unpicking gender and consumerism with iconic feminist artist natalia LL
A new exhibition at Roman Road explores the work of one of Poland’s most revered avant-garde artists.
Natalia LL, Postconsumer Art, 1975.
Natalia LL first started taking pictures in 1960 whilst still a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław. What started as an obligatory course, soon turned into a prolific career; one now spanning over five decades. A true pioneer of avant-garde feminist art in Poland, Natalia LL is celebrated the world over for her playful critiques of consumer culture, her deep explorations of sexuality and gender, and her systematic experimentation with the laws of probability.
Using photography and film to illustrate small everyday actions such as eating, sleeping, copulation, resting and speaking, Natalia LL challenges the idea of art as something apart from reality. To her, art is a process that generates successive phases of reality. Her most significant piece of work was a 16-minute silent film called Consumer Art, from 1972. Mimicking the style of pornographic films, the film features a group of models suggestively eating a variety of phallic shaped foods - bananas, ice cream, sausages - as a sort of challenge to the commodification of women's bodies in porn. Unlike the girls in pornos, these women retain a sense of agency through their confrontational stares.
Breathing new life into such an iconic piece, the film, alongside other seminal pieces from her collection, is currently on show at Hackney's Roman Road gallery, in an exhibition dedicated entirely to the work of one of Poland's finest.
What was the art scene like in Poland when you were beginning your career?
When I finished college in the 60s, the Polish art scene was dominated by two trends: abstract painting and metaphorical painting. But at the same time, other modes of artistic expression were circulating round the world. These included land art, ephemeral art, performance art, conceptual art, and body art. I was lucky because, together with Jerzy Ludwiński and some other artists, we became the precursors of conceptual art here in Wrocław. Moreover, thanks to my contacts in Europe, I became part of the movement introducing body art and feminist art to the scene.
How has your work evolved over time?
I understood quite early that painting and drawing are methods of abstracting the visual world. My early photographs from 1961 are my most existential, of my home courtyard in Bielsko-Biała. I made them with a Pilot-Super camera, on black and white film. It was the simplicity of these images that gave them their richness of interpretation and atmosphere.
The visual settings of my early photographic series EXISTENCES prompted the portrait series Face Geography. These became existentially important studies of my family and friends' faces, showing their experiences and ordeals. This became the basis of my interest in the human body, its dynamism and eroticism, and the unique mystery it holds which led me to develop my later projects, including my documentary recordings and "permanent registration" series, such as Intimate Sphere, Consumer Art, and Post-Consumer Art. My later recordings are the continuation of this philosophical-existential and behavioural view of reality, which could not exist without photography.
What was the reaction to your work like at first?
At the start of my career, my artworks were frequently censored and my exhibitions were closed right after the opening. This was during the period of the Polish People's Republic. Nowadays my works are being bought and added to private collections.
What is it about capturing everyday activities - eating, sleeping, talking, having sex - that interests you?
Art is in the process of becoming in every instant of reality: to the individual, every fact, every second is fleeting and unique. That is why I record common and trivial events like eating, sleeping, copulation, resting, speaking... Moreover each activity of a person as a component of their reality evokes an equal mental reaction in the person who watches the notation. That is why I can transform a registration of one activity into another one. It is not substance and the formal appearance which are essential but an effect: that is meaning.
What keeps you inspired?
The body. The body is at the centre of all the problems and searches in my art. During my performances I become the subject and object of my art at the same time. The bodily aspect allows the spiritual and intellectual to appear. I express myself by means of becoming a work of art myself.
Back when you were starting out what did feminism mean to you?
In the 70s I was oriented towards art, which meant discovering one's own identity, new visual and mental realms. I started creating new spaces for erotic photography, attempting to represent the impossibility of showing the erotic contact.
The feminist movement in the 70s was present in all spheres of life. I was interested in art most of all. I kept in touch with feminist artists such as Valie Export, Verita Monselles, Gina Pane, Marina Abramovic, Annette Messager, and so I decided to advocate their ideas in Poland. I gave my first lectures on feminist art as early as 1977.
Feminists believed my art was intended to fight the phallic cult of masculinity. At the 1975 Frauen Kunst- Neue Tendenzen exhibition in Innsbruck, my work titled Consumer Art was even reproduced on posters as a symbol of feminism. To me, however, the work was simply a manifestation of life and vitality.
Feminism has become part of the mainstream cultural conversation now.
It was to be expected. We're currently in the third stage (if not later) of the development of feminist art. Social problems were the main reasons behind such a significant change.
What do you think of the idea of feminism being a "cool" trend, one which brands and celebrities can exploit in order to sell something?
I think that this "cool" trend won't harm true feminist ideas in any way.
Why is it so important to have more women behind the camera?
Women have such an extraordinary intuition. We are intellectually prepared to take photographs and make films and other recordings, whether they are related to feminist art or not.
What does the female gaze mean to you?
It's a powerful force that can change a lot.
What do you want viewers to take away from Natalia LL: Probabilities?
I'm very pleased with the exhibition. I hope it will help my work to reach a wider audience. The exhibition explores my work in relation to the law of probabilities, which has been an important determining factor in my work. In my Consumer Art series, the photographs are arranged in a grid, but the position of the photographs is not set in advance, leading to unique configurations. This can be seen as an extension of my well-known interest in gender and sexuality to a deeper interest in singularity and chance. Through this, the exhibition offers a new insight into my work.
Probabilities will be on display at Roman Road until 14 January 2017.
Text Tish Weinstock