On April 16, 2015, I was invited to give a talk at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, on the work of Natalia LL. The lecture took place I in conjunction with the closing events for her show: “Natalia LL: Secretum et Tremor.” Although I am not an expert in Natalia LL’s work, I was pleased to receive this invitation to come speak at CSW, because it was about ten years ago that I first arrived there, to access the artist files and library for my PhD dissertation research, which featured a chapter on the work of Katarzyna Kozyra. Since my specialism is in performance art in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe since the 1960s, my interest in Natalia LL’s work is of course in the manner in which she uses performance and the performative in her work, which spans many genres and media: performance, installation, photography, video. Her work can be viewed through various lenses, as well – conceptual art, performance art, and feminism. It also spans both the personal and the rational or logical. Consequently, my talk, Intimate Transfigurations, focused on the manner in which her artwork experiences numerous “transfigurations” depending upon the perspective from which it is viewed. Despite the fact that some of her work falls into the category of conceptual art, which in the North American context leans toward depersonalization, what Natalia LL represents in her work is often very personal and “intimate.” My talk presented her work from a number of these varied viewpoints, by contextualizing the work of Natalia LL both locally and regionally, within the context of late-communist and post-communist Poland and East-Central Europe, as well as internationally, demonstrating the great range and breadth of her work and its continued relevance in contemporary art.
I have to admit I was a bit nervous, as when I arrived in the lecture hall, I was told that Natalia LL would be there in person! It is always disconcerting to speak about a living artist in front of that artist, but the artist was more than gracious. It was in fact a great experience having her there—although I never managed to interview her in person (only via email), the audience that night was able to ask her questions, and the artist certainly had a lot of interesting stories to tell.
“Secretum et Tremor,” curated by Ewa Toniak, is a wonderful retrospective of the artist’s work, for many reasons. What I liked most about the show was its simplicity—it included most of the key works, and a range of media (photography, video, performance, installation), without being overwhelming. Natalia LL’s more recent work is rather quirky, and challenging, but in the context of this exhibition it becomes clear that this kitschy, camp, over the top, strange work makes perfect sense in the context of her oeuvre. What the installation, organization, selection and design of the exhibition really brought out was the theatricality of her work, consistent from the 1960s until today, as well as a sense of play. The overall sense that you get when you leave the exhibition is that her work captures both eroticism and playfulness, humanity and theatricality...all with the red thread of that ever-present banana, both food and phallus—that which sustains life.
On Saturday, April 18, Ewa Toniak gave a curator's tour of the exhibition. It was great to hear about the exhibition from her point of view, her vision, and what her intention was behind the selection and installation of works. The exhibition began in a makeshift “corridor” created by photo images and video images of Natalia LL’s iconic Consumer Art from the 1970s. The wall was painted in a manner reminiscent of the PRL time (socialist Poland), with the lower half of the walls dark grey to prevent them getting dirty, something which was often seen in Eastern European and Soviet apartment buildings with communal corridors. This corridor sets up the context in which the artist was working. Consumer Art, which features products such as bananas and sausages which were often hard to obtain—and thus consume—in socialist Poland, ironizes the idea of consumption in a planned economy. It also turns the tables on the notion of woman as that which is consumed by the male—because in these images it is the woman who is firmly in control of both her sexuality, and the phallus, as the models that the artist used in the series have their way with the sausages, bananas and puddings that they put in their mouths, lick, and let drip from their lips. At times, one could easily question whether one was watching pornography or an artistic video. The line between the two was deliberately made thin by the artist.
After the Consumer Art corridor, one enters Natalia LL’s grand salon – a room with green walls and a plush green velvet settee, emphasizing the theatrical element that runs throughout her work. Wagnerian music, an accompaniment to some of her video works, streams through the exhibition halls. The next room, in which the title of the exhibition is written, in a script composed of photographs by the artists, is bathed in red, and a later room is bright yellow. One room contains a more recent installation—one of the round tower rooms was completely papered over in none other than bananas.
In the video work Brunhilde’s Dream, the artist cuts open that sacred banana, turning the phallic form into a vagina. She penetrates the banana with her knife, splits it open, and lets the juices flow out. She also penetrates her cleavage with a banana, then zooms in and out on the spadix (the phallic part) of a Cala Lily, effectively penetrating it with her gaze. These are the themes that run through her work—the vaginal and phallic forms, which depend on one another, both for their existence, and for procreation, and the life juices that flow from them.
The final room of the exhibition includes two video performances from the 1970s, thus, as Toniak told us, we go through the entire exhibition only to come full circle, back to the beginning, to the themes that the artist in fact never left. In Impressions (1973), a model can be seen jumping up and down, her breasts bouncing, dripping cream on her breasts. In Artifical Reality (1975, 1976), the artist is seen sitting in a chair, posing for the camera, playing with different poses, gazes, views. These two works were what brought the entire exhibition home for me, and created an overriding understanding of her work which, I think, is all about play. Theatricality—yes; sex—yes; but above all, and incorporating those two elements, a delight in playing—with one’s body, with another’s body, with food, with sex, with theatre, with objects, with costumes, with one’s partner—with life in general.
I was honored to be interviewed for a documentary that Polish cultural television is producing on Natalia LL. I was asked by the producers if I could contextualize Natalia LL.’s work both regionally and globally, and my thoughts on her attitude toward sex. As for what my answers were, you can wait for the video…
After Ewa's tour, we all gathered for a public interview with Natalia LL, and...an official birthday celebration. We had cake, champagne,... and I presented her with a few bananas.