The art of Natalia LL, beginning from the 70s, is a “search for art” understood as the artist’s extra-material stream of consciousness. Yet this search cannot be freed from the real and the mundane. Perhaps that is the reason why the work of Natalia LL represents a state of balance between the body and the spirit. It is also a search for freedom realized through creativity and approximation to the impossible; it is, in the artist’s own words, like transforming dirt and rubbish to a bunch of field flowers.
The exhibition Volucres Coeli staged by Natalia LL in Gallery Wozownia in Toruń is an apotheosis of freedom and the triumph of thought over matter. Once again we observe the strategy of combining the “impersonal” — the Natalia! cycle being a combination of the letters in the artist’s name – with the “private” – Double Apparition (2001), and the Double Heads cycle (2002) (1). This set is complemented by the series Birds (1999).
The series of letters and photographs — a kind of verbal-visual code — have been arranged alternately, thus creating a record of linear development of meanings. Those meanings can be found in the dual nature of man as a corporeal and spiritual being, distinguished from other creatures by the omnipotent mind. The power of the mind is one of the driving forces of Natalia LLs art. The other equally important force is the body. Both phenomena have been described by the artist. The artist explains the former phenomenon in The Theory of the Head: “this existential attitude is especially close to me when, for some inexplicable reasons, l am compelled to create art. This impelling force is so overwhelming that l have no choice except to surrender humbly. This attitude leads me to demonstrate how very important is the human head in art. l wish to focus on the essential content of the head, shown with great clarity by Joseph Kosuth” (2). In her earlier manifesto Consumer Art, Natalia LL wrote: “so, the artist is finite and limited by the body, but at same time he or she unveils the spirit, reveals the common platform of infinite materiality and spirituality […] 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” (3). The combination of both these complementary, and at the same time contradictory aspects is “an inherent right of the human naturę” (4). This right was already recognized by Heraclitus as one of the most amazing psychological laws, and a “controlling function of the opposites”. This philosophy is founded on the idea that everything which is alive is energy, and so is based on the principle of the opposites. It is important, however, not to change one idea to its opposite, but to preserve the original value, and simultaneously recognize its opposition (5). In the work of Natalia LL, the conformity and the “interexchangability” of the “oppositions” seem to confirm these psychological contemplations. Both these notions lead towards one goal — to obtain balance between the conscious and the unconscious, which in turn may be identified with the state of liberation.
Maintaining the principle of the dual nature of man and creating artistic meta-reality, the artist in her cycle Double Apparition creates a female nude with a masked face. This individual becomes both nobody and everybody, the uncovered and the covered, and because the photograph is divided into modules, she becomes both a wholeness and a fragment. A masked face also appears in the cycle Double Heads. Although in both these cycles the artist made use of the classic canons of female nude and portrait, she changed their meanings. That which is important appears not within the area of visual recognition, but outside, in the area of transcendence.
The motif of the face or head, frequently recurring in the work of Natalia LL, changes its form once again. In the 1970s the face plays the role of a model which was a kind of visualization of meanings and notions pertaining to the principles of conceptual art (e.g. Words, 1971) and those realized as the subsequent stages of meta-reality (e.g. the installation Intimate Photograph, 1971). In the 1980s, the artist returns to the head motif. This time, however, she showed a deformed, half covered, suffering head (Destruct, Panic Fear, Platonic Forms, Eschatological Arrangement) which contrasted with the earlier images. In the work created in 2001 and 2002, the entire face was covered with a gas mask. In Double Apparition the body is visible, warm and recognizable, even in fragments; in Double Heads the “mask” fills (or blows up) the whole screen, so there is no room for the body. Its existence is hinted at by an outline of the arms, sometimes emphasized by the colour of the flesh, the reflection in the eyes, and the movement which makes the head/mask appear as double.
The masked head becomes the central motif, independent of its bodily extension. It is more of a reliquary, a vessel covering the mind, a place of the most intense exchange between an individual and the surrounding world. At the same time, it is a private, almost intimate area, a realm of important psychological processes which lead man to liberation from the elementary contradictions of life (6). Concealment, which is undoubtedly connected with the idea of the mask is a drive for transubstantiation, a means facilitating the transfer from what one is to what one wants to be. Claude Levi-Strauss notes that “the meaning of the mask is not found in what it shows, but in what it transforms. In fact, it is found opposed to that which is shown (7).
In another interpretation of the idea of the mask, Leo Navratil combines its meaning with the aspect of protection, the function of hiding fear and the opportunity to lend its carrier an existence other than his own (8). Considering the fact that a gas mask appears in the work of Natalia LL, which is a product of the industrial culture serving not only war, but also used for protection and for improving the functioning of the human body in extreme conditions, its use may refer to these functions, only the area in which the artist moves is probably an area of the nonmaterial world (the subconscious).
Conversely, the state of concealment and isolation from reality is closer to a dream which has been another subject of Natalia LLs work since the late 70s. The mind of a dreaming man is unavailable to those outside, and the masked head/vessel, although existing outside its own body, remains “alive” and continues the cycle of never-ending transformations of corporeality to spirituality, weakness to strength, reality to an artistic reality.
Verbal codes appearing among their visual counterparts introduce and “guard” a strict order. However, even in this ordered record of letters, we encounter “traces” of the artist’s “presence”, the subtle touches of the corporeal element. Perhaps, it is another strategy of masking, a transformation happening through the conceptual strategy. The exhibition Volucres Coeli ends, or begins with, three drawings — graphs of flying birds. The sketch character of these drawings seems to emphasize their meaning not as artistic studies, but as symbols whose strength lies in the conventionality of their presentation. According to myths and legends, birds are “carriers of celestial power” and messengers of the Creator. Thus, they belong in “another” nonmaterial world. They also symbolize thought and imagination, and consequently become an agent between the inside and the outside. As the embodiment of an alchemic “acting force”, they express the state of sublimation, i.e. the ephemeral, the “phenomenal”. In their active, “elevating” form, they constitute a kind of counterbalance to static images, which are animated only by convention. The work Double Apparition, the cycle Double Heads, and the verbal record Natalia! are focused “directly” on the artist. The birds appearing in these works are more often than not the symbols of consciousness and everything which is connected with the spiritual and creative passion, as well as liberated awareness.
The dominating motif of Volucres Coeli is the theme of masking which, in this case, is the act of liberating, and like art is connected with a search for freedom. This activity is not free from fear and the constant race against time and the limitations of the body. However, as the artist writes, “art is capable of rebuilding the dilapidated every-day reality into a wondrous structure of an artificial (artistic) reality. It is only in the reality of art that we become independent, free” (9).
Małgorzata Jankowska, 2003
(1) Natalia LL began to combine photographs with comments at the early 70s when the publications of the PERMAFO gallery began to appear in print. The little book PERMAFO Summary – the Work of Natalia LL 1970-1973 appeared in 1973. The book included photographs in the Permanent Record and Consumer Art series, alternated with series of written records consisting of the letters in the artist’s name arranged in different orders.
(2) Natalia LL: Theory of the Head, “Exit” no. 6, 1991.
(3) Quote from: B. Stokłosa: Notes on the Photo-medial movement, Fotografia, 1978 no.4, p. 22..
(4) This problem was one of the most essential focuses of C G Jung’s dissertations, see J. Jacobi’s: Psychology of C.G. Jung, Warsaw 1968, p.75.
(5) From J. Jacobi’s: Psychology of C. G. Jung, Warsaw 1968, p. 76.
(6) “Little divides the semantic identity of “head-vessel” from the alchemical equasion “head-alchemist’s vessel”. Jung helps us cover that distance saying that: “a head or a skuli was used in Sabean alchemy as a transformation vessel”, see A. Schwarz’s Marce/Duchamp alias Rrose Sélavy alias Marchand du Sel alias Belle Haleine, in: Masks, ed. M. Janion, S. Rosiek. t.1, Gdańsk 1987, p. 178.
(7) C Levi-Strauss: A mask does not exist on its own, in: Masks, op. cit., p. 72.
(8) L. Navratil: According Being, in: Masks, op. cit., p. 80.
(9) Natalia LL: Art and Freedom, “Katalog”: Natalia LL: Art and Energy, edited by A. Lachowicz, A. Sobota, Wrocław: National Museum, 1994. Written in 1987.
Translated by Jarosław Fejdych
Proofreading Kevin Hannan