, this is how human heads could appear, for example to the narrator of Le d’peupleur.

However, the photographs transcend the self-contained meaning; they are the building material for the words pasted on the walls of the exhibition room. They correspond to the titles of the exhibition, and form a play on words of multiple meaning. Natalia L.L wishes to draw the viewer’s attention to this aspect when she comments on the exhibition:
“Like many people in Poland, l was touched by the flood in July 1997. Undoubtedly, it was a catastrophe in the face of which the power of man proved pitifully feeble. The television, radio, newspapers, photo reporters, and film makers found a good topic for rambling reports. The actual flood is accompanied by a deluge of Information about this calamity.

We are drowning in the humdrum existence and our activities may drown too. l’m interested in the aftermath, not of this devastating flood, but of the flood of banality and humdrum in which we’re all drowning without even realizing it.

It seems to me that art is one of very few aspects of our inner selves which protects us from the flood, forestalls inundation, and keeps us from drowning in nothingness. Art is like love, it will survive when everything else is gone, it is the on/y thing that carries some significance”.

First, according to the artist, Wrocław was threatened by the flood of 1997. What followed was the media inundation of words and pictures on television and in the press. The skull deserved a banana.
It seems, however, that there exists another, even worse kind of flood which makes us NOT US (TO NIE MY); and each of us, when noticed and pointed at becomes one of the DUMB (TO NIEMY). Thus, everyday life with its overflowing banality is not a sphere of privacy, intimacy, and identity of a given individual. On the contrary, it becomes something that turns the individual to a cadaver, though very few notice it, as it is commonly believed that as soon as we break free from business and laborious money making, we become ourselves. It seems that this free time is the true, ordinary, everyday life. It is at these times, however, that everyone becomes dumb, as they express themselves through platitudes, and they themselves turn to nothingness, as their words, gestures, and actions lack some kind of breaking point. Once again, the skull with a banana becomes quite relevant.

The deliverance from it all is supposed to come from art. Nata­lia L.L. speaks of art with pathos, saying that it will survive like love. However, as l have shown before, there are different types of love, and love itself can take a multitude of forms. Art, at least that in its rare form practiced by Natalia L.L. allows one to see it and keep some distance. Art creates from its objects and their forms a unique, exclusive reality, a charmed circle where one can enter to catch some breath from continuous drowning in everyday life. Maybe the sphere of this circle is sacred for itself in a different way than that described in this essay, but the artist creating the circle is located between the circle and the very humdrum of everyday life. The art­ist is torn, half naked, half drowned, for to create this circle is not the same as to be inside. What remains, then, is a game (e.g. the photogenicality of physicality) whose results are always uncertain, from which privacy, the self and its identity are drained like sweat from a hot body.

If Natalia L.L. was unaware of that, and consequently, if she was not filled with the feeling of want, she would not constantly be engaged in new artistic projects or those bordering on art. And yet, she still takes photographs, dreams in public in a pyramid-like structure, created installations which strive to show the sanctity of privacy, and even in tree pulp, being one of her works, she sees a chance for her own uniqueness.
The latter, however, together with privacy lies dead in the shadows.

Jan Kurowicki

Translated by Jarosław Fejdych
Proofreading Kevin Hannan