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Katarzyna Kosmala

On the Ways of Being (Un)altered:

'Little Deaths' in the Video Installation Art of Hanna Nowicka and Alicja Żebrowska

 

You are obsessed with greenness - says the word.

Greenness is but another ritual.

Observe how snow at one fell swoop dispels

The green hallucinations of the house.

( Zofia Ilińska Snow)

Introduction

The displacement in the Western imaginary of the conceptions of identity, organised around love and the Ego affectus est , by fragmented identities elaborated around the rationalism of the Cartesian Cogito ergo est , gave rise to a crisis of narcissism, the full impact of which we are now enduring. Post-modern displacement of the subject exhibits unreadiness to come to terms with a traumatic core of the modern subject.

 

Contemporary subject as a wounded narcissist, oscillating in the ontological gap between universal and particular and suffering from a want of affect, is trapped in the symbolic. The gradual disappearance of the reality contributes to sustenance of assemblage of reality, dissolving and merging into a pure symbolic edifice, fragmentation and unlimited inflation and plurality of the selves . Yet, in a capacity of a 'symbolic animal', by making the unique use of symbols, human subject can transcend the confines of finitude and temporality. In this paper, analysing video installation art of the Kraków-based artist Alicja Żebrowska and the Gdańsk-based artist Hanna Nowicka, I explore how they represent what is suppressed in human subject, the unconscious. In a search for what is 'below the surface', both artists, through different facets, exploring fantasy and attending to the inner child, bypass little deaths through the politics of feminine representations.

 

This paper forms a part of larger project, in which, I explore issues of feminine identity through what I call 'utopias of the unconscious' in the new video art from the Baltic countries of the Central and Eastern European region (hereafter the CEE), where myself come from. I acknowledge that the iconographies of female sexuality and desire in the selected artworks works do not necessarily display the sense of 'how women are' but are employed by women artists who have what Ecker calls 'a political consciousness of sexual difference in art'. Historically, women have been partly the unconscious, somewhat censored element of the feminine. The artworks, which I discuss, form passages to the unconscious and tracing the barriers in emotional transference and its resistance can be seen as a part of self-discovery.

 

I argue that identity processes in Eastern Europe are constituted by an interesting hybrid of ideological domination and socio-economic and cultural (meta)change, i.e. the decade of the redefinition of the art status in the CEE, of 'belonging to New Europe' in a globalised (arts) market but also appealing to what constitutes 'our reality' (e.g. critical involvement of the Wyspa Progress in Poland, feminist interventions of the FFFF group in Estonia, the IRWIN group's political manifestos across the CEE). Since the 1990s, the Baltic Bienniale of Contemporary Art (in Visby and Szczecin in 1999, in Riga and Borholm in 2000), the international exhibitions of the Baltic region artists (e.g. the 5 th exhibition in Szczecin 2003 ) and the publication of Mare Articum , the Baltic Art Magazine have reflected on this 'our reality'. While there has been a growth of interest in contemporary visual arts in East of Europe, especially with the recent accession of many CEE states to the EU, and with the extensive cultural and social impact that might have, it remains an under-theorised area of contemporary art.

 

What seems to bring close the diversity of Żebrowska and Nowicka's artistic representation is the exploration the (un)altered states, the issues of relating to the self and to what reality is. The functioning of the allegorical sphere in the artistic process here is linked to a registration of visions (the fantasy sphere) or the opening of other spaces which refer to indexes of desire and fantasy (the psychological sphere).

 

Interlocking of subjectivity, sexuality and language in Lacan's work via Zizek, his de-centring of the conscious and rational subject inform my ideas of what constitute the unconscious. I draw on Lacan's turn on the unconscious via Zizek to emphasise discursive order in the foundation of the socio-cultural and sexual existence of the post-modern subject. In that way, Lacan's understanding of the unconscious offers an evocative metaphor of feminine utopias because it addresses what is repressed by and made intolerable in the dominant social order . The human subject is not simply a speaking being, a being who happens by chance to speak, but a being constituted, Barthes argued, by being spoken through the language itself .

 

For Lacan, consciousness is continually betrayed by the evasion of the unconscious. Zizek spins Lacan's notion of the unconscious, arguing that 'the primordial encounter of the unconscious is the encounter with the other's inconstancies, with the fact that the (parental) other is not actually the master of his acts and words, that he emits signals of whose meanings he is unaware, that he performs acts he does not fully understand' . Zizek wants to see Lacanian fantasy as on the side of reality, that is, as sustaining the subject's sense of reality. In those terms, considering the overlapping of fantasy and reality as a given, we may theorise feminine utopias of the unconscious.

 

Now, I will further clarify what brings Alicja Żebrowska and Hanna Nowicka' arts together in their explorations of (un)altered states.

 

On Ways of Being (Un)altered

Alicja Żebrowska and Hanna Nowicka explore the gap between imagination and representation, between unconscious and dreaming, in and through processes of creation. Both, interested in (un)altered states and the power of imagination, through different means, question what is time and plunge into (personal) memory.

 

Both, through different means, visualise an inner journey, exploring relationships between matter and the psyche, this refers to Lacanian notion of traversing fantasy. Zizek equates Butler's primordial passionate attachments on which the very consistency of the subject's being hinges, with Lacan's notion of fundamental fantasy, with the staged passive suffering which simultaneously sustains and threatens' the subject's being. This fundamental fantasy is a defence formation against the abyss of dis-attachments of the loss of being, which is the contemporary subject itself. This fantasy is a filter which covers up the gap, existential void .

 

Freud distinguished two instinctive drives, libidinal energy (life-producing instinct) and the death instinct, our instinctive need to return to a state of calmness . In latter, dis-attachment refers to the death drive which throws the order of being out of joint; a withdrawal from being immersed in the world which, Zizek points out, can happen through the encounter with jouissance . I argue that jouissance has a significant role in the construction of feminine utopias of the unconscious.

 

Traversing fantasy is not getting rid of fantasies and illusionary preconceptions that distort what reality is. Instead, in traversing fantasy one identifies with the work of imagination even more radically, in all its inconsistencies, through jouissance . In Lacanian theorisation, jouissance refers to a split within each woman. There is a part of women in which she accepts the role of a seductive masquerade aimed at alluring the man, attracting his gaze (submission), and another part of her which resists being drawn into a dialectic of (male) desire. The latter forms this mysterious jouissance which exempts the woman from the phallic function, where femininity may appear as a masquerade. I refer to a silent jouissance as the pleasure from within, which in the feminine order is left as quiet as it may be, as a mask supplementing a failure to be a woman.

 

Zizek takes Lacan's conception of an unknown jouissance, an unspeakable experience of corporeal pleasure, to acknowledge the independent otherness of feminine pleasure in the post-modern subject's resistance to ideology. He argues that fantasy-like constructions in human psyche facilitate masking of the reality through jouissance; the mechanism of metaphoric disavowal that replaces or covers a lack (the void of the real) and becomes a quasi-entity that is more in the subject than the subject itself.

 

Kristeva's turn on Lacanian jouissance, although accepting the idea of the split subject, the materiality of language and the role of pleasure in the signification processes, beyond the orgasm and the reproduction function, is directed primarily at discourse . Hence, her conceptualisation, the fluid and polymorphous status of libidinal drives, evoking bodily pleasures that are capable of resisting the demands of the symbolic order, is too narrow for the possibility of traversing fantasy in the post-modern subject.

 

Lacanian fantasy, as read via Zizek, is on the side of reality, that is, it sustains the subject's sense of reality. So when Lacan equates the real with what Freud called 'psychic reality', Zizek argues, this 'psychic reality' is not simply the inner psychic life of dreams, wishes and so on, as opposed to perceived external reality, but the core of primordial passionate attachments, which are real in the sense of resisting the movement of symbolisation . Similarly, Żebrowska and Nowicka comment on repression; on what we repress is not our memory but the fantasy derived from it or subtending it. That what remains of reality after reality is deprived of its support in the fantasy.

 

The artists attempt to mobilise reflections on the unconscious in the viewers, where one can be subsequently inscribed as the other. Żebrowska is an artist 'preoccupied' with imagination in its pre-ontological dimension, where the universe is constructed as a chain of events which resonate as reality that persists and somehow returns. Nowicka's art evokes both emotional and optical illusion, mediating the perceptions of reality, which create a distance from her subjects. In a sense, an aura surrounding the subject makes her subject's being. Both, explore what Lichtenberg Ettinger refers to as the 'neuter' places of I and non-I in which events occur in corporal borders, leaving psychic traces in their places, yet, creating unexpectedly a sense of encounter with the other; in the sub-symbolic space where the artworks coverage with the path of fantasy . Passing beyond the rules governing here and now, the artists attempt to trace an encounter with (un)altered states, Nowicka through a childhood memory, and Żebrowska through primordial (day)dreaming.

 

In short, what links both artists is a consensus that the body seems to find no representation in the economy of dominant discourse. Women's ever-present representation in dominant cultural production of meanings is an absence of any reality in that socio-symbolical space. This refers to Lacanian lack, and further, to dissatisfaction with representations of reality. If we cannot speak of the true self, then, what is inscribed can be re-inscribed and deconstructed, and subsequently re-mapped. Hence, through the sub-symbolic, the sense of fantasy, the normative use of language may be challenged. In this way, the works of Żebrowska and Nowicka can be referred to as being set adrift in uncertainty. This is perhaps where the nature of jouissance lies, in the creative process.

 

Now, I will discuss the new video works, first Alicja Żebrowska's Monitoring (2000) and Regression (1997-2002), and second, Hanna Nowicka's Initiation (2002) and Swinging (2002). The connections to the artists' earlier works will be also made.

 

Alicja Żebrowska's Monitoring (2000) and Regression (1997-2002)

In Monitoring the artist explores aspects of post-modern capitalism, the paradox that human subject is isolated and subsequently left with nothing in the void. The film depicts how the fundamental alienation is accepted in the symbolic network (the firm). The idea inside the work is to reveal the politics of the contemporary firm, its living social organism, an enclosed human enclave with its peculiarities of functioning. Żebrowska explores what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as, being a node in a network, located somewhere on the grid in the corporate 'body without organs', a body experienced as a non-organic concept, as a political surface . The video is a synthesis of the office work footage: the office interior of publishing houses and Internet firms, filmed both openly with the small camcorders and with the hidden cameras is juxtaposed with the images the artist's body, filmed in her house. The work is a spin on the private constructed as political, she explores the body without organs, how bodies may live independently of organisation. Bodies, penetrated by creative or unpredictable forces may disrupt and escape the boundaries of organisation. The viewer becomes aware of a social body that one does, as distinct from the body one's has or is.

 

The viewer experiences alienation in the corporate context. The office appears like a beehive; everyone with the proscribed place and roles. The intensified sound of the computer noise is absorbed by the employees (a swarm of buzzing bees) who are caught in the moments of a boredom with a work routine; e.g. a man swivelling in the clattering office chair, and discomfort; e.g. a sound and pace of the woman walking in the corridor is reminiscent of a keyboard typing. The hyper-mysticism of the corporate leader, a possibility of directing of this corporate structure, its entire system (the beehive and its bees) is captured in the final scene of the 'gazing' ventilators against the choral music. Knowledge of directing and monitoring, its 'evils' are left opened and unravelled to the viewer, reminiscent of Kafka's parable of the door of the law where the entrance to the palace of the law is staged only to the gaze of the visitor. The Castle is an archetype of all organisations, describing their basic functions in the same way that those of the inner organs of the body would be. The manger appears facing two competing pressures; a need to control and direct employees to ensure that the performance targets are met, as well as a requirement to gain co-operation of the employees in meeting those targets. However, it might be argued that manager disguises his dependence on the workforce. By emphasising the visible forms of the supervision and by the empowerment, he engages in more subtle attempts to obscure the exploitative nature of the labour process, and particularly a commodity status of the labour. The managing director himself becomes a gazing ventilator.

 

The work comments on how conditioning of the work and its politics makes the human subject unaware of what one becomes; what happens to the self situated in the office space. The poetic motion of the 'gazing' ventilators in the last scene reveals that each reality, here corporate reality, has its 'spirit', its mechanism of working.

 

Zizek's psychoanalytical definition of ideology as an illusory representation of reality refers here to a corporate ideology where 'the mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence'. In the video, a sense of existential void where the self is radically unsure and with no 'proper face' is visualised by scenes of fantasising (im)passive submissions (the images of auto-eroticism and the surfing in cyberspace for virtual fantasies). The real here is represented as the impossible; the impossibility of sexual relatedness as an exchange. Fisher suggests in her essay on Susan Hiller that women's work may express desires which can be 'mine', that is, consumed by women viewers . Żebrowska, in her representation of the masturbating woman, attempts to explore whether desires can be 'mine', whether desires can trace feminine longings in the imaginary seduction of consumerism that traps and absorbs the libidinal drives.

 

The reflexive turn in this work lies in the visualisation of how, situated in the organisational realms, one can get involved in 'internalising' passivity. As Butler argues, exploring psychic life of power, human existence requires acceptance of fundamental alienation (explored in the film as the corporate alienation), the definition of existence in terms of the 'big other' in the predominant structure of the socio-symbolic space (a corporation). In Monitoring , the utopian subjectivity of engaging in the pursuit of bodily pleasures is reverted. What the viewer witness in the everyday organisational realms is the self alienated from that reality. It appears that only the direct intervention of pain (visualised as sado-masochistic fantasises of sexual practices) is found through a path to the intense experience of pleasure. This is how, in the world of the 'decline of Oedipus', late capitalist market relations, through mediated desires, human subject follows the superego's injunction to enjoy, visualised in the video as employees' playing with cyberspace that is directed at reshaping of symbolic identity.

 

Through fantasy, one may imagine or re-live the scenes of submission and pain, and, instead of being the agent of a real interaction, become the passive observer of the 'inner' scenes. Bersani points out that an excess of pleasure in pain can be envisaged as another aspect of sexualisation . Żebrowska juxtaposes passivity of the social and the private through the split screens; for instance the moments of autoerotism, in which the indissoluble bond between fantasy and the unconscious is confirmed, visualised in the film with a flash, a repeated image of the wired, cabled vagina, against the images of the office interior.

 

What the viewer observes is a kind of regime, a utopia of overcoming the opposition between the alienated corporate world, where one exists to earn money, and the private pleasures that one pursues outside, often alone, behind the computer screens. It is a subjective 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, functional realms of the firm) and the private (enigmatic and 'dysfunctional') aspects of human subjectivity.

 

Żebrowska traces the constrained self, the invasion of the system and its politics into private (unconscious) spaces in another work Regression . In this video, as in Monitoring , Żebrowska explores, not with the hidden cameras but by regressing into the (un)altered self, the imaginary seduction of consumerism as it traps and absorbs libidinal drives. This is an 'utopian' journey into the unconscious, as Żebrowska states, into 'the most important regulator and guide in our life, [.] unable to hear its voice, its impulses, we become barbarians to the selves'. The artist makes an attempt of getting back to the forgotten metaphysical and sensual interpretation of the symbol, exploring a mosaic of femininity and masculinity, forced to negotiate existence in a relation to the accepted cultural norms.

 

But is dreaming a process of making art? Żebrowska attempts to speak of the imagination as a form of experience, the imagination perceived here as the ability to conjure images of absent or non-existing objects through fantasy and indeed the artistic process. She 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.

 

Żebrowska challenges the impossibility of encountering the self. As in science fiction films, through time-warp, she travels back in time and beyond time, encountering herself. Her overcoat-spacecraft (adopted from her earlier work Autonecrophagos ), similarly to Marina Abramovic's crystal Shoes for Departure (1995), is aimed to transport the viewer into an (un)altered state, into the unconscious. The overcoat or the shoes are the means allowing entering a space of a trance or contemplation. Her overcoat-spacecraft becomes stimuli for imagination and visionary experience, as in Ken Russell's film Altered States where Jessup Hurt (the protagonist) questioning the mysteries of human origins, regresses under psychotic drug to the unconscious. The Regression starts with representations evoking a sense of being shut into an 'isolation tank', in total darkness.

 

In transcendental imagination the unique character of imagination is to be found in the fact that it undermines the opposition between receptivity/finitude and spontaneity (i.e. the self-originating activity of human subject as a free agent). Through the flow of energies, of matter, of body fluids of fantasies, Żebrowska participates in becoming, where the language of rationality dissolves into the language of expression (the narrative).

 

Indeed, this video work evolves around the narrative, a synopsis of Żebrowska's five hour long regression hypnosis séance, not in the aesthetic poetic sense but as an open, inconclusive document of the artist's reflections. The hypnosis creates a heightened state of awareness in which the subject has uncensored access to memories. This form of hypnosis originates in spiritual eastern traditions (a form of reincarnation); quasi-psychoanalysis based on unstructured and undefined questioning. The original soundtrack of the hypnosis footage, used in the other work, Onone, was modified to form a synopsis of the artist's inner journey into the unconscious. The sound in Regression , a condensed narrative of the séance appears in an unchanged order. The voice of the hypnotist: 'Imagine that you are taking a lift, how does it look like, where are you going?' and all her questioning 'Why you are there? What do you feel? Are you scared? What do you have to do now?' were removed. As the dream-memory is a part of a greater whole, a set of fragmentary perceptions, the original footage, before cuts, was very disjointed and incorporated long moments of silences.

 

Mind-altering experiments where the artists themselves become guinea pigs have been subject in video arts for sometime (e.g. Jane and Louise Wilson's Routes 1 and 9 North (1994); Matt Mullican's Pattern/SPA/Lecture (1998)). Placing dreams on the same levels as walking episodes (the artist is also walking during the hypnosis), Żebrowska explores the clues of (day)dreaming.

 

The narrative forms a story about a woman on a voyage of explorations, relinquishing all controls, she returns to passivity and the imaginative insularity of a child (here Żebrowska's works are reminiscent of Nowicka's Initiation and Swinging ). The work reflects upon the artist's inner journey into the self, into the unconscious, revealing hidden sensitivities and fears, a form of auto-reflection on the self, on the motivations and inspirations behind the artistic practice. It is a form of public catharsis of the (artistic) self. The story somewhat resemble voices describing close encounters with the UFO in Susan Hiller's Witness (2000). The sense of hovering on a threshold, in between contexts of the coloured lights, like in a dream quoted in Milne: 'I was glowing. Everything was glowing.My fear was that I will be pull out of my body.' or experiencing a sense of cosmic wonder: 'It was the greatest joy I have ever known. I felt a cosmic consciousness' . The artist, as one of these witnesses, symbolically undergoes a process of transformation and comes back to Earth.

 

What happens when the artist regresses to desires sustained by fantasy? The artist accepts that there is something more in me than myself, I and non-I. Żebrowska penetrates the mysterious sphere out there, she accesses the fears and dreams and materialises them through images. In the regressed state, travelling in a flux of cosmic matter, she experiences a metamorphosis of her human form. In her body without organs, the conventional meanings are disrupted, opening the borders of sense and non-sense, known and unknown. Is that sphere just a perfect mirror that does not mirror reality but the subject's fundamental fantasies?

 

The video piece Regression reassembles the otherworldliness of Żebrowska'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 narration, like the Borges' 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 untouchable and pure 'futuristic angel. Żebrowska transcends the borders of the body in which we are 'enclosed', of the bipolar, oedipal sexes. As in Plato's Symposium , Żebrowska as Aristophanes, presents a myth of the archaic bisexual form of human being, reflecting the synthesis of spiritual completeness between the male and female elements.

 

Yet, her androgynous being is not real, but an effect of the media, created with an ironic twist in the aesthetic of what Bohme refers to as the tableau vivantes. For instance, in Hypnosis (one of the Onone installations) against the background of the filigreed, silver foil, the naked Androgyny 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 (hypnotist). As in a dream, a trance, the body becomes a metamorphosis and a metaphor. Explorations of the androgyny's fantasy, similarly as Regression, invite the viewer to invigilate the limits of imagination. In a dream, Onone in the intergalactic journey, in the search for other dimensions, is energised by the cosmic rays. Here, Żebrowska's work was compared by Leszkowicz to Chris Carter's The X Files . The androgyny trans-locates 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, through jouissance of repeatedly missing own death.

 

'Little deaths' were also explored in Żebrowska's earlier work To Stone (1993). In the covered stone sarcophagus the artist was 'buried' and turned into a fossil, into stone through the symbolic transformation back into inorganic material, into Freudian immaterial state, reminiscent of Lygia Clark's (1973) Baba Antropofagica . 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'. In a trance-like elevation of the consciousness, Żebrowska explores other realms and forms of human existence, this 'new inside me', in a matrix of a language and a fiction of reality.

 

Żebrowska appears to find a satisfaction in the very circular movement of repeatedly missing the object of her actions, of circulating around it. The gap constitutive of desire is thus closed; the self-enclosed loop of repetitive movement replaces infinite striving. This process forms jouissance , the pleasure of play with the 'little deaths', of repeatedly missing the goal. Does Żebrowska 'abandon' herself to the self-enclosed circuit of the eternal return of the same? She seems to find satisfaction not in reaching the goal but in the process itself, in the path that leads into it.

 

In short, the artistic process becomes a hermeneutic circle, a dream inspires Onone . The dream becomes an exit to the deeper levels of explorations, through the hypnosis. In Regression , the artist comes back to the beginning, to the unconscious, she writes the letter to herself and through the artwork she passes on her reflections to the viewers. For Żebrowska, it is important to come back from the cosmic journey to put creative insights into use, to continue with the artistic endeavour of exploring horizons of imagination with its darker and brighter sides. The returning ego must write itself back into being, as Milne points out in discussing Susan Hiller's art, and in doing so it manufactures a kind of memory, a dream-experience . This process of writing back of the ego is visualised in last scenes of the film, the viewer meets Żebrowska's double, the guide represented as the accompanying shadow. To paraphrase Rosalind Krauss in her discussion on female artists, 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 Regression invite the viewer into a trance-like state (the symbolical and rhetorical animation devices, slow motion sequences, collage of SF clips and pictures - effects of plasmas, images of outer space, and spaceships). Circles of blue and yellow, green and pink 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 Susan Hiller's (1987) Magic Lantern . The vision of heavens the viewer experiences is fragmented. Layering of images in blue and yellow light are particularly picturesque. The hallucinatory-like sequences are reminiscent of Ken Russell's Altered States, for instance, an image when the man and woman gradually covered by sand, are petrified .

 

The viewer enters the artist's (un)altered states, empty spaces in which we may redefine experiences. Reminiscence of narcotic experience the visions are exacerbated with the images of hallucinogenic plants, marihuana, cannabis and magic and fly agaric mushrooms (e.g. Carsten Holler (1997) Muscimol). We could argue that Żebrowska spiritual and religious viewpoints plays a part in the choice of imagery here (e.g. an image of a woman in the red sari, images of crucifixion). Again here, Regression (and to some extent Onone ) can be compared to Susan Hiller's Witness where explorations of collective utterances derive from everyday experiences, but from those experiences which defy rational explanations and that are marginalised and dismissed as mystical, hallucinogenic or pathological. These very utterances are central to contemporary culture, as they speak from the place of our unacknowledged fears and desires. As in Freud's return of the repressed, these fears and desires may appear on the surface as strange projections or allegories. Fears and desires are also central to Hanna Nowicka's works.

 

Hanna Nowicka's Initiation (2002) and Swinging (2002)

Hanna Nowicka's work hovers somewhere between memory and imagination, childhood experiences and unconscious. In her practice, she comments on how a proximity could limit our perception and subsequently restrict our freedom. In her works, the context is always very close. She emphasises both emotional and optical deformations resulting from an attempt to look at someone (something) too closely.

 

The hallucinatory image of a little girl brings two works Initiation and Swinging together. Human subject carries within the psychic register affects and traces of the contact with the invisible specificity of archaic partial subjects, with I and non-I. Thus, as the viewers we may think we know the girl in a white dress, an abject angel hidden in all women, a sublimated little inner girl (post-Lacanian subject).

 

Nowicka explores the possibilities and the limits of close relationships. On that level, Swinging and Initiation can be compared to Joel Fisher etchings series Responsibility (1980), recreated on a basis of his scribble drawings which he made during his regression hypnosis. As in Żebrowska's Regression , Fisher asked the hypnotist to regress him to (un)altered state, in this case, to his childhood, to the age of his son. Later, Fisher made etchings based on his drawings under the hypnosis and on drawings made by his son, combining both in a printing technique ( Dream Machine Catalogue, 2000). An initiation process into the father's life, an initiation into the artistic process can be compared here with Nowicka's Initiation piece. There are, however, differences in the artists' approaches. While Nowicka establishes the scenario for the piece and uses her daughter as subject, she does not undergo regressive hypnosis to make the work. Thus, in Nowicka's work a childhood memory is re-staged. Also, Fisher made the etchings after the experience.

 

The time involved in Nowicka's 'performance' is also different, real time is re-enacted. The barefooted girl (a daughter of the artist) is crushing with her feet red (passiflora berries) on the white surface . She spreads the purple red juice with her feet onto the canvas. This very process becomes a principle part of the work (an artistic process of darkening white surfaces with the purple red juice). The artist's daughter creates the artwork through her performance. The girl plays with the berries, like a child playing in the mud, smashing the fruits into the virgin whiteness of the canvas. By doing so, the girl intervenes in the creative space, she participates in the creating process, and she is making the artwork, painting over the canvas with purple red. The girl simultaneously enters into adulthood and into the creative process. Situated in that space, the girl experiences her mother's experiences of being an artist and a woman.

 

The process of painting is unfinished, the performance, somewhat theatrically, is open-ended; in the last scene the girl cleaning her hands against the white dress, leaves the 'creative' space. In that sense, the girl is fragmentarily taking part in creating, the girl immerses in arts like in the water. Symbolically, the mother is initiating her daughter not only into womanhood (red symbolise menstrual blood), maturing and love (red as passion), but most of all, it is an initiation into the artistic space, in her mother's art practice. The question emerges whether the female artist is chosen (the role) or sentenced into 'little deaths' of other roles, those of mother, woman, and guide?

 

The symbolism of Nowicka's piece is gendered and ambivalent. In the background, two triangles, small white and big red resemble Newman's abstract paintings. The white and red also the symbols of Polish national emblem, point at Nowicka's love of materials, yet, a critical view of Poland and abstraction is implied. In that way, the 'stage' aesthetics (red and white triangles) reminiscent of the spiritual-channelling abstract art, facilitates a communication of her emotions.

 

The pains of the initiation into life, the traumas of the relationships between the mother and the daughter (closeness and distance) and associated fears through the unconscious, through the child-like experience are further explored in video Swinging . On that level, exploring the phenomenon of emotional ties and the problems of relatedness and identity, this works relates to Nowicka's earlier works e.g. For John (1998), All You Need is Love (2000) .

 

The sensation of swinging in the summery day is captured by contrasting the whiteness of a dress with the focused field (an alley of chestnut trees). This is how Nowicka makes the insights into the unconscious fragmented, by focusing on the close distance, by an emphasis on the context. This work can be compared to Barbara Ess' photographic series Untitled (1996-1998), depicting the little girl with the lights on her dress in the tunnelled space. Nowicka and Ess, although through different means, pull the viewer into the personal memory and its associations with the unconscious. The softness and delicacy of colours and aesthetics of the 'romantic' background, a beauty of nature (sounds of the rattling leaves against the wind) and innocence of the child's play (sounds of the swing in motion) are contrasted with the blood signs on the girl's wrists. The swing is a metaphor, representing an unstable situation of the girl entering into the life experiences. The whiteness of the dress, a child-like innocence is lost in pleasures of pains.

 

Swinging movement is a metaphor for a pleasure of repetitions (Bersani, 1986). The pleasure of repetition brings pain (blood on wrists) of the initiation into life, a pain of the cultured sublimation. Swinging awakens jouissance between trauma and fantasy, engraves a relationship between fantasy and desire in (female) subjectivity, represented by the little girl. After a few minutes of swinging the viewer experiences the girl in her white dress hurting her wrists with the swing lines, through a desire of repetitious swinging (a continuing desire of putting the swing into the motion). Again, as in Initiation , the pain is symbolised by the crashed passiflora berries, coming out like blood in the girl's wrists. What is given to be seen here becomes an alibi for the whole set of assumptions about the imagined inner states. The girl, caught in a disequilibrium (a swing as an allegory), between what is felt to be 'my' existence and what is said about my place within it (other), remains uneasy beside herself (being out of balance).

 

Swinging can be perceived as an appendix to Initiation , whereas in the latter the artist comments predominantly on female physical experience of life, the former explores psychic and emotional states associated with entering into the adulthood (womanhood). The symbolism attached to colours, especially the contrast between whites and reds in the Initiation , makes an aesthetic link to Nowicka's earlier works, e.g. Hapteny (2000). Hapteny (2000), a series of photographs, was loosely inspired by Jeanette Winterson's essay The Semiotics of Sex , a look at how people gender art when art does not gender itself. In this work, the anonymous woman (the artist herself) dressed in purple red coat 'enjoys' the silence sitting at the table in the deserted outdoor cafe against the snowy background. What the viewer experiences is a sense of pleasure (and pain) in the woman's loneliness and desolation. The artist explores here the fears of intimacy, fears of being close to someone, closer than to the context (the snowy background). Juxtapositioning of the reds and the whites, of the solid textures (the ice, snow, café's tables) and the soft textures (the woman's woollen coat) are reminiscent of aesthetics in Ana Mendieta's photographs, especially the photographs of the snow with the red imprints or snowy background in her Silueta Series (1973-77).

 

Conclusions

It is a search for a consolidation of feminine identity that has brought Alicja Żebrowska and Hanna Nowicka together. Feminine/feminist aesthetics for them is the utopian expression of combining both seeing and feeling. It is also the expression of the process to represent the feminine subjectivity. Caught in between, the artists mediate through, what Zizek calls, self-effacing gestures of the 'pre-ontological chaotic multitude' into the semblance of a positive objective order of what reality is . Nowicka and Żebrowska recognise a possibility to regress to our (un)altered states, to a childhood play and a state of innocence of seeing and being, in order to re-read the self and subsequently to map the self (a public catharsis through art practice).

 

In the visualisation of 'other' being, they question cultural politics of representation of the unconscious, through the emphasis on re-marking, re-mapping the self. In such a 'cathartic'-like way, the conscious beside (artistic practice) and not within is formed, through release of the 'suppressed' emotions and the patterns of relatedness that inhibit individual autonomy. Catharsis refers here to a process of liberating a representation of the unconscious. Initially, Aristotle in Poetics referred to the release of emotions evoked in the viewer of a tragedy. Gadamer argued that what can be experienced in an excess of tragic suffering is a possibility of seeing 'how it is'; a kind of self-examination for the viewer . In that way, the artists give new insights to the illusions in which one lives, insights which give an impetus for re-mapping (female) subjectivity.

 

This is why both artists represent falling into some kind of 'little deaths'. In Żebrowska's Regression, the artist achieves the climax in the end of desire through the hypnosis, the little death of the ego. In Nowicka's Swinging, the little girl symbolises the unattended, inner child. Here, affirmation of the death drive could be seen as a gesture that clears the space for creative sublimation (the artistic process). Contemporary interpretations more readily educe from these works a psychoanalytic problematic of the disintegration of the feminine subject, a split between what Lichtenberg Ettinger refers, as the space of I and non-I. This is how the artists challenge the normative use of language in conditioning reality of the feminine.

 

Żebrowska and Nowicka challenge the conditioned reality, questioning how the sense of fragmentation colonised the psychic ('other') worlds. What links the artists and the artworks is first, geo-politics and its aesthetics, and second, a consensus that bodily space and feminine desire seem to find no representation in the economy of dominant discourse .

 

Distinctive features in these works are (self-)reflexivity, a focus on language (feminist poetics of the unconscious), and a more ambivalent and implicit sense of the feminist tradition of the CEE region (both artists are based in Poland), a kind of self-dispossession in these works, through the sub-symbolic. The text of the self in these works is suspended and instead what as viewers we may experience is both joy and fears of feminine non-being; positive and negative jouissance . Indeed, this is how a break with the consciousness may occur, instead with heavily politically charged meanings, staging the phantasmic core of being, through silent jouissance with the 'little deaths', with the pleasure from within where femininity may appear as a mask supplementing a failure to be a woman. When considering the images in the videos, they can be seen as a reworked surrealist vision in which there is a complex association between femininity and its romanticism, underwritten by the narcissism that Krauss identifies as the condition of a medium, through which a utopian vision of feminine is potentially articulated . Lacanian fundamental fantasy, as read via Zizek, appears here on the side of reality. This vision is articulated through the female body and its relationship to a feminine subject. This is how the discussed artworks can be viewed, as the jigsaw puzzle put together in the writing-back process of the mapping feminine subjectivity, the new insights for the established order of what is represented and representable.

 

On a final note, it is necessary to comment on the absence of obvious references to the social and cultural specificity of the CEE, despite the artists' location. Globalisation trends have brought the art centres (of Western Europe) closer to their peripheries, but have at the same time, asserted new forms of oppressive universalism. This is visible in the works discussed, in which the particularity of the CEE becomes more ambivalent, where an art piece is based on a principle of auto-genesis, at times even accused as being self-referential or narcissistic. This is were I situate both artists, in the feminist discourses which are the provincialised, de-centred, yet linked to each other, and thus perhaps less arrogant.

 

In the catalogue for the 2003 exhibition Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women's Art in Poland in New York, Matynia compares the relationship between globalisation and feminism in Poland to murals of Mark Chagall: 'thoroughly modern but idiosyncratic, and, as such, not founded on the premises of modernity' . I would like to take this as axiomatic of the CEE region in general.

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Slavoy Zizek, Sublime Object of Ideology , (London: Verso, 1989). p. 28

Gisela Ecker, 'Introduction' in Feminist Aesthetics , Ecker, G. Ed. (The Women's Press: London, 1985), p. 17.

The N.E.W.S: International Exhibition under the Tachanka Principle, The Baltic Biennial of Contemporary Art, Exhibition Catalogue (ZAPOL: Szczecin, Riga, Visby, 1999/2000).

Magdalena Lewoc (Ed) Extra Strong Super Light , Exhibition Catalogue of the 5 th International Contemporary Art Exhibition from Baltic Region, National Museum: Szczecin, Mare Articum , Special Issue 2(13), 2003: 5-26.

Jacques Lacan argued for the centrality of systems of meanings and signification to subjectivity and the social order. It is important to acknowledge that although feminist writers often draw on aspects of Lacan's work to explore subjectivity and sexual identity and subsequently to challenge phallocentric order in the construction of masculine and feminine, there is also an awareness of his writings as being elitist and phallocentric itself. I argue that the relations between Lacan's version of psychoanalysis and feminism remain ambivalent.

Ronald Barthes The Pleasure of the Text (Hill and Wang: New York, 1975).

Slavoj Zizek The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (Verso: London, 2000), p 284.

Zizek, 2000, pp 265 and 289.

Jones Ernest, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud , Basic Books: New York, 1961.

Zizek, 2000, p. 289.

Jacques Lacan 'On Jouissance' in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge Book XX Encore 1972-1973, Norton and Co: New York, 1998.

Zizek, 1989, p. 45.

Julia Kristeva 'Julia Kristeva in conversation with Rosalind Coward' Desire, L. Appignanesi (Ed.), London: ICA documents, 1984, reprinted in The Portable Kristeva - updated edition , K. Oliver (Ed.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp.333-350

Zizek, 2000, p. 274.

Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger 'The With-In- Visible Screen' in Inside the Visible , de Zegher M. C. (Ed.) (MIT Press: London, 1996).

Gilles Deleuze and Guattari Felix A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia . (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

Zizek, 1989, p. 28.

Fisher Jean 'Susan Hiller: Elan and Other Evocations' in de Zegher M. C. (Ed.) Inside the Visible , The MIT Press: London, 1996.

Butler Judith Psychic Life of Power , Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1997.

Bersani Leo Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art , Columbia University Press: New York, 1986.

From my conversation with Żebrowska in September 2003.

Information obtained from my conversation with Żebrowska in September 2003.

Milne Louise 'On the Sides of the Angels: Susan Hiller's Witness and Other Works' , in Susan Hiller, Exhibition Catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Arts Denmark, 2002.

Bohme Helmut 'A Journey into the Body and Beyond: The Art of Alicja Żebrowska' in Alicja Żebrowska's Onone: A World after the World, Exhibition Catalogue, Galeria Laboratorium CSW Zamek Ujazdowski: Warsaw, 1997.

Leszkowicz P. (1997) 'On Both Sides Of The Mirror: In Search Of Third Millennium Sexuality', in Alicja Zebrowska's Catalogue Onone: A World after the World , Galeria Laboratorium CSW Zamek Ujazdowski: Warsaw.

Guy Brett explores Baba Antropofagica project in 'The Proposal of Lygia Clark' in de Zegher M. C. (Ed.) Inside the Visible (The MIT Press: London, 1996).

Milne Louise 'On the Sides of the Angels: Susan Hiller's Witness and Other Works' , in Susan Hiller, Exhibition Catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Arts Denmark, 2002.

Rosalind Krauss, 'Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism' in Hanhardt, J. (Ed.), Video Culture: A Critical Investigation (Visual Studies Workshop Press: New York, 1986). Krauss's discussion encompasses women artists (Nancy Holt, Lynda Benglis).

Zizek, 2000, p. 158.

Gadamer, H. G. (1995) Truth and Method, New York: Continuum.

Krauss, 1986.

Elżbieta Mytnia, 'Polish Women between the West and the Past', in Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women's Art in Poland , Exhibition Catalogue, (SculptureCenter: New York, 2003).

Slavoy Zizek, Sublime Object of Ideology , (London: Verso, 1989). p. 28

Gisela Ecker, 'Introduction' in Feminist Aesthetics , Ecker, G. Ed. (The Women's Press: London, 1985), p. 17.

The N.E.W.S: International Exhibition under the Tachanka Principle, The Baltic Biennial of Contemporary Art, Exhibition Catalogue (ZAPOL: Szczecin, Riga, Visby, 1999/2000).

Magdalena Lewoc (Ed) Extra Strong Super Light , Exhibition Catalogue of the 5 th International Contemporary Art Exhibition from Baltic Region, National Museum: Szczecin, Mare Articum , Special Issue 2(13), 2003: 5-26.

Jacques Lacan argued for the centrality of systems of meanings and signification to subjectivity and the social order. It is important to acknowledge that although feminist writers often draw on aspects of Lacan's work to explore subjectivity and sexual identity and subsequently to challenge phallocentric order in the construction of masculine and feminine, there is also an awareness of his writings as being elitist and phallocentric itself. I argue that the relations between Lacan's version of psychoanalysis and feminism remain ambivalent.

Ronald Barthes The Pleasure of the Text (Hill and Wang: New York, 1975).

Slavoj Zizek The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (Verso: London, 2000), p 284.

Zizek, 2000, pp 265 and 289.

Jones Ernest, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud , Basic Books: New York, 1961.

Zizek, 2000, p. 289.

Jacques Lacan 'On Jouissance' in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality. The Limits of Love and Knowledge Book XX Encore 1972-1973, Norton and Co: New York, 1998.

Zizek, 1989, p. 45.

Julia Kristeva 'Julia Kristeva in conversation with Rosalind Coward' Desire, L. Appignanesi (Ed.), London: ICA documents, 1984, reprinted in The Portable Kristeva - updated edition , K. Oliver (Ed.) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), pp.333-350

Zizek, 2000, p. 274.

Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger 'The With-In- Visible Screen' in Inside the Visible , de Zegher M. C. (Ed.) (MIT Press: London, 1996).

Gilles Deleuze and Guattari Felix A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia . (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

Zizek, 1989, p. 28.

Fisher Jean 'Susan Hiller: Elan and Other Evocations' in de Zegher M. C. (Ed.) Inside the Visible , The MIT Press: London, 1996.

Butler Judith Psychic Life of Power , Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1997.

Bersani Leo Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art , Columbia University Press: New York, 1986.

From my conversation with Żebrowska in September 2003.

Information obtained from my conversation with Żebrowska in September 2003.

Milne Louise 'On the Sides of the Angels: Susan Hiller's Witness and Other Works' , in Susan Hiller, Exhibition Catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Arts Denmark, 2002.

Bohme Helmut 'A Journey into the Body and Beyond: The Art of Alicja Żebrowska' in Alicja Żebrowska's Onone: A World after the World, Exhibition Catalogue, Galeria Laboratorium CSW Zamek Ujazdowski: Warsaw, 1997.

Leszkowicz P. (1997) 'On Both Sides Of The Mirror: In Search Of Third Millennium Sexuality', in Alicja Zebrowska's Catalogue Onone: A World after the World , Galeria Laboratorium CSW Zamek Ujazdowski: Warsaw.

Guy Brett explores Baba Antropofagica project in 'The Proposal of Lygia Clark' in de Zegher M. C. (Ed.) Inside the Visible (The MIT Press: London, 1996).

Milne Louise 'On the Sides of the Angels: Susan Hiller's Witness and Other Works' , in Susan Hiller, Exhibition Catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Arts Denmark, 2002.

Rosalind Krauss, 'Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism' in Hanhardt, J. (Ed.), Video Culture: A Critical Investigation (Visual Studies Workshop Press: New York, 1986). Krauss's discussion encompasses women artists (Nancy Holt, Lynda Benglis).

Zizek, 2000, p. 158.

Gadamer, H. G. (1995) Truth and Method, New York: Continuum.

Krauss, 1986.

Elżbieta Mytnia, 'Polish Women between the West and the Past', in Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women's Art in Poland , Exhibition Catalogue, (SculptureCenter: New York, 2003).