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A Journey into the Body and Beyond.
The Art of Alicja Zebrowska
"Identified Plastic Object": Exposition
It's quite simple: a garish, red pipe, six meters in length, connects two jutting, snow-covered cliff peaks at the summit of the Tatra Mountains. Everything here is (still) nature - with the exception of this single object.
Art is a manifestation of physics, commented Alicja Zebrowska on her installation "Identified Plastic Object" in the Strazyska-Valley of the Tatra at the turn of the year (1992/1993). Continuing in this vein, we can extrapolate: Art is a materialisation, an intelligent manifestation of the physis. Alicja Zebrowska reminds us, that, according to the cosmic Big Bang model, matter came into being perhaps ten seconds after the original explosion. Everything in existence is a configuration and metamorphosis of matter. Even the thinking mind, which creatively and productively acts upon matter, is a modification of this same substance.
In Stanley Kubrick's film "2001 A Space Odessey", an absolutely regular, black cube towers up suddenly and without warning over a prehistoric human horde. This same cube is later discovered by space travellers on an unknown planet, but even then, in the farthest technological future, it retains its mystery. Like Alicja Zebrowska's pipe, the cube is the epiphany of a substance, which is material, but which also displays its artificiality. It is the birth of intelligence. Art is physical labour, labour on the physis.
"Onone: Between the Sexes"
Onone - World after the World (1995) is a video installation projekt realized by Alicja Zebrowska in 1995. As in various other video projects, Dariusz Baster contributed the electronic music. "Onone" is an artificial word composed of the Polish words for "he/she". This word provides the titel for an androgynous or transsexual phantasy. In this project, Alicja Zabrowska's early artistic and explorative work on her own body and its phantasms reaches a new, synthetic niveau. In a loose series of seenes which don't tell a story, we sec young human beings, almost still children, who, through artificial sexual implantations, leave their sexual identity behind to form new, transhuman hermaphrodites.
This is not about science fiction, and the video technique doesn't evcn try to compete with the spellbinding technical imagery of futuristic Hollywood film. The acting is done by amateurs and the camera operates not at the technical state of the art. But in artificial naivity. No high-tech laboratory is to be seen, no hyperreal environment, no spaceship, no laboratory for genetic technology. Even the conclusion of the film, which shows the elevation and weightless flight of the transsexual being through a black outer space twinkling with starlight, is without technical finesse. In spite of the electronic music of the spheres, no associations with the perfect outer-space simulations of science fiction movies arise. No masculine, heroic phantasies of conquering new galaxies or of the creation of transhuman lifeforms are acted out here. On the contrary, these playful dreams suspended between bucolic, grotesque and humouresque are the dreams of a woman on the border of the symbolic and physiological order of the sexes.
Some American feminists dream of transcending the repressive order of the sexes through technical manipulation, as if freedom is to had on the other side of a meanwhile fully abondoned natura, in whose name women have since times immemorial been oppressed. Alicja Zebrowska, in contrast, does not borrow from the hybrid phantasies of genetic medicine.Instead, in a witty and astute manner, she presents different themes and scenarios of occfidental art and shapes them into ironic studies on one of the oldest cultural motifs, namely on androgyny and hermaphroditism. In this manner, she lays a female body in a meadow of wildflowers bordered by a bubbling creek. The woman is naked. Up to this point, everything is clear. This is nature. But we sce that the woman's bips are gurted by a transparent plastic foil. A huge, tube-like penis glistens through the plastic. Plastic phalli cover her breasts. Tubes attached to the glans connect them to the water and to a mechanical pump-aggregate next to the creek. Everything here is also clear. This is artificiality.
The small creck forms a vaginal incision in the meadow. Yellow-red balls shine out of the lush growth around its sloping bank. They arc apples, but, like the woman's hips wrapped in plastic, they are coated with silicon. Delicate tubes run out of the apples, connecting them to the crcek, to the pump-mashine, and to the body of the androgynous being. The mashine is a pump similiar to those used to milk cows. The body, nature, and technology combine here in a strange synthesis that leaves all three behind.
Apparently, we are witnessing a circulation of energies and flows, (...) of shifting exchange with one another: the apple of paadise, idyllic nature, milk-giving Gaia, the water of life, the sexual body, earth's lush fertility. The installation acquires a hybrid form. It proliferates. Michail Bachtin identified hybridity as characteristic for the early modern, grotesque body. This body is not at all smooth and continuous, neither clearly situated in the order of the sexes, nor of spiritual clarity. Quite the opposite, it is completely and utterly material, porous, without clear borders, and caught up in the flow of energies from within the body and energies pulsing through it from outside. Alicja Zebrowska creates such a body. Which is defined through its hybridity and junctions. But this body is not a remembrance of early modern corporeality. Nor does it cite Plato's version of Aristophanes myth of the hermaphrodite. Plato's two-sexed beings are an archaic form of human being, whose bisexual (and, thus, spherically round) perfection enraged the jealously of the gods, For this reason, the gods extinguished the androgynous race by cutting the spherical bodies in half and created, in this way, the bipolar order of the sexes. (Plato: Symposium).
One is reminded of this story, yet Alicja Zebrowska plays ironically with these associations with old European symbolic forms. She presents her system of the circulation of sexual energie and flows between natura, mashine and body without the pathetic seriousness, with which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari placed the unlimited pump-mashine of desire and the circulation of lust at the service of political emancipation (Anti-Oedipus, 1974). Alicja Zebrowska even frees her bucolic "Garden of .(...) .the demonic metaphysic ol sexus, which envelopes Hieronymus Bosche's famous painting (Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Instead, we sec a lighthearted experiment, the playful succumbing to a phantasy, for which the not accidentally red-headed creature would once have been considered a witch, a heathen demon of nature and devilish succubus of sinful lust. Here. Though, a carnavelcsque humour is having its way. With a carefree gesture, Alicja Zebrowska leaves myth and paradise, theology and morals, form and genre behind, in much the same way as she transends the borders of the body in which we are imprisoned, we dammed of the bipolar, oedipal sexus.
Later, we see androgynous clves (also a citation), who, tanked with tho onorgy of the (...), dance in the (...) with bouncing breast-phalli and enormous donkeys penises (the camera dances and reels with them). It's a bit of Shakspeare's "Midsummer Nights's Dream" Perhaps one is more inclined to think of the orgiastic, heathen, midsummernight's festival in Andrej Tarkowski's film "Andrej Rubljow", which played the counterpart to Christian piety and ecstatic mortifications of the flesh. But Onone's dance is clumsy, amateurish, awkward, and unprofessional. It is neither pure grace as an expression of nature, nor perfect style as an expression of artificiality. Onone is not a citation of the good and evil, eschatological and demonic phantasies and myths, which have been associated with dance since ancient times, as if dance revealed the abyss or its opposite, the salvation of human kind. The self-satisfield, self-sufficient hermaphrodite is a humouresque, not a tragical sister to Ovid's Narcissus. And when s/he sits on a cliff, chin in hand, in the time-honoured pose of melancholia, s/he dements with this gesture the melancholy and sadness of reflection: Onone, the carefree-abandoned, artificial, but not artistic creation, who has carefree-abandoned, artificial, but not artistic creation, who has completely and utterly turned into a polymorphous genital.
Alicja Zebrowska calls this configuration of Onone "Assimilatio", "adaptation", "re(as) sembling". The verb assimilare also means: to make similiar, to show in a similiar manner, to imitate, to reproduce, to compare, to simulate, even to feign. All of this is the busines of art. In Onone, alicja Zebrowska has created a reflexive allegory of art. Androgyny reflects in a mythical form the structure of art. Art makes the dissimiliar similiar and lets it correspond - it is regio assimilationis. One must call to mind that, in the theology of the middle ages, the regio dissimilitudesi - the land of dissimiliarity - was the land of the debil, the land of fools and sinners, the land of absolute distance from God (according to Huldebert of Lavardin in the twelfth century). From this, one can deduce that Onone, who, in the circulation of resemblances assimlates everything and is assimilated by everything, also plays a game with piety. To be more exact, Onone is the playful production of the very resemblance, that brings humans close to God (assimilatio is the path to the image dei). God is, as we know, God, because he is an Onone - the perfect androgynous being, as is His son Jesus, who, in the middle ages, was often phantasized as being androgynous. (Aurnhammer, Achim: Androgynie. Studien zu cinem Motiv in der europ(ischen Literatur: Cologne 1986; Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Chirst).
Autoholos or: Self-sufficiancy
The remaining scenes in Onone take place not in open naure, but in artificial interiers (ir in outer space). In Autoholos which means "he, who is complete unto himself", Alicja Zebrowska creates an angellike being. Autoholos stands on a podium coveredin silver foil, in front of a wall of silver foil. Wrinkels in the foil in the backraund create the impression of a decorative wall. From a slightly lowered point of view, we look frontaly at a strangely removed Onone. S/he resembles an idol. Frozen like a statue, her/his slightly spread arms form a bell, as if s/he was frozen as s/he was about to bring the arms into the classic orantepose. The unmoving gaze stares slightly diagnonally past us and out of the picture into an undefined, empty distance. We are ourselves brought into the orante-pose. This is truly a cultisch idol Autoholos is wrapped in a transparent garment of plastic foil, which magnifies the body form like an aura, bell-like, but spread like wings, angel-like a crown. Framing the face, it is also a halo, a nimbus. The phallic nipples are wrapped in a plastic sheath that awakens associations with a condom. A gigantic male genital stretches snake-like out of the female lap and curves back to the vagina, as if the figure wants to fertilize itself: autoholos.
This image is most definitely playing with the tradition of cult idols, with statues of saints and (swxual, sacral) fetishes. Every worship of the sexus bring it close to sacrality. But perhaps it's the other way around. Perhaps the sacral, to which we devote ourselves with such fervour, is merely re-routed erotic energy. We con't know. The elevation of this androgynous fetish into higher spheres reminds us that all redically self-referential sexuality revcals, in its closed circle of self-sufficiancy. A truly godly form, and that for this very reason, it is considered perverse and pathological, when it enters into the human world. The Autoholos is absolutely untouchable, pure, "Noli me tangere". His aura surrounds him like a body-condom and lets the sexual flows of this Onone circle around themselves. This is a different circulation from the one, which sets the "assimilatio"-body, mashine and nature into a circulation of fluids.
Here, Alicja Zebrowska's aesthetic play with traditional form operates, as it often does, on the border to kitsch. Not without an amused irony, the installations demonstrate that those arcas most important to us - the religious and the erotic - have always cultivated an especially close relationship to kitsch. Alicja Zebrowska nearly always plays a daring game with tastelessness. The outer limts of this game are in danger of becoming desgusting and ridiculous. In this manner, she mixes here citations of the Sublime and the elevated with the grotesque and the theatrical. This method of citation creates a kind of manneristic syncretism, a travesty of sacralized sexus and sexualized sacrality. The aesthetic of travesty protects Alicja Zebrowska's installations from turning into kitsch.
Affirmatio, or: Permenent Auto-Arousal
Affirmatio is the name of the installation, in which another Onone, who is also arranged upon a silver podium, gazes into a mirror, a classic atribute of Venus, assuring itself of its bisexuality. Or Onone is shown from the side, sitting with drawn-up knees, its grandiose and grotesquely long penis building the base of the knees triangle. In both images. Onone seems withdrawn into itself, fully engrossed in the gaze directed at its resplendent hermaphroditic genitals or completely absorbed in concentration on the overly extended penis, which forms the body into a pyramid. Without a doubt, the phallus is here the 'master trope' (Paul de Man), without which affirmation would be impossible. Affirmatio is here nothing other than self-affirmation: the hermaphrodite needs no communicatio. Androgyny is stricktly asocial. It is a differentation within itself and needs not refer to an other or an outside of itself for self-identification. Androgyny is the methical dream of absolute self-reference turned sexual. This self-reference would be barren, if its bisexuality didn't create something similiar to an internal polarity, a tension holding it upright like a perpetuum mobile. The permanent auto-arousal is an eternal baptism of the self in itself, a final absence of need, dependant on nothing and on no one. It is a yearning that never reaches aoutside itself for something else, but circles in intself. In short, it is a whole that exists in itself. Here, one recognizes that exists in itself. Here, one recognizes that Affirmatio, as well, is an allegory of the autonomous work of art. Its radical self-affirmation is a radical negation of everything not itself. The hermaphrodite is the mythical form of the work of art.
Continuo or: the Dream of Art and the Second Skin
The Onone scenes with the blond-haired double-figure are titled Continuo. This means "I arrange in a series", "I gather together". "I connect", "I attach", "I set in a row", "I round off", "I continue without pause". That the verb continuare is in the first person singular in presence form is revealing. The titel refers to the artist's self, who, through this titel, points not only to the portrayed, but to the portrayer, as well. As in the other images, androgyny is one theme. The scenes also comment allegorically on the question of aesthetic production. This has a correlate in the long tradition of the phantasm of androgyny. Since the beginnings of modernity, that is, since the Romantic, the motif and the contents of androgyny have dissolved or shifted. In the century between Friedrich Schlegel's "Lucinde" and Robert Musil's "Vereinigungen" or Virginia Woolf's "Orlando", the question of physical androgyny has been more and more closely tied to the question of the hermaphroditic nature of the poetic and artistic process. Alicja Zebrowska's installations are concerned with this process, in that the artist portrays androgyny as the utopien, yet already travestized, location of the bisexual body. At the same time, she emphasizes the ambiguous, discontinuous, artificial, phantasmatic, no longer dual, but now polymorphous, ironic scintillation of the artistic process. For this reason, we must subject all installations to a doubled gaze, a doubled reading. In the decoded subject, the partrayed image, we must also recognize the structure, the portrayal. In this manner, Alicja Zebrowska realizes one of the unavoidable requirements of modernity, aesthetic reflexivity, which, thus, enters into the structure of her work.
In Continuo, the same acters as in Synchron and Sexfantilis are dressed, like the actress in Autoholos, in transparent body foils that leave only head and hands free. Oversized phalli and enlarged nipples stare from underneath the plastic sheet. The foil surrounds the bodies like a second skin grown too wide. Under the plastic skin, the natural surface and form of the silhouette cannot be seen clearly. In this manner, the foil visually dissolves the borders of the body. This effect is made stronger by the light reflexions on the plastic skin and by the silver underground and backround, which can barely be distinguished from the foil dress. The dissolution of borders is an effect of the Onone-Principle, of androgyny. Androgyny is this 'continuation over borders', a Continuo, a continuation and arranging in a row, a carrying on without interuption, a connecting and a bringing together. In this context, the light effects, which send strong beams onto the figures and the backround to create intense light reflexions, play a central role.
The skin is our largest organ. It delineates our border to the external world and is, at the same time, the medium of communication with this world through touch. Skin is also the medium through which fluids are secreted out of pores and the medium of injurious penetration. Alicja Zebrowska's hermaphrodites, whose transparent garments emphasize the aspect of transition, have become completely surface and skin. Not the continuous skin, one must add, but the mediating, membrane-like, porous, and reflecting skin. The artificialty of the plastic foil emphasizes the skin's function as a medium. The bodies may be sealed in plastic like meat in a supermarket, but, at the same time, this second skin presents and exhibits. It is a theatrical moment, one that creates visual transitions and extends borders. In each arrangement, the Onone figures take on the classical pose often depicted on pompous roman sarcophagi, in which the dead couple presents itself lying on its side, on behind the other, in the eternity of a nature morte. Here, one cannot tell whether the Onones make up one body or two. Silent and statue-like, they depict androgyny.
Tableaux Vivantes. Nature Morte and Felishism
As in Autoholos, the motionless tranquility of the figures in Continuo, Synchron, and Sexfantilis springs to cye. Androgyny is not a reality, but an effect of the media. Here, it is created in the aesthetic of the tableau vivantes. Alicja Zebrowska takes on this old cultural practice, which was cultivatek drom the sixteen to the cighteenth centuries as a form of artistic entertainment, and gives it an ironic twist. It is not without intention that the child-like actors sink into motionlessness. They close their eyes or stare into emptiness, fall into the pose of the dead (Roman sarcophagus) or into an eternal sleep, which finally welds both figures together and synchronizes them. The hermaphrodite, this expresses, is not a figure in the world of flesh and blood. It is a persona of absolute artificiality and suspended life - the "still-life" of the sarcophagus (gr. "gr. "flesh-eater": the space, in which meat is consumed). Androgyny forms a region beyond the flesh, a region in which the living body is laid to rest by the still breath of death and awakens again the artistic sphere as a tableaux vivantes. Androgyny does not belong to our life. It shows the life of statues which are supposed to portreay our phantasies and desires. Once again, a reflexive level of art theory worked into the installation. Alicja Zebrowska uses the theme of androgyny to develop her aesthetics.
This is done once again in the form of travesty and irony. This is especially evident in Sexfantilis, which can be translated as 'sexual adolescence" or 'sexual infantility'. In this scene, an Onone wrapped in plastic holds in its arms one of those cheap, grotesquely tasteless, blow-up sex-dolls in a garish red dress, the child-woman often depieted in pornography. Its red mouth is opened not to scream, but to reccive the user's organ. Alicja Zebrowska travestizes and contrasts this sex-doll with her own procedure, the Onone-Principle. As a matter of fact, the cambarrassing kinship of Alicja Zebrowska's figures to this most shabby of sexual fetish objects, is provocatively demonstrated here. The sexual phantasies are inhabited by a scurrilous, grotesque, kitschy, and alienating population. The dreamland of sex is amuscum of fetishes, which, for the most part, have their roots in childhood (infantility) and which later return perverted.
The word 'fetish' comes from the Portuguese feiti(o and the Latin factitius (artificial, constructed). This word was used to deseribe the magical, energie-filled, artificial objects, in which Portuguese travellers and missionaries believed to recognize the magical objectw of native cultures. Since the Nineteenth century, 'fetish' has not only been the expression for the fatal magical powers of the commodity (Marx fetish character of the commodity). Since Alfred Binet and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the word 'fetish' means in sexology the passionate sexual occupation of partial objekts, which then serve as substitutes for real people and partner relationships. Fetishes funtion as intermediaries. They allow the fetishist to disengage himself from the material reality of flesh and blood and the strenuous and frightening world of social-cultural relationships and to create an autonomous, completely artificial world that functions only according to his phantasm. Every fetishism functions as derealisation. Alicja Zebrowska shows us one such world in Onone. This pure world of fetishes presents us with the way in which fetishistic desire funtions. We can now understand the dominance of the phallus in the Onone installations: The phallus is the fetish per se. Nevertheless, sexual fetishism (and, as we have seen, art, as well) operate androgynously. The fetish's mystery and fascination is precisly, that the fetishist creates in his fetish an object that is itself, but at the same time an Other. The fetishist negates desire's dependancy on an Other, in that this Other is lifcless, and can only be given life by the fetishist's phantasy. The fetish is always a form of nature morte, a tableau vivante, a living-dead or dead-living, in short, a transitory being, an intermediary substrate of desire. For this reason, art and fetishism maintain a close relationship. Without exaggerating, one can say that all works of art show the structure of the fetish. Artists are fetishists - how could this be otherwise! By parading the logic of the fetish in her work, Alicja Zebrowska presents the libinal core of art. Here, as well, Onone is an exploration of what art is, a discourse on art theory.
Hypnosis and Trancc or: Art Sleeps
This dimension is especially evident in those parts of the Onone-Cycle, in which the artist, Alicja Zebrowska, sets herself into scene, as she has done in many earlier videos and installations. A chaiselongue with a cover in the ornamental style of the nieteenth century stands in a dark, cave-like room. The backround of filigreed, refracling, silver foil turns the room into a stage. Two phallic glass objects, presumably belonging to an unused ceiling lamp, hang into the picture. Suspended over the face of the artist, these are the crectile organs of phantasy. The artist lies on her back, naked, on the chaiselongue. A nineteenth-century lamp stands at her head. It is the only source of light. The lamp shines directly onto the brightly lit face of the artist, who has closed her eyes. She seems to be asleep. We do not immediately notice a man sitting in an armchair in the dimly-lit left foreground of the scene. He is the hyponotizer. Alicja Zebrowska has wrapped her breasts, which havc been lengthened with phallic prostheses, in plastic and covered her hips in a skirt of foil. She holds a tautly rounded bubble on her stomach, an artificial uterus, that announces its pregnancy. At the same time, though, a thick, dark, cucumber-like penis grows out of her vagina.
With its atmospheric references to the nineteenth century, this scene cites the classic era of hypnosis, of therapeutic trance, and of the hysterical woman. Couch and armchair call to mind the psychoanalytic setting (although the chair should actually be behind the head end of the couch). This ritual exorcism of female phantasm by male therapists, which was developed under the sign of science, has been artificially theatralized here and has, once again, been placed on the border of kitch. The scenic atmosphere also awakes associations with the charlatans, magicians, fortune tellers, sorcerers, mesmerists, magnetizers, spiritists, astrologists, and spiritual healers, who, since the eighteenth century, have subsisted on the interior design of the bourgous psyche.
In the state of hypnosis, in the trance-like elevation of consciousness, the body of the artist is metamorphosized. It becomes hybrid and takes on all features of sex and generation. In the cave of dreams, the body may appear in all imaginable metamorphoses and metaphors. It seems, though, that the polymorphously sexual artist lends an ironic form to all phantasms hatched out by psychoanalysis on, as Freud put it. The "eternal riddle of woman", as well. At the same timc, the hyponotizer is an allegory of mediation. He is the personified metaphor of the mediu, with whose help Alicja Zebrowska keeps the process of (physical, artistic) metamorphosis going. This is made possible through a mode of possession, a trance. The elevating and displacing, or, in any case, transforming power functions simliarly to the artistic phantasy. What we are seeing herc is the artistic process captured as a theatrical scene.
Trans-fero or: the Inversion of Time
the concept of metamorphosis not only determines the Onone project and Alicja Zebrowska's variations on Body Art and the aesthetik of the hybrid body. It has for a long time been inherent to her work and can be found in the Land Art projects as well. In 1992, sho installed a brightly shining, four-cornered stele at the peak of the Koscielic mountain in the Tatra mountains, not far from her place of birth. On a small plateau, she constructed a circular pyramid of fine, light-coloured sand. The project was titled Trans-Fero (from the Latin word transfero - I cary over, I transplant, I shift, I transfer=metaphor, I change=metamorphosis). The material Alicja Zebrowska used had been extracted from a quarry 150 kilometers far away.
The significance of this action was as a form of symbolic restitution. Through millions of years of earth history. The sand and sandstone of the Tatra mountains had been eroded, carried off, ground down, or compacted and brought to a place far from its origins. Alicja Zebrowska turned this process around. The arrow of geological time, which only knows one direction, is reversed in the artistic process. Carrying back the sand, the transfer up into the Tatra mountains becomes, thus, a symbol for time, in much the same way as the stele and the pyramid become ciphers for a geological point of origin. Here art means reading traces and interpreting traces on the horizon of world-time, beyond the time of human history. It operates aesthetically in theunimaginable. What are "millions of years"? Is the slow crosion of sandstone-massifs, their transportation over hundreds of kilometers, this decomposition of mountains into fine sand imaginable? Immanuel Kant called this dimension beyond the comprehension of the senses and beyond imagination the Sublime. Alicja Zebrowska presents the Sublime not through imposing gestures, but through minute sambols stele and pyramid may well call to mind monumental architechture, which demonstrates imperial power, but here these forms disappear in the rough, dark massivity of the Tatra mountains. Through their almost white liminousity and regular forms, though, the are unmistakeably symbols that could only have been brought forth by human beings. Simultaniously, the refers to something transhuman - to the monstrosity of geological time. This is not present, but presented. Faced with the colossal dimensions of nature, these unassuming symbols reduce the insolent monumentality of the archetechtonic will to construct to a truly human size.
Alicja Zebrowska also demontrates, what a sign can or should be at all. 'Transfer' means, namely, the same as etaphor', which in Greck is 'to carry over' (metaphorein). Alicja Zebrowska took this literally, when the sand was 'carried back' over 150 kilometers to the peak of the Tatra mountains. This procedure holds a mysterious deop dimension of the symbolic process. What the artist does here is to practice a ritual, a magical ceremony, in which 'something' is substituted and transformed. The transfer takes place not only between locations, but also from one status to another. The signs arc handed back at the very site of their material source. Is it possible that this structure, which follows the logic of sacrifice, determines the semiotic process as a whole? Is Alicja Zebrowska saying that our theories of the sign, which assume that the sign is arbitrary and donventional, are superficial or even wrong? Are there other processes in art, in which the semiotic 'reimbursement' is a reminder, that signs are a kind of sacrifice? A sacrifice, in which the signifier is set as a substitute in the place of a substance, a process from which even the 'forthest' sign in time and space remains dependent? These questions are too difficult to be answered here. One thing is certai, though. With her installation Trans-Fero, Alicja Zebrowska wanted not only to create a piece of Land Art. She wanted also to explore the process of semiosis, of metaphorisation, and of (geological) metamorphosis. This aspect connects the installation to the, at first glance, so different Body Art projects.
To Stone: the Ritual of Death and Rebirth
One important project in which work with natural materials and self-explorative Body Art intertwine, is the action To Stone (1993). In this project, Alicja Zebrowska created a hollowed-out sandstone block about two meters long and sixty centimeters high and wide. The block was divided lengthweise, and the top part was divided into cight horizontal segments. The stone was left unpolished and relatively rough and was not cleanly cut into pieces, but cracked and split. In this manner an archaic sarcophagus was created.
As a matter of fact, the stone block fulfed this function in a literal sensc. It ate flesh, namely, the body of the artist. Alicja Zebrowska was bedded down, naked, in the sarcophagus. Then, the strone coffin was covered sucessively with lid segments. The timing of the action was determined by physical processes. The sarcophagus was first warmed to 37o Celsius, the temperature of the human body. When the temperature of the stone had sunk beneath 36o Celsius after about thirly minutes, the action was ended, and the artist was freed from the stone grave. The 'work' is not the stone grave, but the action, during which the artist is intered, lies buried, and is frecd.
Alicja Zebrowska exposes herself here to the experience of the "little death". This ritual is practised in many cultures and also plays an important roll in alchemy in the Nigredo - blackness/blackening. Il means not only exposure to the blackness of death, the darkness before birth and before all creation, but also the symbolic transformation back into anorganic material. The flesh-eating stone (gr. Sarcophag) turns flesh to stone. Alicja Zebrowska turns herself, so to speak, into a fossil, into stone. She exposes her organic body, the body of Eros, to what Sigmund Freud calls the death drive - the return to an anorganic state.
Stone is the absolute opposite of the human body, but we know myths, in which the human race is created out of stone. In the Greek version of the flood legend, Deucalion and Pyrcha, the only survivors, arc told by the oracle to throw stones backwards over their shoulders in a sacred, sacrifical ritual. The new human race is thus created. Pindar and Ovid, for example, call humans for this reason the "hard race" (genus durum). And stories of people with "a heart of stone", which stands for their coldness and lack of pity, can be found almost all over the world. Many myths revolve around stone statues come to life. Since Pygmalion, the dream of art is to create a living work out of stone. The ritual Alicja Zebrowska executes here knows, that animation is always reanimation. This means, that it must be preceded by a mortification (like the deluge). In daily life, we would call it experiencing and surviving a crisis. Art is both. It is an animation, that must be preceded by a mortification. This means that only one who is willing to go through death (the Nigredo) can experience the wonder brought about by art, when it places producers or recipients into the manifestness of the living. The return to the state of stone and rigidity, thy symbolic mortification, is the prerequiste for an animation, that reconnects us to the anima mundi, the breath of life.
Two moments in this installation maintain connections to life. The first is breath, the anima, the second, warmth. Enclosed by the sone uterus, the artist lies naked and bare as an unborn child surrounded by human warmth. Cut off from all sensorimotor stimulation, she feels the fundamental rhythms of life, systole and diastole, inhaling and exhaling, the rhythm recognized by Goethe to be the elemental polarity of organic life. These two moments, which I call the symbolic umbilical cord, turn the action in its entirety into a ritual of death and rebirth. What we call life is a conglomeration of both. Thus, the ritual death of the artist is an atempt to reconnect to the fundaments of life.
Sigmund Freud called this return to an anorganic state the death drive. The death drive is perhaps the most mysterious and objectionable aspect of his work. This idea probably did not arise out of insight into the rhythm of animation and mortification. Most likely, it was influenced from afar by the law of entropy, of heat death, which in the latter part of the nineteenth century was found more and more fascinating. Alicja Zebrowska's aesthetic experiment refers to this law. The process of warming the sarcophagus to the temperature of the human body, through which it becomes a uterus instead of a flesh-eater, and its cooling down show, that all material and symbolic procedures we undertake, and, especially, the rhythm of life, of animation and mortification, are tied to a circulation of energy, which creates the basis for the warmth necessary for life. When the level of warmth falls naturally in the installation, this not only leads to the 'end' of the action. It is also a symbolic reminder of the entropic end, in which all energy is locked in an irreversible state - heat death.
It is characteristic for Alicja Zebrowska, that she combines Body Art with cosmological dimensions and with the experience of antropological extremes. In much the same manner, Trans-Fero confronted the dimensions of human semiosis with the chronologically unfathomable dimensions of carth history. One is reminded of Novalis, whose romantic art consisted of carth history. One is reminded of Novalis, whosc romantic art consisted of an exploration of the correspondances between the physical space of the body and cosmic space, between minute human dimensions of time and the time of the world. Through this, Novalis could formulate his peculiar dictum, that the body is also a "Cosmometer". This could be the caption of many of Alicja Zebrowska' s installations, as well.
Original sin - "The Mystery is looking": the uttermost end of art and the beginning of the body

Occupation with the temporal or symbolic beginnings and prerequisites of the body plays a central roll in the video project Original sin - a presumable beginning of virtual reality (1994). The electronic music is from Dariusz Baster. This project is about the religious (male) phantasm of the birth of evil out of female sexuality.
Feminist Body Art has accustomed us to many things through its unmasking of the malc images, which enslave the female body under the dictatorship of beauty. One must not forget, though, that it is precisly this female beauty that leads to the condemnation of woman as sinful and her 'conversion' into inferior matter, dregs, and ugliness. Portrayals of women in the middle ages showed female bodies that celebrate Venus's seductive appearance on the front side, while the back side reveals nausiating vermin crawling through bursting flesh and sores. Such images have a long tradition. According to this double representation, the desirable and beautiful visible side of woman conceals the most inferior, sinful and frightening corporeal figure ("Frau Welt" - the world). Beauty is the devil's mask. In the disgusting female body, with its vermin and nausiating brood, the shows his true face. Feminist art uncovered this image as an imageo of christian patriarchism.
Perhaps one most have grown up in catholic and communist Poland to reach the degree of shamelessness and radical ruthlessness, with which Alicja Zebrowska's video projekct forces the cultural code of the sinful woman to its outermost point in order to deconstruct it. It is, at the same time, a self-therapeutic process. Using her own body as the object on which she demonstrates and executes the full power of the occidental degredation of woman and the male fear of the female vagina Alicja Zebrowska frees herself, one may assume, from the tyranny of symbolic violence, which forced the female body into a schizoid splitting between nausiating sexuality and the purity of the Virgin Mary. The images in Original sin become a grandious iconoclasm against the christian imagines of the sinful and the pure woman. This is done with such vehement rdicality that feelings of physical, visual pain and reactions of disgust are aroused in the observer and pour vomit-like out of the depths of his (and hers, as well?) fears and nightmares. I must admit, that this installation is difficult to equal.
In Original Sin, an enormously large, unknown form of life from another world opens up to reveal a staring eye. With a feeling of dread, we recognize the red; amorphous lips of a vagina, whose eye is turned on the viewer. The motive of the vaginal cye also dominates the video project The mystery is looking from 1994. The shaved vagina has been given eyelashes and eyebrows and made up with eyeshadow. One does not immediately recognize it. It opens up and reveals a deceptively life-like glass eve. Through inner contractions, pressure and suction, the vagina is able to move the eye, open and close the vaginal lips like eyelids, or oven, in the end, spit the eye out. This game with the eyevagina, that is watching you, is a visual nightmare. In contrast to Original sin, though, the painted and made-up shaved vagina is more strongly aesthetisized. Nevertheless, the sight of this ogling vagina is not only a shock to the eye. It goes right through the body of the viewer, jolting him to the border of nausia and dread.
Hidden by hair and leading into unkonwn depths, this silent, dark mystified, protected and, every so often, openning site of desire and yearning turns the dominant cultural code abruptly around, when it stares back. Traditionally, the silent and sightless vagina is taken into possession by the man. The vagina is the object of a seizure. The symbolic center of all possesive gestures of dominance is the eye, which 'captures' its object. For this reason, the male gaze is phallic. It penetrates. Symbolically, the vagina means nothing other than that the woman is looked upon. She is the object of the gaze. Here. Though, in The mystery is looking, Alicja Zebrowska turns the central axis of our sexual culture around. By opening its eyc, the vagina becomes a subject. This awakening to self-awareness causes shuddering and dread. The gaze is so imprisoned in the schema of male-dominated culture, that the (involuntary) sight of a seein vagina calls forth a deep-scated animosity. Seeing the "ystery" cast off its secrecy and through its gaze, itself become a subject, one has the feeling of witnessing a process of emancipation. Nevertheless, it has the effect of a visual monstrosity.
I expect that the cye-vagina, especially in its extremly feminine make-up, is also an absurd game, a burlesque maskarade not without wit and laughter. This would be a laughter originating in the grotesque, which is closely related to fear and monstrosity, disgust and pain. And we realize, that Alicja Zebrowska, as a woman, has gone far beyond what the man George Bataille dared to do in that most famous document of pornographic surrealism, "L'histoire de l'oeil" (1928).
Original sin is even more radical. There is no mercy for the gaze, no acsthetization to ease the fear. No maskarade, no make-up. A screen-filling vagina opens to smacking noises, a wobbling cave ontrance made of deformed, glinting flesh, flaccid entrails, a red sucking-organ of lust, strange sea animal, octopus-like, being, or slimey vine. This is not the same organ, to which desire is dedicated. Does this flesh belong to our world at all? The music makes it clear: this is the site of hell. The underworld. The submarine world. Hades. This is the cave, out of which the human race has through the process of civilization laboriously climbed. It has us again. We'd follow Dante and Vergil with pleasure into the "Inferno", but not in here.
This is the radical destruction of the codes of beauty, as far as these follow the laws of the (male) order of the sexes. But not only is il the opposite of beauty, it is also the opposite of pornograpy. It is an emancipating self-violation and self-profanation. For thousands of years, art has ecremoniously presented the beauty of the female body. It was considered beautiful in its completeness and in the proportions of its form. This continuity is ruthlessly torn apart at precisly the site, which needed to remain hidden and closed as a prerequisite for female beauty. Alicja Zebrowska crosses the entire female body out and shows screen-filling only the crevice of a vagina. At one point, the camera moves back, and we see the ogling vagina between two gigantic, open thighs, and over this, in a shortened perspective, two breasts, between which the two-eyed face of the artist can be see. It is a three-eyed monster.
In To Stone, Alicja Zebrowska had to go through the process of the "little death" to come to life. Here, she goes through the hell of the rejection of the female, through the distortion and caricaturization of the female genitals, through the deformation, that female sexuality suffered for thousands of years under the law of patriarchism. What causes disgust in the viewers, is most likely a source of pain for the artist.
And it doesn't stop. A phallus, connected to neither a body nor a subject, penetrates smacking into the vagina and moves back and forth like a piston in the organic cylinder of the body-mashine.
Screen-change: Black slime is pressed into the vagina through a silver cylinder. Tropical sound reminiscent of the jungle. The pumping phallus. A masturbating finger. Bird calls from a crane. Tropes of sexual desire.
A water hose is entered into the vagina through the cylinder and washes it out. Cleansed of the filth of sin? The water, blackened from the slime, swells out of the vagina, until, finally, the water pouring out is as clear as a spring. We are rminded of Gustave Courbet's painting "L'origine du Monde". In the installation from Alicja Zebrowska, we find the counterpart to this male ideal of the vagina.
It's still not over. We gaze at the pressing, pulsing vagina. Something wants to come out. We identify a lock of hair. And we witness, to our horror, the slow birth of a Barbie doll, which Alicja Zebrowska chokes out of herself in much the same way as the observer chokes on inner nausea. Gloved midwives' hands recieve the wet doll.
The Marquis de Sade invented a form of literature, that was basically motivated by the pervertation of sacred christian objects and of cultural values. De Sade remained ex negativo complletely bound to the existance of Christianity and its valucs. The project Original Sin, like de Sade, about violation and profanation. The ostenatious even vile presenation of that which is, in our culture, placed under the double secret of beauty and beastiality, animalic lust and the highest love, the filthy and the holy birth, reaches the limits of what we are capable of aesthetically and psychologically taking in with our eyes. We feel something in our eyes hurling. We want to look away and have to keep looking. Mercilessly, we are pulled into the image, the image as a vagina, the vagina as a gorge that swallows our phantasics and regurgiates them as monstrosities. Something in us splitters and breaks into pieccs. We don't know what it is. I expect, that this has something to do with a form of catharsis, or, perhaps, only with the fact that, reaching beyond such an experience, we arc capable of turning away, of looking up out of the spell, which christian culture has cast on sexuality and, especially, on the female body. And perhaps we can turn toward a new world, another form of encounter, another form of living in and with our bodies. I don't know. But I have a feeling that a great ycarning lies on the dark ground of this film. A yearning, which waits to be freed, as Alicja Zebrowska waited in her stone coffin for a rebirth, which may mean nothing more than healing a body, which has for ages, since the beginning of history, even, been violated.