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Katarzyna Kosmala

On Ways of Being (Un)altered in Alicja ¯ebrowska's "Regression"

"Where to locate the alternative visualities?
in the unconscious
the body
the past
the non-West
not to foreclose such differences,
but to open them up,
so that different visualities
might be kept in play, at work."

Hal Foster, "Vision and Visuality "

Alicja ¯ebrowska, an artist ‘obsessed’ with imagination in its pre-ontological dimension, seeks to reframe spaces of feminine subjectivity. This reframing is what Lichtenberg Ettinger has re-theorised in terms of a matrix, of spaces of the ‘I and non-I’ . This matrix is a feminine unconscious space of simultaneous co-emergence and co-fading of the I and the stranger that is neither fused or rejected. Links between several joint partial subjects co-emerging in differentiation in rapports-without-relating, and connections with their hybrid objects, produce/interlace 'woman’ that is not confined to the contours of the one-body with its inside versus outside polarity, and indicate a sexual difference based on webbing of links and not on essence of negation . Zebrowska attempts to visualises these utopian places of the ‘I and non-I’. She attempts to get back to the forgotten metaphysical and sensual interpretation of the symbol, exploring a ‘mosaic of femininity and masculinity’ in our being, negotiating its existence in relation to the accepted cultural norms.

In the video Regression ¯ebrowska traces the constrained self, the invasion of the systems and its politics into private (unconscious) spaces, into the matrix.

Regression (1997-2002) video (15 min)
In Regression, ¯ebrowska proposes a dream of reality as a new (theoretical) basis for the established order of what is represented and representable as feminine subjectivity. She wants to speak of the imagination as a form of experience, the imagination perceived as the ability to conjure images of absent or non-existing spaces through fantasy, and indeed, the artistic process. ¯ebrowska comes here with the attitude of making oneself visible, of going ‘behind’, in order to see whether there may be something behind, something there which can be seen and is not. How? By regressing into the (un)altered self.

Regression is a form of hypnosis with its origins in spiritual Eastern traditions (also referred to as a form of reincarnation); a quasi-psychoanalytical séance based on unstructured and undefined questioning. The hypnosis creates a heightened state of awareness in which the subject has somewhat uncensored access to memories and may visualise a ‘collective utterance of the unconscious’. But is dreaming or regressing a process of making art? This is where the ‘utopian’ journey into the unconscious starts, as ¯ebrowska states, as ‘the most important regulator and guide in our life, [if we are] unable to hear its voice, its impulses, we become barbarians to the selves’ .

¯ebrowska uses regression hypnosis as a tool for art making. Mind-altering experiments, such as hypnosis, where the artists themselves become subjects of these experiments have been explored in video art for sometime (e.g. Jane and Louise Wilson’s Routes 1 and 9 North (1994); Matt Mullican’s Pattern/SPA/Lecture (1998)).

Regression evolves around a narrative, a synopsis of ¯ebrowska’s five-hour hypnosis séance , not in the aesthetic, poetic sense but as an open, inconclusive document of the artist’s reflections on her inner journey. The film is a key to opening up the viewer’s imagination, the most important part of which is her narration (a melody and a pitch of the voice under the hypnosis).

The video starts with images of a lift. A camera is situated in the lift, someone is going up, passing the floors one by one. As the journey into the unconscious starts, the background is hazed, all is cold blue and still. The lift stops, someone gets out. Outside, there is a long corridor and a distant light at the end. Walking along, the traveller is observed; we witness flashing gazes all around. The light gets closer, it is an entrance to a spaceship or a cosmodrome. The spaceship, reminiscent of an ancient pyramid with a round interior, is made of metal and transparent glass. The traveller is trapped. Shutting inside, stimulates a sensations out-of the body experiences. The images of floating outside the physical body, suspended in the outer space appear on the screen. The narrative focuses on that experience. We learn that the body dematerialises and the self dissolves into ether.

We witness the body floating. This, I argue, is a visualisation of a utopian - sensual yet genderless - body. A visualisation, in other words, of a body that does not exist, or that can only exist at the level of the image which is thus constructed as the space of a utopian realisation. This is a body that is immersed in an experience. But this experience is unidentified, it is conveyed through and by allusion, and consequently, the sociality of the body is also edited out of the image. The utopian state of becoming visual is positioned against the social.

¯ebrowska challenges the impossibility of encountering the self. As in science fiction films, through time-warp, the traveller goes back in time and beyond time, encountering I and the other, several joint yet partial subjects in the self. The overcoat-spacecraft (adopted from her earlier work Onone: Autonecrophagos (1995-1999)), similar to Marina Abramovic’s crystal Shoes for Departure (1995), are symbolic means that allow us to travel to the (other) outer spaces. The overcoat allows entry into a space of contemplation. Dressed in the black overcoat spacecraft, the self travels in the galaxies, observing the physical self and the world from above (see Image 3); the images of nature with distant green forests and mountains (Image 4). The viewer is transported into an (un)altered state, into the unconscious. In this utopian space, against the background of flashing glowing pink-red lights and glittering yellow stars, the traveller emerges in the black overcoat as the metamorphosed androgyny (Image 3). Her overcoat-spacecraft becomes a stimulus for imagination and the visionary experiences, as in Ken Russell’s film Altered States where Jessup Hurt tries to unlock the mysteries of human origins regressing under psychotic drugs to the collective utterances of the unconscious.

The traveller is situated in the isolation tank (visualised as the black overcoat), shut in a total darkness where the ego is suspended. The out-of-body experiences are visualised as flying against the starry skies. The traveller without fears is suspended in silent spaces. Not much is happening, except glowing and pulsating red lights. The traveller, in this unaltered state, encounters the presence of others (the other form of intelligence or knowledge). We learn from the narrative that they are doing something, they look in the screen. The images of a darkened, cinema-like interior with the green and violet neon shaped as the screen on the central wall alternate with the flickering images of skies and air bobbles. The others are occupied in looking at that screen. What happens to the traveller? The traveller, situated in a clinic or a laboratory meets an archaic memory, in Lichtenberg Ettinger’s sense she encounters Jungian archetypes (e.g. the image of a child). Everything is clean and fresh. The narrative evolves around the experiences of euphoria and happiness of life sensed by the traveller in that space. The positive energy of this idyllic world is visualised with the pulsating light and the euphoric voice in the narrative.

The traveller, puzzled by an abundance of goodness, starts to question the lack of evil. As soon as the traveller inquires about evil, the energy changes and the images are distorted into the angular forms, a mosaic of the broken glasses with sharply cut edges. Again the traveller is surrounded with angry gazes. As if by the questioning of goodness, evil was created. In a consequence, the traveller is expelled from that space, from the unaltered state. The journey into the unconscious finishes. The traveller exits the spacecraft (undressing from the black overcoat). The film ends with the images of the traveller walking in a tunnel (an office corridor), towards a distant light. Not alone but accompanied by the shadow, the double, a white glowing human form. It is an encounter between I and non-I. The shadow partly transgresses the body of the traveller and partly walks aside. The return to earth is emphasised with the imagery of cultural and religious symbols (e.g. a crucifix) (see Images 13-14). These are cultural utterances of matrixal spaces; the traces of the contact with our archaic moments that form a feminine unconscious (the pre-natal ego formation).

In Regression, the artist comes back to the beginning, she writes the letter to herself and through the artwork she passes on her reflections to the viewer. She returns, after a long detour, to a starting point, but experienced from another perspective (the traveller and the other).

For ¯ebrowska, it is important to come back from the cosmic journey to put creative insights into use, to continue with the artistic endeavour of exploring the horizons of imagination with its brighter and darker sides. The returning ego must write itself back into being and in doing so it manufactures a kind of memory, a dream-experience . This process is visualised in the last scenes of the film, the encounter with the guide, visualised as the accompanying shadow. To paraphrase Rosalind Krauss, there is no way for us to see this work without reading that sustained condition between the artist and her double, as primary narcissism, or the relationship of the body to its framed (fragmented) image. ‘Video is a process that allows these two terms [self and other/image] to fuse’ narcissism, in other words, the founding psychological condition of video aesthetics becomes here the true medium of a utopia that equals, ultimately, a fantasy .

The visualisation effects in the Regression invites the viewer to pass into a trance-like state (the symbolical and rhetorical animation devices, slow motion sequences, collages of science fiction clips and pictures with the effects of plasmas, images of outer space, and spaceships). A sense of wonder in a viewer is heighten by the kaleidoscope of colours, reminiscent of Dreamachine (1960) by Brion Gysin and Ian Samerville. Circles of blue, yellow and pink-red light intensify in the viewer a meditative trance. This colouring is also reminiscent of tranquil contemplative aesthetics in Gustav Metzger’s (1965-1998) Liquid Crystal Projections and the lighting effects in Susan Hiller’s (1987) Magic Lantern.

Against such a background, the artist dwells on contingencies of the ancient (lost) worlds and its wisdom of afterlife as well as Christian symbolism (images of crucifixion). We could argue that ¯ebrowska spiritual and religious viewpoints plays a part in the choice of imagery here (e.g. an image of a woman in the red sari).

The work comments on the imaginary seduction, on how our socially constructed unconsciousness traps and absorbs our desires. The viewer enters the (un)altered states, empty spaces in which we may redefine experiences, transform the experience. However, the visions of heavens the viewer experiences are fragmented.

Placing Regression in the context of other works
The video Regression reassembles the otherworldliness of ¯ebrowska’s earlier works, in particular the installations Onone (1995-1999) and its overwhelming space, perhaps of a childhood fantasy , symptomatic of a kind of out-of-the body experience. Reminiscent of Borges’ story Circular ruins where the magician aspired to dream a man, in Onone the artist revives the Androgyny myth from Plato’s Symposium . Through the narration, like the magician who ‘wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality…at first his dreams were chaotic, somewhat later they were of a dialectical nature’, someone is dreaming someone else’s dream, playing out someone else’s fantasy. The series of grotesque photographs of the androgynous being reflects a mythical form of the self-satisfied, self-sufficient and pure ‘futuristic’ angel. ¯ebrowska transcends the borders of the body in which we are ‘enclosed’, of the bipolar, oedipal sexes. The androgynous being is not real, but an effect of the medium, created with an ironic twist in the aesthetic of the tableau vivantes . For instance, in Hypnosis (one of the themes forming the Onone installation) against the background of filigreed, silver foil, the naked Androgyn is giving birth (becomes a hybrid). Two glass objects are suspended over its head (phallic objects of fantasy). On the left, in the dimly lit armchair sits the man (a hypnotist). As in a dream, a trance, the body becomes a metaphor . Explorations of the androgyn’s fantasy, similarly as Regression, invites the viewer to invigilate our imagination and its limits.

In a dream, Onone in the intergalactic journey, in the search for other dimensions, is energised by the cosmic rays and the strength of own subconscious, own death. The androgyn passes through outer space towards other states (the installation Autonecrophagos). As in reincarnation, Onone does not die, instead it is transferred to another form of being and ‘eats’ its own death.

‘Little deaths’ were also explored in ¯ebrowska’s earlier works, for instance in To Stone (1993). In a covered stone sarcophagus the artist was ‘buried’ and turned into a fossil, into a stone through the symbolic transformation, back into the inorganic material, into a Freudian immaterial state, as in Lygia Clark’s, Brazilian artist, Baba Antropofagica (1973). In Lygia Clark’s performance the woman’s body was gradually covered with the coated in saliva cotton threads, pulled out the mouths of those surrounding her. In Baba Antropofagica Lygia Clark’s stated that ‘a new inside me is produced from the outside’ .

Another work of ¯ebrowska which traces the constrained self, the invasion of the system and its politics into private (unconscious) spaces is the video Monitoring (2000). ¯ebrowska juxtaposes passivity of the social and the private through the split screens (the definition of our existence in terms of the ‘big other’, a corporation). The video is a synthesis of the office work footage (an interior of the publishing house and the Internet firm, filmed both openly with the small camcorders and with the hidden cameras) juxtaposed with the images the artist’s body, filmed in her house. The reflexive turn in this work lies in the visualisation of how we are ‘internalising’ our passivity in the work context, a sense of boredom; the self alienated from reality (a man swivelling in the clattering office chair).

It appears that only the direct intervention of pain is found through a path to the intense experience of pleasure. What we observe in Monitoring is a kind of regime, a utopia of overcoming the opposition between the alienated corporate world, where one only exists to earns money, and the private hobby-like pleasures that one pursues outside, often alone, behind the computer screens (the images of auto-erotism whereby a bond between fantasy and the unconscious is confirmed). It is a reflection on the polarity of human existence (an image of a wired with cables vagina), and thus the impossibility of a reconciliation of the social (codified) and the private (unconscious and ‘dysfunctional’) aspects of our being.

In sum, for most part, what Alicja ¯ebrowska does is an exploration of collective utterances deriving from experiences within the everyday that defies rational explanation and that are marginalised and/or regarded as superstitions, hallucinations or pathological aberrations, and were explained in the past as the ecstatic visions of saints . These collective utterances form a part of contemporary culture and speak of unacknowledged societal fears and desires (unacknowledged feminine spaces).

*Jean Fisher ‘Truth’s Shadows’ in Dream Machines Works Selected by Susan Hiller, Exhibition Catalogue, (Hayward Gallery Publishing: London, 2000).


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