Dorota Nieznalska. Submission
Dorota Nieznalska is notorious mostly as the author of The Passion (2001). While I am writing these words, the installation is deposited in a court archive as a record of fact in the case against the artist who has been accused of insulting religious feelings. In the accounts prior to bringing the accusation forward, a piece of information about the arrival of some members of the League of Polish Families’ to Wyspa Gallery appears. The party of representatives insisted on The Passion, which had already been disassembled and packed after the exhibition, being shown to them1. There is an anecdote saying that one of those men tried so hard to attain this object that he pushed the artist who acted as a shield for her work. The work was not uncovered. The accusation was brought forward after some time and the witnesses based their testimonies on the media reports instead of their experience. I refer here to the anecdote because the event reflects the relationship of violence and submission which are the themes of Nieznalska’s art, where masculine domination is certainly one of the most important matters.
The relationship between the dominated and the dominating, their particular kind of wrestling is what Nieznalska focuses on. The artist traces it in the private as well as in the public realm, both among close relatives and between state and individuals. Analysing domination, Nieznalska focuses mainly on the way it is imposed by means of what, following Pierre Bourdieu, one may describe as symbolic violence. Bourdieu describes this very sophisticated violence as imperceptible and invisible to its victims. This element of the sociologist’s analysis though, can hardly be applied to Nieznalska, who abandons the position of an unaware victim. She seems to be the witness who analyses her own experience.
One of the earliest works – no title (1999) - consists of four photographs which record the subsequent stages of submission of a pregnant Alsatian bitch to a man. We are witnesses of a soundless scene in which all elements, except the relationship between the characters, are removed. The bitch accepts her subjection - gratefully, one could almost say - whereas the man seems to assume an indifferent and passive attitude. This episode, so simple but so strong and meaningful, raises questions about the mechanisms of domination processes and, giving no answer, sets out a sort of accusation. There is no trace of the accusation in the photographs but it is present in the object – a leather penis muzzle, which is an important part of the work.
The duality in the relationships Nieznalska refers to seems to be the crucial feature of her action.
In this case, one has to do with a censuring of the masculine desire of domination on one hand and an unexplainable tendency to submit on the other.
There is also a deep fascination with masculine power that the artist admits to not only in her work. In one of the interviews she confessed that she finds masculinity as men’s power very impressive. She said: “I’m infatuated with masculinity, I take it consciously into my consideration, I try to show its potential.”3
Potential is the title of a piece, which emerged in 2001, where the fascination is particularly appealing: The photograph presents the figure of a man in a way that stresses his strength as the most important of his features. What we see is a nude muscular body and a feast in the foreground. Both, the composition and sophisticated way the figure poses and is lit lead the spectator to an aesthetic perception of power and danger. The representation is permeated with aestheticism and eroticism, an aesthetic and erotic value, which make it a part of the trend made notorious by Robert Mapplethorp’s photographs juxtaposing beauty and grimness, fascination and jeopardy.
Dorota refuses to show her models’ faces by means of picture framing which leaves their heads out of the photograph, a nude body is what captures the whole viewer’s attention. Pierre Bourdieu, in his work concerning masculine domination emphasises that honour, the main factor determining masculinity, the determinant, as deposited in the head - called by the writer the public part of the body, imposes the hiding of the private part. While concentrating on the latter, Dorota violates the rules of honour. Being aware of the jeopardy imposed by masculinity identified as power, confronting it directly, the artist perceives it as a challenge. She is fascinated and infatuated unless the last means any extent of incapacitation.
Male domination is analyzed by the artist, as a woman who experiences it. Therefore the reference to real experience is very important, even if the artist herself is not represented in a particular work.
Such an attitude, referring to the relationships in her family has always been a part of her work, but has been amplified recently, when the artist formally accused due to the exhibition of her work ‘The Passion’.
These circumstances are reflected in her works which emerged after 2001.
The most significant of Dorota’s recent pieces, is ‘The Implantation of Perversion’, (2004-2005) a series of ten photographs and a number of objects.
The juxtaposition of different kinds of objects, which seems to be rather unattended to by critics, is certainly an important feature of Dorota’s art.
This feature places her works somewhere between the realm of fantasy and fact. The photographs seem to draw our attention to the world of representations, whereas the objects confront us with the dimension of reality. What is worth emphasizing, is that the objects are not ready made standard things, just found by the artist and injected into the world of art, but designed and crafted by her, perhaps in order to emphasize her attitude as participator and not just onlooker.
‘The Implantation of Perversion’ represents the problem of sadomasochism to greatest extent in comparison to other pieces by Dorota and to other of her exhibits.
In this work one has to deal with the erotic perception of domination, which I have already mentioned above. But here the meaning seems to be slightly different, it concerns a sort of game played by the dominator and the subordinated. The question it raises, is what part both sides play in their relationship. There is research that proves that women make up the majority of those who practice sadomasochism, but there is no consent if they do it for their own or their partners’ pleasure.4 According to some of the researchers, the women satisfy their partners’ desires, especially those connected with violence towards them, which is disguised in a costume of subversive fantasy. Others express the opinion that such a practice has little to do with real violence, but rather represents a cathartic game based on a spectrum of fantasies about subordination and domination.5 According to them, there is a kind of mutual agreement about the limits of sexual psychodrama in order to establish an area of safety for the realisation of their fantasies. In the case of Dorota’s work the situation appears a little different. Here, the viewer has to deal with fragments which may be perceived as traces of the events taking place elsewhere. They are presented by the artist involved in the events and who perceives them as a sadomasochist activity. What is important is that she took part in the situation not due to her own desire, but because she accepted the rules of the game, where the playground is not a safe place and she is not subordinated to another’s desires. The viewer cannot detect the right order of positions. The apparently clear limits of division which attribute subordination to the female and domination to the male are blurred. There is a strong willingness to subordination represented by Dorota in two of her photographs with the nude torso of a man with a spiked dog collar around his neck. These photographs entitled ‘Faithfulness PL’ are continued and developed in Dorota’s recent work ‘Nr 44’.
‘Nr 44’ is a set of forty -four crowns of thorns connected in a chain. The reference to the messianic idea presented by Adam Mickiewicz seems to be quite obvious here. The attitude assumed once and constantly being assumed by Poles who perceive themselves as a nation with a unique mission and with the gift of the ability to save and redeem Europe (perhaps the entire world now), as a community of sinners.
In this work nevertheless, Dorota concentrates on an individual hero rather than the nation as a whole. Certainly one may refer to the interpretation of Mickiewicz’s verse “his name is forty four” suggesting that “the name” is a synonym of a Real Pole, rather than the name of a particular person.6
The crown of thorns appears as a symbol – of the saviour’s attitude –appropriated by the men willing to act in this particular role.
Each of the crowns is given a slightly different form. The artist emphasizes the moment when the symbol is “shaped” according to individual needs which replaces a common interest and approach.
Instead of one hero named “forty four”, one may see forty-four of them.
They are consolidated/joined in a very meaningful way, in a prepossessing chain.
Dorota has been occupied mostly with individuals and their unique dramas, whereas in her new work the stress is certainly put on a group.
It is worthwhile to recall Bourdieu once again. According to his remarks on virile honour, it is possible to experience it in the relationship with others.
Bourdieu perceives masculinity as a feature which needs to be proved in confrontation with others and most likely by belonging to a group of real men.
Masculinity must be fought for, whereas femininity is what must be protected.
What is more, the latter identified with weakness jeopardises and, paradoxically leads to reinforcement in the “masculine game.”
The symptoms of courage, which is a part of the game, may, as a paradox, be an effect of cowardice or the fear of being excluded from the group.
The appealing messianic vision of ruling of souls, in Dorota’s works seems to be much less attractive due to the element of preconception on the one hand and the matter of relationships which are impossible to form on the other.
In this context the words of Maria Janion may be recalled. According to her, the common megalomania, which is the contemporary Polish messianic heritage, causes a self-distance, which would be an obstacle in the tendency to dominate, and treating others with disregard unapproachable .7
There is no better comment about the dark side of the “real Polish “ attitude in general and towards the artist in particular. The attitude is related to the approach towards eroticism and sensuality, which are thorny matters of Polish patriotism, as Maria Janion calls it. The writer devotes much to the extent that eroticism and sensuality are censured, excluded and restrained in Polish society. Therefore, Dorota with all her expression permeated by eroticism is particularly subversive.
Agata Araszkiewicz in her attempt to understand Dorota’s situation when she was prosecuted for insulting religious feelings, compares her experience with the case of Mrs Gorgon. As she writes, both cases seem to be the effect of a temporary need for processes and sentences which bring a kind of catharsis just like a sacrificial crisis described by Girard8.
The factor of the comparison that I am interested in is the aspect of gender policy emphasized by the author. In both cases a young woman, “involved” in the dark matters of body, sexuality, and nudity is the victim.
Nevertheless, there is at least one thing in which Mrs Gorgon differs from Dorota.
Though both were to be used as a sort ritualistic sacrifice, in Dorota’s case it did not take place eventually. Even though Dorota was sentenced, her lawsuit was voided and a new one came on for trial.
Meantime, the artist rejected a passive attitude as she confronted her accusers.
Two of Dorota’s works are matters of great importance in this context.
The first of these is ‘The Hair of N. prior to 18.07.03’, a photograph which is a part of the series ‘Implantation of perversion’ .The date in the title is the day when the verdict in Dorota’s first case was rendered. Dorota crafted a whip out of leather and her own long hair, which she had cut before. Cutting the hair was one of the most popular forms of punishment for those women who abused morality. In this case the sentenced carried out the punishment herself. The artist did it in such a way that one has to deal with a creative action instead of humiliation.
The other significant work in this context is a video entitled The Prayer Pose where the nude artist – the upper part of her body is presented – joins her hands in a gesture of petition. She puts a lot of effort into the action, pushing her hands against one another trying to do her task scrupulously. The effect is slightly absurd, because it is clear that the person is being forced to pray, which in such circumstances becomes nonsensical. The freeze frame, which appears in short intervals, presents the artist motionless- the way desired, most probably, by those who subordinate her. Then, as the film goes on we return to the reality where her hands are hung losing their strength and reveal her naked breasts. The whole film is repeated and so are the attempts to subordinate the artist.
And she remains indomitable.
It is hard to estimate if Dorota herself or the men she presents are the heroes of her action. Submission, the title of the exhibition refers both to her and them as it reflects comprehensive relationship of subordination and domination they are both involved in. Sometimes it is remarked that Dorota is concerned with a particular kind of masculinity, an image produced by mass media.
In my opinion however, this is not the main area of Dorota’s preoccupation even though she refers to bodybuilding and the cult of the body.
The most important thing is the relationship that the man builds with himself and other men and women. The relationship which here is traced by a definite woman who refuses to take an onlooker’s position and asserts her role as a participator. The works are not about the identity of men, but also about femininity which must relate to one of its elements – domination. In some works the relationship has an intimate dimension and is a part of a family relationship. Elsewhere, especially in her recent pieces this feature becomes an expression of the relationships between the state and individuals. Dorota's work display the reaction to her own situation as well as a comment on the Polish social structure. In both cases Dorota assumes a critical attitude described in Poland by the words of Michael Foucault, who said that to be critical is to turn easy gestures into hard ones.9
Indeed, the artist is easy to perceive but her actions are certainly a challenge.
And this is perhaps the most important act of her disobedience.
1. Documents concerning both trials of Dorota Nieznalska are accessible on www.spam.art.pl.
3. Dorota Nieznalska: Let’s talk about men.In The dangerous liaisons of body and art.Poznań 2002,p.44
4. Lorraine Gamman,Merja Makinen, Female Fetishism.A New Look,London 1994
5. Lorraine Gamman, Merja Makinen, Female Fetishism...., p.57
6. Wojciech Skalmowski "The Redeemer of the nation" by Mickiewicz,in: www.zwoje-scrolls.com
7. Maria Janion, The Farewell to Poland...in Political Criticism 6 2004,p.151
8. Agata Araszkiewicz, The trial of Nieznalska in comparison to Mrs Gorgon's case. Obieg 2 2005, http://www.obieg.pl/text/aa_nieznalska.php
9. Quotation following Izabela Kowalczyk. The body and the power. Polish critical art of the nineties.Warsaw 2002, p. 23