Critics Back

Transformations of Natalia LL, Ryszard K. Przybylski, 2009

Natalia LL, in the work Transfiguration of Odin, assumes a role of a witch who represents wisdom and power. However, it is worth adding that these attributes originate from the area dealt by demonology. The witch belongs to the world of patriarchal discourse. On the one hand, she sublimated the fears of different sexuality, but on the other hand she proved helpful in oppressive actions against women. Nowadays, when patriarchy takes on a nearly comic form, the witch gains new meanings.

Natalia LL locates the witch between the image of the young and old Odin. This is a destruction of the myth. In Norse mythology Odin is a god of war and warriors and a contributing creator of the world who, moreover, particularly loved wisdom. In the work by Natalia LL, however, he appears naked, helpless, full of uncertainty, and deprived of any comprehension of meaning. The young Odin does not know the future, whereas the old one seems to be searching in vain for the sense of his life so far. Everything appears to be fluent, like time which changes everything around. Uncertainty and a climate of loss are dominant. In this context, the witch seems to represent this kind of knowledge which was missing in Odin’s world.

Transfiguration of Odin, a part of a larger project entitled Opera omnia, is yet another scene of an artistic performance presented by Natalia LL for years not only to Polish audiences. Each of her productions seems to be surprisingly new at first sight, whereas, in fact, each of them is a covert continuation of the preceding ones. The same refers to Transfiguration of Odin. The allusion to feminist discourse, so powerfully present in this work, which although nowadays is nothing new remains undeniably popular, appeared in the artist’s early productions when, at least in Poland, almost nobody referred to it. I mean here, obviously, Consumer Art commented on by Gislind Nabakowski in 1975 as follows: ‘Natalia discovers the origins of the myth of a vamp before introducing a vampire on the scene. In many sequences of movement, in the changeable position of mouth, she exposes to ridicule the male fear of the feminine vagina as well as the readiness of Evas to make the same clichés.’ (1)

There is no contradiction in the transformation of a vamp into a witch. These are, in fact, synonyms if we consider that the vamp introduces a wide problem of vampirism. Vampirism and demonology may be in concordance, especially if both of them refer to a patriarchal discourse and if the problem concerns the recognition of the strive for domination as a sign of fear. No wonder the idea of creating by oneself as an alternative to patriarchal logocentrism has been popularised within the field of women’s art. A number of works by Natalia LL, for instance her performances, could be interpreted in this way.

Contrary to all appearances, she attempted to realise this idea in a slightly meandering way, by a process of trial and error, which was not free from turmoil, such as a ‘flirt’ with conceptual art, which is seen as such in the context of her previously described art. Yet in the early 1970s she dedicated a lot of her artistic activity to this way of thinking. That was the time when Galeria PERMAFO was active or, at least, was in the initial stage of its functioning. It was when the artist noted that ‘pictorial language will be legible only within language itself and the whole anecdotic motivation loses its sense. Thereby, art will become art.’ (2)
This semiotic or even linguistic approach to art was intended to discover its core and recognised such a possibility in formalistic solutions. Therefore at that time Natalia LL aimed to separate the image from its reference to objects or, even more, to deprive it of various connotations which could be related to existential experiences and the ways of symbolising which express them. That is where, probably, provocative photographs registering the acts of copulation stem from. These seemingly pornographic images were not intended to be obscene. Their main objective was to register what was in front of the lenses of the camera, which could be a subject of an anecdote. What remained important was the photograph itself, which can be defined as a specific structure: ‘each view (image of reality) may
be approached as a material set of an infinite number of points’ (3), Natalia LL wrote in 1977.

Natalia LL seemed to believe in the possibilities of creating a grammar of art, which was an equivalent to the end of history prophesied by Francis Fukuyama. If it was possible to realise the intended goal, then the prophecy of Georg Wilhelm Hegel that the objective of art would be reduced to self-reflection, would come true. That would have had to lead to the end of art and, in fact in the 1970s, it could have seemed that this meaningful idea was close to realisation. However, as it usually happens, the end does not need to be a demise. It may be an exhaustion of a certain way of systemic thinking.

Paradoxically, the recognitions made by conceptualism in its various ways of manifestation initiated truly interesting pursuits, invariably aimed at all the forms of figural or formal mimesis. Nevertheless, the questions about the essence of art were arising more and more frequently, but more attention was paid to social conditions of such questions and to a search for the circumstances which define why something is regarded as a work of art. As a result, crossing the border of social acceptability became a challenge for artistic initiatives. Many artists preferred to locate their art in the area they referred to as non-art in order to escape the clutches of commercialisation. That was also the direction followed by Natalia LL.

This, however, was not any radical change in her art. Conversely, when she dealt with formalising the language of art and therefore was subject to patriarchal logocentrism, she simultaneously took actions which placed her in another realm of problems. As early as in 1972 she focused on everyday issues. She wrote: ‘Art realises itself in every moment of reality – each fact, each second is unique and unrepeatable for every human being. That is why I register ordinary and trivial events such as eating, sleeping, copulation, resting, speaking, etc.’ (4)

This way of thinking owes a lot to the reflection of Martin Heidegger formulated in The Letter on Humanism. Wishing to break free from the image of the human being as formed by ideologies, he postulated a return to what is the most elementary in every human being. Natalia LL seems to be doing the same. It appeared in the 1970s that a similar viewpoint encouraged formalisation of art and its separation from all the connotations which connected it with existence and allowed for a reconstruction of a grammar of art. However, the concept may be interpreted also in another way, namely as a way of destructing art filled with alleged humanism. This is the way to indicate what social discourses artists get implicated in even if they are not really aware of it. However, Natalia LL tries to act as a reviewer of others’ behaviour. Sometimes she does it in her manifestoes and program declarations. In her art in the late 1970s and since she has attempted more and more consistently to separate issues which are visible from the ones which are verbally expressible.

That was a clear turning point in her art which distances her, as it has been mentioned above, from the previous conceptual and post-conceptual initiations. In her Dreaming Natalia LL shows the helplessness of various discourses in their description of oneiric worlds. In fact, the viewers of her performances face a mystery. A dreaming artist not so much discovers but nearly covers the experience signalled by the title. If it is completely invisible, how to talk about it? ‘A dream can be described by another dream’, she wrote in the Oneiric Registrations – ‘Complicated dreaming can be explained by another complication. How to find a method to describe dreaming physically in a real world?’ (5)

As it was said by Michel Foucault in his publication on Raymond Roussel, we describe the invisible analogically to what is visible to us. As a result, we endlessly return to conventionalised and socially acceptable forms of reality. We are closed within them like in a prison. Therefore we attempt to justify the role of the convicts which we are ascribed to by finding various social discourses explaining the meaning of the human world. Natalia LL, however, casts doubt on such a way of acting. She does not want to replace the invisible with the visible. Conversely, in her art the visible indicates the irreplaceable invisible. It is important to underline that it indicates it but does not replace it. The invisible had better become the negation, a lack or nothingness. Let it stay in opposition to the notions applied by us to describe the world and ourselves. In the perspective of existence, a conclusion is simple: we are what we will be able to become, under one condition: we should not let ourselves get closed in the area managed in a given time by the standards which define the field of the visible and verbally expressible.

Natalia LL initially referred this concept also to the body. She admitted: ‘The interdependence of the word and the Body described in the Gospel according to Saint Luke is of great significance: ‘The word became flesh and dwelt among us’… This earthly dwelling is a transient form for the energy of the word or thought: it may live with us here and now but when the first earth and heaven pass away it will live in another world. On the earth, art is this another world. The body may be disassembled but body art as an idea will continue to exist.’ (6) Nowadays, while reading this text from 1980, we may have impression that it is filled with unjustifiable claims made by the word. The words which dominate over the body may symbolise a repressive power. They represent a constraining power of social discourses. The conviction that the word may entail a liberation of the body is rather delusive.

Yet it is not the liberation of body which really matters here. Eventually, we are sentenced to words and the will to release ourselves from it is rather risky. The negation, lack or nothingness indicate also what our body can reach only in the future, whereas the future itself appears to be unknown so that we remain hardly its trace. What could we say about what will be in the future, especially in reference to our bodies? This kind of reflection is gradually emerging in Mystical Heads where Natalia LL presents corporality in a Gnostic manner. The body seems to be the battlefield of two competing forces of good and evil. Tortured or mortified bodies may orbit either towards the Absolute or the Satan (7). The artist expresses a profound hope that owing to art even the experience of fear or anxiety will bring us closer to the good. However, in spite of these declarations, mortified Mystical Heads leave the viewer in total anxiety. Is that true, then, that each suffering can make sense? It is not strange that this period of the artist’s activity was commented on by Ryszard Ratajczak in the following words: ‘Natalia does not let us identify her. She is a constantly searching explorer, restless, flickering in her prismatic secrecy.’ (8)

Finally, when it comes to the body, experience always comes into play. As it occurs, all the projections of the future, the faith in a creative word fail completely. The body is not only a trampoline for thoughts but also simply a body. It often proves that a typically Gnostic attempt to place the body between good and evil is not congruent with reality, because everybody sooner or later will realise that good is not always good and that evil is not always evil because the context is what decides about everything. In this perspective, the confession of the artist from the mid 1990s is of great significance. She admits: ‘I experienced an authentic catastrophe (calamitas) of an amputation of my femininity. 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 multiple erotic elements in a thoroughly ordinary reality.’ (9)

A number of meanings have been concealed there and not all of them can be verbalised. Not every tremble of body will find its conceptual equivalent. Not each lack can be replaced with a sign whether it would be a word or an image. Thereby the body manifests its independence. It simply becomes itself, which proves possible maybe because the others stop paying so careful attention to it and because it does not surrender easily to the standards imposed on it by contemporary world? These standards yet do not refer to an ageing body which is banned from the realms managed by young people. Interestingly, however, this independence and self-consciousness of the body are possible only when it becomes imperfect. Paradoxically, this happens when the danger of its reification significantly declines, because such a body is not perceived as an object of consumption nor becomes fetishised. Simultaneously, its importance is not belittled anymore: it is not disregarded in order to be made worthless as it used to happen in patriarchal discourse. Nobody is trying to cover it with a word.

The body may possess its self-knowledge. However, will it be accessible to everyone? And will it be, once possessed, transferable to others? How to make the subjective intersubjective? These are the questions which we may unceasingly ask ourselves but we will never be sure that we have found any satisfactory answer. Therefore Natalia LL remains so distant from conceptual art. However, consciousness is given at the end not at the beginning of the way. Probably, art is closer to witchcraft practices than to logical ones?

What kerygma represents an imperfect body, then? The simplest from all the possible ones, which claims that justification of life is life itself, and so life does not need any forms of justification. It is in life itself rather than in external systems of knowledge that the energy which exceeds all the limitations resides. What is important, consequently, is not to lose this self-consciousness of the body and not to fritter away the biblical talents, even if we are exceptionally inclined to do so. Probably, that is why witches with their mysterious and timeless knowledge exist in the first place. That is why the man in Transfigurations of Odin has been subject to time-related processes. Brynhildr then, impersonated by Natalia LL, seems to exist incessantly. This is possible owing to the fact that she does not appear here in her juvenile incarnations. She is not a she-warrior who is trying to fight with Odin, but she agrees to live here and now. And that is why she knows more.

Ryszard K. Przybylski, 2010

(1) G. Nabakowski, Dwa mity z przyjemnością odrzucone [Two Myths Rejected with Pleasure], in: Natalia LL, Texty. Natalii LL. O Natalii LL [Natalia LL, Texty. Texts by Natalia LL and About Natalia LL], Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biała 2004, p. 26.
(2) Natalia LL, Język wizualny [Visual Language], in: Natalia LL, therein, p. 19.
(3) Natalia LL, PERMAFO and others, in: Natalia LL, therein, p. 32.
(4) Natalia LL, therein, p. 13.
(5) Natalia LL, Rejestracje oniryczne [Oneiric Registrations], in: Natalia LL, therein, p. 84.
(6) Natalia LL, Słowo o ciele (ciało w słowie) [One Word About the Body (the Body In the Word)], in: Natalia LL, therein, p. 82.
(7) Natalia LL, Loose Space, in: Natalia LL, therein, p. 104.
(8) R. Ratajczak, Sztuka autokreacji, czyli Natalia LL lat osiemdziesiątych [The Art Of Self-Creation – Natalia LL of the 1980s], in: Natalia LL, therein, p. 113.
(9) Natalia LL, Calamitas erotica, in: Natalia LL, therein, p. 182.

Translated by Dominika Kowalewska