Born in Romania, in 1959, Belu – Simion Fainaru is, so to speak, a living argument supporting the idea that contemporary art and artists can only be international. Living, working and teaching in Israel and Belgium, present in iconic international artistic events such as the Documenta or the Venice and the Havana Biennale, having solo shows hosted by prestigious institutions such as the S.M.A.K. in Gent, Fainaru is also currently the driving force, as well as the artistic director and curator of the Mediterranean Biennale of Contemporary Art in Israel. In more ways than one, he is an excellent example of a cultural producer who can meaningfully use specific cultural ideas, a particular spiritual mindset and tradition, as well his personal biographical background to reach very different audiences and to respond to diverse expectations, which are yet far from being levelled by the globalization processes.
After exhibiting together with Victor Man, in 2007, at Plan B gallery in Cluj (in a far from poignant show called More or less in the same place or another), the artist came back this year for a solo show at the same gallery, titled Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void. Opened at the end of February 2012, the exhibition was intelligently pairing remarkable clarity and coherence with less obvious conceptual complexity, was charmingly juxtaposing a sort of optimistic humour and an almost spiritual seriousness, and was concomitantly joggling with visual mojo and intellectual rigour. Thus, Fainaru’s truly impressive recent show confronts the viewer with a mature artist, who fully masters the tools of his (very personal) trade, yet remains remarkably inquisitive, dismissing both laziness, in all possible forms and bravado as if they were, to use a sharp, yet problematic syntagm, artistic sins.
The void and the nothingness appear to gain, somewhat paradoxically, positive value in Belu – Simion Fainaru’s apprehension. For what is worth, he is not the first proposing such a comprehension. Used recurrently throughout mankind’s spiritual history to define the indefinable, deployed to denote an absolute, incomprehensible reality or entity, the concepts of void, emptiness and so on have represented, for many religious thinkers or philosophers not the equivalent of non – existence, but, on the contrary, that of ultimate levels of being and of knowledge. Fainaru’s approach of the concepts of void and nothingness, which are, in fact, alluding to one and the same semantic realm, somehow paroxysmically highlighted by the use of both words in the seemingly categorical title of the exhibition, is rooted in such intellectual endeavours. Contemporary Jewish philosopher and Kabbalah researcher Moshe Idel shares and studied, mostly within texts composing the mystical Judaic tradition, some similar ideas about the nature of reality and deity. As he is a long time interlocutor and, I dare to presume, intellectual sparring partner of the artist, the Romanian born thinker has, in this respect, a considerable influence upon the artist’s conceptual and even spiritual world, which the latter admits without hesitation. Nevertheless, making an art that is not simply figurative, but, in a way, downright concrete and still embed in it references to the poetics of absence is, if taken seriously, a formidable task. Embarking on such a daring endeavour is precisely what Fainaru often does, most times with truly admirable and also even gently touching artistic results.
Think, for example, at his A Penny for Nothing interactive sculpture, featured in the exhibition at Plan B. A rather big, predictably white freezer has been filled with water and awaits the viewer, who is given the following instructions: “Count your pennies and throw one penny in the freezer: one penny for your hunger, one penny for your thirst, one penny for nothing”. To turn a common freezer in a fountain of wishes is a kind of ironic critique of consumerism, but this semantic layer is so secondary in Fainaru’s art work. What is more important is the ritual that is being instituted, as the instructions are precise as religious prescriptions. The religious or spiritual formalism is here alluded to, yet the artist is not necessarily criticizing it, not really trying to deconstruct it as void, stiff or meaningless, as has been done countless times before, to the point that the practice had became somewhat fashionable, not only in the artistic realm, but also in theological or pseudo – theological writing and predication. Hunger and thirst are both powerful and common metaphors of spiritual needs; however, the coronation of the ritual envisages their surpassing and accessing a sort of comprehension, or at least acknowledgement of superior nothingness. Then, after such reflections, one sobers up and realises that it’s still just a freezer, filled with water, into which contemporary art spectators tend to throw small coins, many of them smirking or smiling with presumably superior understanding while doing so. One realises, too, that it is in this very tension and in this very sharp, yet subtle humour that art somehow resides.
There is a strong connexion to be detected, in many of Fainaru’s works, with the concept and the practices of magic. Transformation is one of the key features of magic, one could rightfully say its fundamental purpose and it always envisages objects or substances with strong symbolic power. Transformation leads to the occurrence of a new reality, i. e. a new symbolic order. Something of this dialectics can be detected, for example, in such a work like Fears and Tears, the artist’s performance at the opening, when he placed one dollar bills into a toaster. Three domains of reality, which are in many ways profoundly antagonistic, yet often intertwined, are tensely brought together, as the dollar bill symbolically and uncannily becomes a loaf of bread: that of capital (where money are transubstantiated into power), that of religious beliefs (where matter is transubstantiated into spirit) and that of family life (where small rituals are transubstantiated into harmony).
Fainaru’s artistically induced / endowed magic is far from being a mockery of magic practices and beliefs, as he does not assume the position of the fake, tongue – in – cheek, postmodernist – like trickster. At the same time, though, his artistic endeavours are not as spiritually charged as to claim the actual ability to trigger transubstantiations of some sort, at least not with the seriousness assumed by artists such as an emphatically theatrical Nitsch or a utopian Beuys. The result of this, one could say, ontological and axiological indecision, is an inherent semantic tension, which provide his works with the ability to concomitantly be wittily attractive and imprecisely disquieting. Think, for example, of an installation like Black Milk, composed of a rather large number of white ceramic pieces of tableware, arranged in a rectangular shape on the gallery’s floor and filled with a translucent, black liquid. More than one kind of ritual and more than one type of liturgical discourse could come to one’s mind in front of the work, while the visual play carried out by the shiny white and the shiny black surfaces possesses a definitely hypnotic quality. Still, one can finally find out that the mysterious black liquid is nothing less trivial than spent engine oil; thus, the commonplace realm of the technological abruptly interferes with any spiritual references and awkwardly, almost shyly downplays metaphysical implications.
As forcefully proven by the solo show at Plan B, Belu – Simion Fainaru’s art, when deployed with full impetus, can hardly be confined to the clearly delineated borders of the gallery’s “white cube”. The main reason for this is that, leaving magic and rituals aside, he is the kind of artist who strongly needs to physically alter the environment in which he “performs”, to somehow inscribe his passage into it. Thus, he often marks the broader spatial context of the exhibitions with items that force the occurrence of a somewhat disguised, yet refined poetics. In the specific case of the Nothingness – the Poetics of the Void show, for example, before entering the courtyard of the Paintbrushes Factory, in which the actual gallery and thus, presumably, the exhibition are situated, one is met by a traffic light. The green light has the text “money” written on it, while the red light reads “no money”. Placed high above the entrance gate, Fainaru’s traffic light half playfully awakens the superstitious alter ego most of us possess, whether we like or not, whether we admit it or not. At the same time, the work obliquely performs a critique of the contemporary art system, suggesting that it matters if you enter the space of contemporary art with or without money, seeking money or not. Instead of furiously and pointlessly blubbing about the unfairness of the capitalist (art) market, as so many artists do, in, unfortunately, often dull manners, he brings a bit of lyricism, a touch of sharp irony and the shadow of a wise and indulgent smile into the discussion.
Lyricism, in its plain, but not corny form, reaches its peak within the show with the installation that took over a whole wall of the floor in the Factory where Plan B is situated, titled Monument for Nothingness. Small holes were drilled into the wall, at even intervals, disposed on several rows and a bouquet of roses is placed at the end of the corridor. Again, the prescribed mode d’emploi is disarmingly simple: “Take a rose petal. Think of a wish. And insert the petal into the wall”. No promises are made, no guarantees are granted that the wish will be fulfilled; one can only secretly hope for it, just as one bluntly, irrepressibly and so humanly hopes that the good predictions of the stupid morning horoscope. The visual effect on the viewer of the white wall dotted by the fresh red rose petals is fascinating; at the same time, as the first petals slowly decay and some fresh are added (increasingly rare, as the period of the exhibition nears its end) the wall becomes a saddening vanitas. Nevertheless, one must not overlook that understanding that vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas is a classic first step, in several traditions of thinking, in elevating one’s consciousness to a superior level of understanding the fundamental void of the world. And thus, true hope rises out of evanesced wishes: the petals were anyway far too beautiful to actually be able to kill all hope.
One more issue which needs discussing when it comes to the exhibition in Cluj, but also to Fainaru’s art in general is that of travelling, in the broader and complex meaning of the word. The artist has been in the fairly awkward position, as he left Romania, to emigrate from his country of birth to, literally, his fatherland. Being at the same time a native and an immigrant is a paradoxical status, one that he often explored in his artistic endeavours, as it might actually be the position of the truly irreducible stranger. His life and career could support such an assertion: he was the young and a bit strange immigrant accepted rather late by the Israeli art world, he works and teaches in Belgium as a Jewish artist from abroad and he is more or less a foreigner when he revisits the place where he was actually born.
From this position, he naturally tunes in to certain types of nostalgia related to geographical and mental maps of belonging. The assumed stranger’s identity, but that of the stranger who is at home almost everywhere, is referred to in such works as Another Time, the abat – jour lamp hanging from Plan B gallery’s ceiling that reads Belongs nowhere and to another time, sentence which seems to function as a sort of identitary mantra for the artist: he uses it, sometimes in slightly varying forms, again and again as he speaks of himself or his art. The same topic of belonging is epitomized in Jerusalem in the pocket, a white shirt’s sleeve provided with a pocket filled with earth from the holly city. The fundamental Jewish feeling of religious belonging is brought into discussion, as well as the binary semantics stemming from a Romanticist ideology, which was able to generate aggressive nationalisms, on one hand and sincere, sentimental, maybe even pathetic emotional attachments to “special” places, on the other hand.
Finally, it should be said that Belu – Simion Fainaru, a stranger or not, is a true traveller: he does not go to places to see them, but to somehow take them in, to capture their spirit, with glamour and dust, with the memories of bloodshed and the hopefulness of weddings. I strongly believe that this one of the crucial features of his personality which allows Fainaru, the artist, to be a genuine, first hand teacher.

For photos of the show, go to http://www.plan-b.ro/index.php?/expo/belu-simion-fainaru/.

This is a bit problematic text and it is definitely vulnerable to criticism from an ethical point of view. It is about things that happen(ed), albeit somewhat autonomously,  in an institution I work within and which were done by young artists which were, until very recently, students of mine and still are students of the aforementioned institution, namely the University of Art and Design in Cluj – Napoca. Thus, I could be suspected of parti pris when writing to signal the appearance of Atas Project Space, a new, young and, I should say, rather efficient and meaningful initiative managed by some of them and used as artistic platform by some others. Moreover, I am, for more solid and hopefully easier to understand reasons, generally reluctant in reviewing the artistic production of very young artists. However, the Atas space managed to become, I believe, a significant presence on the local art scene of Cluj during the last six months or so, therefore justifying a critical review of its activity. The present text is rooted in this belief of its author, who assures the reader that he is perfectly aware that, in this particular instance, is probably more susceptible to subjectivity than usually, yet hopeful that this situation will not impeach on his intellectual bona fide.

It must be, first of all, said that Atas has been a space for young artists’ projects in the early 2000’s and has made quite a reputation for itself, hosting some of the most exciting shows of that time in Cluj. Youthful and daring, truly innovative, albeit sometimes a bit gratuitously spectacular art was skilfully showed there, on the premises of the dynamic art school in Cluj and under the successive curatorial coordination of Mihai Pop (later become and far better known as director of Plan B, Romania’s top gallery for contemporary art) and Kudor Duka Istvan (currently teaching at the university’s painting department). However, the space has only been temporarily used for exhibitions over the recent years and the memory of “the first Atas” has gradually faded in the art community, especially among the young. Now, a second Atas is functioning, really lively and coherently, under the name Atas Project Space. The venue (or part of it, since the current exhibition space is a bit even smaller than the already rather small initial one) is currently managed by ASUAD, which is the association of the students of the University of Art and Design.

The programme of  the art space is both ambitious and comprehensive, though, at the same time, somehow fashionably vague, as one can understand by reading its own mission statement. It aims at being concomitantly a platform for promoting young artists and a space for discussions and debates on relevant contemporary cultural topics. Now, it is true that this can mean a lot of tings, although not anything, as one might be tempted to say; however, before discussing the profiles and quality of the events organized here, one is to notice the consistency of the actual events’ programme. Thus, since November 2011 until the end of March 2012, Atas Project Space has hosted no less than six exhibitions, a performance show and three artist talks. The sheer pace of the Atas’s activity is therefore commendable in itself, to the extent to which it renders problematic the very possibility of actually maintaining it in the long run. The renewed art venue has also managed, being mainly coordinated by Flaviu Rogojan and Iulia Boscu, in a rather short period of time, both to secure a public composed mainly of students and young artists, but also to expand its audience by attracting the attention of a part of the larger local art world (although there is much more to do in this direction).

The debut show was that of Cristina Mircean, titled Step Back. It consisted of a flickering, prismatic fitting, provided with neon tubes, constantly and randomly switching on and off. Permanently in motion, in a way, Mircean’s work was constantly unstable, simple, yet compelling, impossible to visually grasp as a whole and irritatingly fascinating. Hazard and what could be called electric randomness are somewhat replacing the “sacred” artist’s will, as she intentionally and wittily gives away the traditional obsession for complete control over the art work. Nevertheless, although it is both catchy and intellectually engaging, the work’s declared intention to conceptually explore and dispute the concept of finished art work is hardly realized (the fidgetiness of the flickering neon lights actually functions as an end in itself).

With Abracadabra, George Cringasu succeeded in attaining something rarely seen when it comes to young artists: to build an exhibition that is conceptually poignant without turning it didactic, explicative or boring. It was a compelling show that made a relevant point without over – emphasizing it to make sure that people get it. Abracadabra revolved essentially around two somewhat antagonistic, yet, as wittily and convincingly proved by the exhibition itself, profoundly related topics: that of the seemingly perennial character of people’s need for the spiritual and the supernatural and that of the equally recurrent turning into banality, truism and kitsch of this very fundamental inner drive. Using materials as diverse as raw meat and golden tinfoil, printed images of a religious icon and the signed poster of a nationally known performer of soft, corny music, an animal skull and a low – tech, ironically mysterious, projected retro soft porn image, the artist brilliantly acted, convincingly and challengingly, as a trickster who paradoxically makes the effort to trap you in his magic, only to urge you not to believe in it (or in any magic, for that matter).

Iulia Boscu’s performance at Atas was part of her Sluffing (she uses the term in the meaning given by the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)  project, which also included an artist talk / debate in her studio, meant to highlight the sources and the development of the project. If the talk didn’t actually bring any meaningful plus to the project, its explicative character rather downplaying the intensity of the Atas performance, the latter was a really coherent, elegantly carried out and exciting example of the use of the medium / realm of time based art. The artist, sit in a corner of the space, in rather bright light, talked, smiled and nodded for some forty-five minutes, in an absurd “conversation” with spectators moving about, all the time her words being impossible to hear because of the loud music around, functioning as a sort of white noise. An epitome of communicational mishaps, a somehow imperative allusion to the sheer difficulty of sending out a message, Boscu’s performance pointed at the unnerving possibility that all acts of communication might actually be, one way or another, instances of communication breakdown.

For her first solo show, Anca Sanpetrean relied on the dialects of traditional vs. contemporary, art vs. kitsch, museum vs. proletarian neighbourhood to construct, at Atas Project Space, the exhibition titled BibeLow. Several iconic modernist or contemporary art works were downsized and downplayed by Sanpetrean’s ceramic replicas of them. The white ceramic forms reduced monumentality and / or cultural prestige of Kapoor’s Tower or Duchamp’s Fountain to domestic looks, while their placement on modest pieces of furniture transformed them into banal and half – kitsch decoration. The exhibition though fails to go all the way, in two formal directions, as it does not decidedly function as a full, complete installation, nor does it firmly valorises the little sculptures as independent art works.

Designer Ana – Maria Abrudan proposed at Atas, or rather took over its space with an installation based on the ideas that inform the development of “slow design”. Experience Design, as her project was called, manipulated geometrical shapes and volumes, as well as light to produce an eerie, yet softly friendly atmosphere, while at the same time transforming, so to speak, space into structure. Formal elements that recall those put at work in “classic” object design were deployed in an almost mathematically creative manner in order to completely move the emphasis from functionality to gentle and intriguing engagement with the implausible design object, in other words, from usage to exploration.

Limited Edition, Sebastian Baculea’s solo show, was a delightfully smart endeavour, which succeeded in being entertaining in an elegant and poignant way, as an exhibition of an artist who is trying to step up from “young” to “emerging” probably ought to be. Baculea has compellingly proven himself able to endow the objects he produces with a crucial quality which is required from an art work in order for it to have a shot at becoming iconic: the ability to stick to one’s mind by being concomitantly simple and witty. These are the core features that strikes you when encountering the Surrealist – like Shrek version of the Muffin Man crucified on two intersecting candy stick, placed upon a vertically erected ironing board. The eyebrows raising ability and the remote, yet fine irony are possessed also Baculea’s assemblage consisting in a cell phone engaged in what appears to be a conversation with the older, presumably wiser, analogue telephone, provided with a tube that shelters its “brain”, represented by a nut kernel. As in the case of Cringasu’s show, the miraculous and the kitsch are suggested to be two sides of the same coin (of consumerism?).

Vlad Capusan’s project, titled Time & Life, was based on the performative installation The Box of Time. In darkness, for some forty minutes, fine threads of sand were pouring down in the space from a box hanging from the ceiling, onto the beautiful, fresh, downright shiny apples from a bin placed on the venue’s floor, while the video piece presenting a seemingly endless stream of tap water was projected onto a wall. The pile of sand, unassumingly laying in the middle of the room at the end, stood in sharp contrast with the rather dynamic, even spectacular minutes which led to its formation. Straightforward and coherent, Capusan’s visual metaphor of the inexorable and life destroying passing of time doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a plain allegory, and this is precisely what makes it unpretentiously beautiful and conceptually well rounded.

Drawing the line so far, the exhibition programme at Atas Project Space offered events which were definitely rewarding. Nevertheless, the space still has several important issues to address. Among these, one could mention a clearer decision regarding whether it aims at being a space with a definite profile, as far as the type of art it shows is concerned or it seeks a broader medium diversity, a more coherent and more consistent documentation of the events or a more active and forthcoming communication with some sectors of the local, but also broader, art scene. Collaborative actions involving cultural or intellectual producers placed outside the field of what we generally call visual arts, from music to theatre to social sciences would be another perspective to reflect upon, as otherwise assumed by the young artists managing the project space.

But there is both time and hope for all these, and, all in all, what strikes me as being definitely remarkable and impressive is the impetus behind Atas Project Space. There is energy here and, more than this, it is an energy which is complemented by intelligence and a surprising maturity, a sort of intellectual pragmatism that leads to noticeable efficiency. Atas is a lively place, which has already succeeded not only to become locally known, but also to generate dispute and a bit of mistrust from some (that’s almost always, in the art world as we know it, a good thing, though never sufficient for anything in itself). More than anything, I believe that the new Atas is a symptom of a specific kind of passion and of a particular type of artistic and cultural creativity, that could be the attributes of something that might just become a “generation” to be reckoned with in a not very distant future.

For photos and further info, go to http://www.atasprojectspace.wordpress.com.

Recently closed, Natalia LL’s show at Ernst Museum in Budapest, titled Opus Magnum, was an exhibition that offered me the privilege of a double and downright exciting discovery. Thus, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter an artist of which, to my embarrassment, I knew almost nothing about (and seeing the show I realized that I probably should have known much more) and an institution I knew absolutely nothing about (and seeing the show I realized that I should have visited it earlier). Also, Opus Magnum starkly reminded me that a well done retrospective exhibition, albeit unavoidably incomplete and fragmentary, is probably the best way to meaningfully approach an artist.

            The currently functioning Ernst Museum is the heir, so to speak, of an important and vibrant private artistic venue, build up around the more or less coherent, yet undeniably important Ernst collection of modern Hungarian (and not only) art. Founded in 1912 by the collector Ernst Lajos, the venue hosted also some of Budapest’s most significant modern art shows between the World Wars. Bringing together exhibition spaces, a cinema, as well as artist studios, the place was one of the vibrant hubs of Budapest cultural life at the time. Although the collection had a rather sad destiny, being dismantled after 1937, the building still functions today as an exhibition venue, hosting contemporary art shows, as part of the Budapest Kunsthalle (Mücsarnok), yet is by far less known as the latter institution itself or as its main venue in Dozsa Gyorgy street.

Natalia LL is one of the prominent Polish artists of the last decades, being active mainly in the fields of photography, performance and video and approaching those media from a perspective that was mostly considered to be feminist. However, as we’ll further see, this labelling, although perfectly justified from the very perspective of the artist, who joined the so called International Feminist Movement in the mid-seventies, not only fails to account for the complexity of her endeavours along the decades, but is also misleading, as it does not comprehensively grasp some of the defining characteristics of the artist’s impressive production, such as the intertwining of plain humour with somewhat complicated irony, the constantly displayed fascination for image as icon and as tool used to provoke the occurrence of beauty or the apparently dull, yet essential and obliquely critical and self – critical aestheticism.

A larger than life character, Natalia LL, (born in 1937, in Zywiec, as Natalia Lach – Lachowicz) was also an active figure in the Neo – avant – garde movements of the sixties and the seventies, as well as a make – things – happen – person on the Polish cultural scene. Despite her participation, mostly during the seventies, at rather highly ranked contemporary art events, such as the Sao Paolo biennale, she never actually attained the status of international art star. Nevertheless, she is an artist with a career that spans some fifty years of intelligent, sometimes brilliant and always stimulating artistic production.

The spaces available at the Ernst Museum are not the usual, gigantic volumes of a large contemporary art museum or Kunsthalle. Therefore, a smart selection of the works that were to feature in the Opus Magnum retrospective had been crucial for its meaningfulness. The artists herself choose to curate the show and did it remarkably and, I would say, surprisingly well. A well balanced mix of video works, video documented performances and photographic works was displayed, comprising a comprehensive image of Natalia LL’s decades long artistic activity.

Probably the most straightforwardly telling work of all, with respect to the topics encompassed by her art, is Natalia ist Sex, displayed as a text on the wall. When one comes closer to the wall, he or she actually discovers that the letters of the text are made out of more or less pornographic images featuring, presumably, the artist and a male companion. And, indeed, the issue of sexuality is placed at the core of LL’s artistic production. There is hardly a single art piece in the show that do not refer to this topic, while the balance between feminist suggestions and aestheticization / hedonism / sensual enthusiasm is perpetually fragile.

This is, for example, made plainly visible by works that come together under the title / concept of Consumer Art. Developed mostly in the seventies, the series includes a video of the young, naked and beautiful female artist licking the liquid content of a plate, the grainy aspect of the film being unable to tame either the sensuality, the irony or the gross look (for shy or “righteous” eyes) of the scene. Closely related to such works are the panels composed of some twenty photos of a young woman eating a banana, or rather using it for an ambiguous teasing game, as the female character is depicted in somewhat over – staged, sexually alluding poses. The black and white images are very “clean”, depleted of any unnecessary details, in a Pop – like manner, not totally dissimilar to the one put at work in Andy Warhol’s so called portraits. However, in the end, they present the viewer with an almost formalist aesthetics, which essentially is at odds with both a feminist stance and with the semantics of the classic pin – up. The black and white images also allude, in a sophisticated and ironic way, to the probably false value of noblesse, many times naively associated with the traditional types of photography.

            Following Consumer Art, Natalia LL produced a series of photographic works, in large, almost monumental format, coining them as post – consumer art. If the dialectics of its semantics are pretty much similar to that displayed in the previously produced tongue – in – cheek images and videos mentioned above, the visual result is even more ambiguous and startling. The photos present the face of the artist in sexually alluding, kind of seductive poses, with traces of white liquid on or around the lips. The pornographic reference is more than obvious, yet something in the images makes them uncomfortably hard to grasp, as they tantalizingly avoid being clean cut porn shots.

Thus, the traces of white substance on the artist’s / performer’s / subject’s face are accompanied, so to speak, by traces of pathos and of getting transfixed, as her expressions most of the times suggest. There are ambiguous facial expressions, which become more and more ambiguous the longer one actually scrutinizes the images. Their pornographic nature, that appears to be so obvious at a first glance, gets blurred, at least in some of them. In the end, these latter remain probably the most impressive images in the show, as they are composed with the formal care one would expect from a high end fashion or life style magazine photos. In short, they prove to be far too arty (i. e. aesthetically aware) to be convincing as kinky or trashy porn.

Turning things on their head is something that artists are somewhat supposed or expected to do; it is also something that Natalia LL is particularly good at. Take the banana, for example, an obvious phallic avatar, used as such by the Polish artist, as mentioned above. However, in a video piece such as the 1994 Brunhilda’s Dream as well as in its corollary, the Anatomy of a Room installation, from 1995, which featured in Opus Magnum, the banana is pierced by a sword, which rhythmically cuts through the fleshy fruit until it finally breaks apart. The classic phallic form is ironically turned into a vagina, while the mighty combination of sex and violence turns almost hilarious.

Characters like Brunhilda and other more or less mythological or mythologized personifications of the prototype of the smart and strong minded, but also sexually overt and finally, by virtue of these very characteristics, utterly dangerous woman are also recurrent in LL’s artistic endeavours. A performance, again from 1995, is called Brunhilda III and its photographic documentation was also present in the retrospective at the Ernst Museum. We see the artist barely dressed, wearing high boots, a sort of mask and flowery crown, sword and shield in hands, at the edge of a forest. A sexually aggressive, strong and presumably menacing woman seems to confront the viewer. However, the character gradually looses all its symbolic might, as one realizes that this all about amounting clichés. From a presumably feminist perspective, both romanticist automatisms and pornographic props are critically approached and deconstructed, apparently reduced to semantic rubble. But the actual ramifications of the thinking process sparked by the vaudeville Brunhilda go deeper, I believe. Thus, what is really important here is not just noticing that (a form of) Romanticism is brought together with (a form of) pornography, but realizing that they kind of belong together, that the juxtaposition appears natural. They are both products of the same type of cultural, political, but also erotic desires, in which oppression could probably be rooted in, yet what is certain is that they are unnervingly durable and irritatingly polymorphous. In the end, the laugh might just be on (a form of) feminism, just as well as (a form of) shame could tentatively be cast upon pornography or corny Romanticism.

            As we’ve seen so far, Natalia is indeed sex, i.e. body. Her works are constantly using her body, yet investing it with the power to metamorphose and to assume various roles and identities, rather than testing its limits, subjecting it to rigorous trials. Thus, if the use of her body is more or less driven by feminist ideology, the Polish artist is closer to Cindy Sherman’s deployment of the body than to Abramovic’s. Many times, costumes are frequently used by Natalia LL and she often deploys masks in order to produce either glossy or softly morbid photographic images that seem to allude to an existentialist atmosphere and mindset. The images of the body that has long left behind its prime of youth, strength and beauty are often used in combination with masks, in order to produce such effects, which are augmented by deploying specifically charged symbolic props such as the couch in the recent series of photographs titled Birth According to the Body.

Nevertheless, we can also see a more direct and quite specific mode of using the body in several sixties and seventies videos present in the Ernst Museum show, such as Impressions, from 1973. The camera is soon fixed on the artist’s breasts, which the artist is, partly erotically, partly frantically, shaking, rubbing, squeezing and massaging with some white substance that looks like milk. Again, the body as object of sexual desire is somewhat devoid of its sensuality via humour. However, the key word here is “somewhat”: sensuality is never actually neutralized and the tension between lust and goofiness is the key and powerful characteristic of such works.

But, in other video pieces, the body is used to signify differently. The naked female body is, for example, place on a sandy surface, partly covered by the inorganic material and placed amidst some vegetal debris, its movements being slow, but hardly erotic. What one sees in such fragments are lust, nostalgia and death being brought together: such a strong triangle so often used to build a lyrical stance. The surprise is, in the context of the exhibition of a truly ironic artist, to see that the lyricism actually gets generated out of an almost naïve, loosely sentimental endeavour. In cultural terms, what is probably most strikingly shown by this is that a genuine Romanticist vein survives in the artist’s anthropological universe, whether we (or her, for that matter) like it or not. It sort of proves that Romanticism, as socio – cultural construct (and just as other major construct of this kind), was not going to die out but with the demise of the very modern world that it emerged from. And, in the seventies, I guess that wasn’t the case yet …

One should not mistake: Natalia LL’s art is far from being flawless. Its more or less relevant weaknesses do not require a lot of reflective effort to uncover. It can sometimes be a bit gratuitously spectacular, it can sometimes get dangerously close to pointless exhibitionism, it can sometimes fall short of conceptual coherence and especially poignancy. Opus Magnum retrospective is an honest enough exhibition not to try to completely hide or deny these shortcomings and a smart enough show to minimize them. In the end, what one is left with is a definitely impressive, strong and complex artist, whose production provocatively, almost emphatically leaves one to choose between raising her or his eyebrows in admiration or in contempt.

For more images of the artist’s works, go to http://www.nataliall.com.