IMAGES OF TRANSFORMATION / DISAPPEARANCE. INSTALLATIONS OF NADEZHDA LYAHOVA. AN OBJECT BY MARCEL DUCHAMP. ENGRAVING AND DRAWING BY HENDRIK GOLTZIUS
Angel V. Angelov
In biological sciences the term metamorphosis is out of date. The notion of metamorphosis however is still in use in the social and the humanitarian sciences; the meaning changes in different historical and social circumstances. In relation to history, heritage, cultural memory there is a difference between the social sciences and the humanities on the one side, and the biological ones on the other. I would think of metamorphosis not as of a transformation of whole entities, but rather as an attempt of bringing together controversial, difficult to negotiate experiences and how to practice these (im)possibilities. I use here the term "transformation" as equal to "metamorphosis".
I will present several installations by Bulgarian artist Nadezhda Lyahova consisting of soap, ice, sand, and ice cream casts of her face. Lyahova’s visual reflexivity represent the human condition as regressive metamorphosis into inorganic nature or, conversely, as transformation and elevation. In both cases, however, there is a rejection of historical time. Lyahova’s works from 1995 to 2006 thematize this unsolvable human condition - someone who renews the attempts to obliterate him- or herself. Metamorphosis is transformation of the form and the function of someone’s existence; it is inevitably related to someone’s death and - eventually - rebirth. Lyahova’s installations are transformation and/or obliteration of forms, which represent symbolic deaths. Elements of Baroque imagery as well as the use of materials (soap bubbles, ice cream, and sand) have prompted me to make comparisons with works from different times; among them are an engraving and drawings by Hendrik Goltzius.
In 1999, Lyahova did three exhibitions and a performance with masks. Analysing the transformation between face, mask, original, and print seems relevant to the exhibitions and to the theme of metamorphosis. The first exhibition entitled "Soapy Reflections" was displayed in the three halls of ATA Center for Contemporary Art (03.-14.02.1999). In the first one, twelve cylindrical tin vessels with porcelain lids were placed on a table covered with violet velvet.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Tin vessels with porcelain lids, 1999, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia
In them, there was "100% liquid author’s soap", as the writing said. Some wire ending in a circle was fastened to the vessels so that the "hundred-per-cent" author’s soap could be blown out into bubbles. The authenticity of the product was certified, consolidated by the monogram (resembling a seal) and the artist’s signature. The author made masks after her own face but she also wanted to dematerialize herself in splashing, glossy soap bubbles, disappeared without a trace.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Soap bubbles, 1999, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia
What remains are the signature and the monogram. Nadezhda Lyahova did not call herself an artist, but an author - reflected, resembled, dissolved, washed out.
The artist made a plaster cast of her face and she used that cast to make 24 masks of the handmade "author’s" (here in the meaning of craft) soap.
The masks were displayed in rectangular metal tubs on the floor of the second hall; as they were made of soap, they gradually (time is a continuum) washed away.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Negative cast from an author’s face in real size, 1999, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia
From the plaster cast (the positive one), the negative one was made, and it was used to produce another 16 masks that looked like positives, as if the author (the original?) had printed her face on each and every one of them, leaving its light on.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Positive cast from an author’s face in real size, 1999, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia
We could answer the question "Who is the author?" empirically by pointing to him/her, without solving the theoretical issue, it would be however more difficult to answer the question "Where is the author?" when he/she seems to be present directly (printed) in the work. The author is the artifex that is present in the work through some similarities, however the similarities are "authors" (the positive cast of the negatives) of other images-similarities. The latter are more lasting than their "authors" are.
Distinguishing between original and copy begins to seem insecure, the technique of making casts preserves some traces and deletes others. I know this is the artist’s face but I am not sure I would recognize it without knowing it. The resembled does not seem to call for reference. The resemblance is at the same time differentiation. I prefer to ask about the presence of the mask than about its origin. Despite the title of the exhibition "Soapy Reflections", I should not think along the line of what is reflected in what. "Reflections", even in the plural, is a word overloaded with meanings and ideology. However, "reflections" makes also associations with water, mirrors, surfaces, possibly smooth, slipping of the reflected, transience. It causes associations with distance, with the immateriality of the reflected. It should be improper to call the relief prints "reflections" because of their materiality and the cloudy lye into which they are transformed. By changing the material of the print, a shift is accomplished - that does not happen with the reflecting surface, it does not adopt the form of the reflected.
I am looking for a word to name the (in)dependence of the masks from/on the face, their (non)reflection, their (un)likeness to the face. The masks are similar, but not the same one; and they do not relate to one another. They change in time: the ones differently dried up; and the others washing away with different speed.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Cast from an author’s face in real size,1999, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Cast from an author’s face in real size. After some days,1999, Ata Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. A Mask after Some Days, 1999, Ata Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia
The author has only provided the chance for time to exercise its impact on the material. The masks embody the running of a different time - in relation to themselves, not to the face. The author’s face is the original of the masks, but the transition of the face into the mask is hard to trace. The mould is but one - a form of the desire to be identical to oneself. However, it is also off stage and the masks, although cast from the same mould differ through the complicity of the incident, in colour and even in form. The print is an original, and the mask is a face. I ask myself why it is so hard to compare the masks made of soap, ice, ice cream and sand to the face of Nadezhda Lyahova. Why do I not recognize her face the way I would recognize it when I see it live, in a (passport) photograph or in other images. She can certify the coincidence, placing the hollow on her face. What would we recognize then? Another mask.
In death masks of modernity, the intention is to preserve the face of the deceased, to overcome the time. Death masks are taken from faces, which can only change into decaying (except in the rarer cases of embalming). The death mask is stiffness, beyond life. The main difficulty for me to accept the origin of the masks from the face lies in the suggestion of life beyond as compared to life history. In the masks, history appears to be over. The kind of transcendence, which the masks suggest, remains inexplicable and unfathomable. No reference to the technique (the making of prints) can explain how it happens. The simultaneous presence of the artist next to the masks does not clarify the transition beyond the life as opposed to vitality and history. Making a death mask out of your face is a symbolic death and perhaps a chance for rebirth as someone unknown and multiple. However, who is reborn? Moreover, whose history has been terminated? The masks taken from the artist’s face confirm the tendency to use your own body as an object of experimental practices whose purpose is not treatment or beautifying. The body here is limited to the face, to an established (portrait and passport) idea of individuality. Lately we have been able to think that individuality is constituted socially out of bodily characteristics that are more difficult to control or supervise, and to replace - the DNA formula, the heartbeat, the blood content. Nevertheless, the human face continues to be connected with one’s identity.
Arranged closely one to another in rectangular forms, put on the floor, the masks keep the viewer at bay. Why does peering or staring down especially at water, provoke a feeling of attitude to the past, to time gone by? Whence do I know that blur of outlines and the impossibility to get a clear picture despite the effort, that recovering and losing of images and experiences, if not from dreams and dream-like states of remembering, which the exhibition "recalls". The masks will wash away in the water, col tempo, will mingle into opaque lye - without a past, without a memory.
In addition to the eye, the smell had an even stronger impact with the time on the viewer. "On the fifth day after the opening, the homemade soap smell was descending in the void of "ATA" - slight on entering, getting denser and more haunting in the centre, dispersing at the far end. The smell seemed to place the emphasis, the culmination point in the three-component exhibition. On the fifth day, the casts were gone too far in being washed away - distorted, misshapen, with swollen sides, with changing grimaces. Simulating the sinister process of flesh rotting, they were having strong visual as well as olfactory effects." (Irina Genova).
In the third hall (image 4), on a shelf along the walls, are arranged like jars or, if we prefer, like statues of home gods the negatives of the cast masks. If the viewer had to look down to the masks on the floor, here he/she has to look up to the masks. Now they are hollows, which absorb and emit light so that the concave and the convex start mingling and increasing the ghostly and dream-like suggestion from the previous hall. The soapy masks there that served as original will get washed away in the water; the reflection here will be lasting, washing away in light. The reflected is the most lasting. The hollows are changing under the influence of light. Under white neon light, they emit distance and coldness. If I cannot stand the deadly whiteness, I could change the impact through new light, creating a sensation of warmth and closeness.
The catching of the light in the object, its changing through it, and the elimination of materiality is an attractive feature of Nadezhda Lyahova’s works. The wishes for security, clarity and definiteness as features of the identity received from memory are shaken through the washing away and melting of the soap in water and light. I am concerned with the issue of these masks because they look like prints of an individual and definite face and at the same time, they tend to be abstract and faceless. These masks/prints are offering me clearly, in images, the anxiety for identity, individuality, definiteness.
We can look upon the mask as a cover for the essence, as compulsion, forced on the real face, as lack of coincidence between visibility and essence. The mask could be as a character - as a printed or engraved presence. Therefore, even if my face is just an image, cast from outside glances - interpretations, the masks in the exhibition make me think in the opposite direction - of independence from the outside glance. Is the character really sculpted by the outside glance as if by fate? Or the alien glance is not a "medusa"?
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Cast from an author’s face in real size, "August in the Art", 2006, Varna
Nadezhda Lyahova’s Soapy Reflections (1999) were displayed as part of Maria Vassileva’s curatorial project Inner Voice at the fifth Festival August in Art in Varna, Bulgaria, in 2006. As the weather was hot, flies had drowned in many of the tubs in which mask made of soap were slowly dissolving. The flies were entirely real, not mimetic, and they contributed tangibly to the perception of the ‘reflections’ as an image of decay; the drowned flies and the soap would eventually mix into a homogeneous lye teeming with lower organic compounds. Here, as in other of her works, Nadezhda Lyahova creates images of the obliteration of life and its transformation into lower nature. Because of the natural intervention of the flies, an association with Marcel Duchamp’s Torture-morte seems "natural", too.
Marcel Duchamp. Torture-morte. 1959, painted plaster and flies, on paper mounted on wood, glass, 29,5 õ 13,4 õ 10,3, cm, Centre George Pompidou, Paris
Instead of the face in Lyahova’s work, the sole of a foot facing upwards in Duchamp - part of a human corpse. Similarities in material and in technique are also significant: what we see in Duchamps work is a plaster cast of the sole of a foot mounted on wood. The title Torture-morte is antithetical to the genre definition ‘nature morte’. Still lifes usually depict inanimate and immobile nature in interiors: everyday objects, flowers in vases, picked fruit, dead animals after a hunt or for sale on a counter, flying insects, but not human bodies. In Duchamp’s object someone’s foot has been separated from the body; in the non-existent genre ‘torture-morte’, the only element is the human corpse. The foot is displayed sole up, obviously as it was found, considering that the flies that landed on the foot had time to stick to it (because of the blood, because of the decomposition of the body) and die.
In still lifes with fruit and flowers, flies or other insects are ‘alive’ - they serve as an embodiment of ‘devouring time’ for the fruit will be literally eaten through by the insects1. The "living" insects imply transience and death. Could we read Torture-morte - together with and despite its title - as a relic, as a cult object? The ‘reliquary’ in which the foot is placed is not adequate to the sanctity of the supposed relics; it looks like a simple coffin or simply like a tub. Through the precious materials it is made of, the reliquary indicates how priceless the relics are, whilst the glass-covered foot is reminiscent of an archaeological or laboratory exhibit. It can be an object of research - for the purpose of, for instance, reconstructing the corpus (body type) of the creature whose foot has been found, or the kind of torture it was subjected to before it turned into ‘tortured nature’. However, it may be part of a more unusual collection - a collection of tortures or of human body parts. Most often on display in such collections are skulls, skeletons, bones, torture implements, bodies in glass jars or abnormalities such as hands with seven fingers - so why not a foot as well? The human has turned into an exhibit, into an object beyond the web of everyday relations, beyond life. Torture-morte can also be viewed as a find, as another literalization of objet trouvé. It resembles, indeed, but also differs from a true objet trouvé for it is not made of the immediate material of the human body; neither is it a mummy - it is a coloured plaster and merely creates the illusion of a corpse. The same holds for the synthetic flies. In other words, what we see is a sculpture, a kind of realism, mimesis. In the same year, Duchamp made a similar object - Sculpture morte. The topic of the changed mimesis, of the traces, but in a different way, cannot be avoided here; that is valid Lyahova’s works as well as for Duchamp’s’ Torture-morte.
Lyahova's installations and Duchamp's object demonstrate fairly well the differences between the modern (and also the modernist) and the postmodern work of art. Duchamp's object is literally closed off, encased in glass. In its detachment from the environment it does not differ much from any framed painting. Lyahova's installations, on the other hand, (as well as many other postmodern works) presuppose the ''collaboration" of external, independent factors. The death of the ''author" (the creator) might be called off, but his authority over the work is limited - by his own will2. The modern work of art, arranged in different environments, does feel the impact of those factors and interact with them, but this does not cancel its structural autonomy, whereas the postmodern work is structurally related to the environment where it is 'installed'. It can therefore exist in variants that are different and equal rather than in copies and replicas of the original.
I would like to compare the way Nadezhda Lyahova obliterates herself as an author with a similar obliteration - that of the author’s signature. I also looked for comparisons where the same material, such as sand, is used in different images. Whereas painted or printed images use mimesis, the sand in installations and performances is real; however, the function of the material is similar. Lyahova, as I said, shows consistent interest in vanitas-type themes. I thought being in Holland, it would be appropriate to make comparisons with Dutch works of art.
A drawing by Hendrik Goltzius from 1614, executed in the style of an engraving (penwerck; in Stichmanier), depicts a youth in rich costume.
Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Youth with a Skull and a Tulip, 1614, Pen and brown ink, 46 x 35.5 cm, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
Standing on a wall on the right is an hourglass. The hourglass representing the devouring time is a commonplace in images of the memento mori or vanitas type. Below the hourglass there is a plate inscribed with the words ‘quis evadet / nemo’ (‘who can escape? no one’). The inscription also indicates the theme of the drawing. The wall is half-built or it is already in ruins, with bushes and grass sprouting from it. The left side of the pictorial field is also enclosed by a wall abandoned just before the completion of the pediment or beginning to crumble precisely from the pediment, from the highest part. The image is an allegory of the transience of life: time runs out fast like the sand in the hourglass, and even things that seem long lasting as the wall are vulnerable. The sand, on which nothing can be built, is an image of decay, of mortality.
Nature is also mortal - the tulip is without roots, looks like a quill in the youth’s right hand, but it rests against the skull; the tulip will soon wither away without leaving a trace. It seems as if the youth tries to write something with the tulip on the skull. Everything is doomed. Goltzius transforms a familiar motif, making it more complex. Almost a century earlier, c. 1519, we will find the motif in Lucas van Leiden: we see a curly-haired, richly dressed youth in a plumed hat, pointing with his right hand at a skull3.
Lucas van Leiden (1494-1533). Youth with a Skull, engraving, 18,5 õ 14,5 cm, ca. 1519, Szépművészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest
The signature is a monogram with the letters H(endrick) and G(oltzius) interwoven together, where part of the letter H has already disappeared, having shared the fate which no one can escape from; the same has happened to the year, where the numeral 1 signifying the millennium is missing.
Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Youth with a Skull and a Tulip (detail), 1614, Pen and brown ink, 46 x 35.5 cm, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
The monogram and the year, drawn on the highest part of the wall - a sign of presence and pride marking the completion of an undertaking - are transformed into symbols of disappearance, of a past that once was a future. It is possible for a monogram or signature and a year to appear elsewhere on the edge of the pictorial field or on the frame. Here, however, the omission of the numeral signifying the millennium and of part of the monogram is involved in the theme of the drawing - their (non-)presence is meaningful. The erasure of the monogram of the artist (the author) in this drawing is equivalent to oblivion, to disappearance of what has been created, of the author himself. Its meaning is essentially the same as that of the obliteration (dissolution, washing away) of the casts of the face of Nadezhda Lyahova, who has preferred to call herself an author, not an artist.
Precisely this part of the drawing is executed by using a typical Mannerist device: the viewer’s gaze ‘clashes’ against a sharp height that almost closes the horizon - an obstacle that requires the gaze to climb, to ‘clamber’ up, as it were, in surprise and fear of the height. The visible part of the wall creates a sense of fragility and uncertainty in the excessive desire for elevation. Part of the stem of the tulip gracefully follows the line of the wall, amplifying the already mentioned sense of fragility.
Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Youth with a Skull and a Tulip (detail), 1614, Pen and brown ink, 46 x 35.5 cm, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
A copper engraving by Goltzius from 1594 is titled with the same motto: ‘Quis evadet’ (‘who can escape?’). The motto is engraved on a tombstone that stands in front of an open grave - thus, the question can be complemented and read as ‘Who can escape from the grave?’ In the 1614 drawing the sense of death is conveyed by the whole drawing, but most obviously by the skull (whose eye sockets and nasal aperture contrast with the half-open lips and radiant eyes of the youth). Thus, the tombstone that is already being overgrown by plants can be more certainly associated with a stela that is already sinking into ruins and oblivion. The skull that once was a future is a past in which the splendid youth will turn. Goltzius has executed the drawing as if it were an engraving - something that can be reproduced but that is in fact unique (Penwerck; Federkunststück,).
Hendrik Goltzius. Quis evadet?, Copper engraving, 212 x 153 mm, 1594
A comparison with the drawing Jan Govertsen as the Evangelist Luke dating from the same year, 1614, likewise executed in the style of an engraving, illuminates the importance of the location of the monogram. Here the monogram is not hidden, moreover - it simply cannot be missed as it is engraved on the pedestal of the column.
Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Jan Govertsen as Evangelist Lucas, 161, Pen and brown ink, Veste Coburg
Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617). Jan Govertsen as Evangelist Lucas (detail), 1614, Pen and brown ink, Veste Coburg
The monogram ‘participates’ in creating a general sense of unshakeable stability. Plants creep up the wall behind the evangelist and up the column as in Quis evadet / nemo (Youth with a Skull and a Tulip), and the wall is drawn in a similar manner. The difference is in the construction of the forms: the slab the evangelist is leaning on, his figure, the inkwell, the column, the closed space - everything conveys a sense of stability and durability. Whereas the very composition of Quis evadet / nemo (the correlation between the figure, skull, tulip, walls and empty space, the position of the figure in the drawing) suggests instability, creating a sense of sliding, of slipping, in Jan Govertsen one stable form either reinforces or rests on another. Instead of the ostentatious plumes on the hat of the youth (as ostentatious as his entire costume) rising cheerfully but briefly between the insecure walls, in Jan Govertsen the winged ox, the symbol of the Evangelist Luke and another symbol of stability, is flying high up in the open space.
The plant (ivy?) does not triumph as a symbol of destruction; it creeps up around the column. The monogram is not even at the base of the column but on the quadrangular pedestal. As portrayed in this drawing, Jan Govertsen himself resembles a stone block, an embodiment of the Gospel (of the Christian faith) as a ‘hard rock’. Body and Gospel writing are one, fusing in a biunial image. Behind the column there is also a wall, but plants are again sprouting from it. The placing of the monogram is no coincidence, it is part of the presence of the artist in his work.
The gaze can combine, but can also completely draw back behind the sense of smell (as with the diluting masks), taste and touch. The body can be included not symbolically but directly, through swallowing up food within "the aesthetic experiment". At the Apollonia Festival of Arts (September 1999), Nadezhda Lyahova staged the performance "Vanitas".
Nadezhda Lyahova, Vanitas, performance, Sozopol, 1999
On the terrace (of the town gallery in Sozopol) overlooking the sea, on a long table were arranged "still lives" - plates with ice-cream masks ("positive casts of the author’s face"), and next to them - spoons. The ice cream is "handmade" as the text under the photograph reads. Authorship is emphasized through the transforming return to the craft, to the making, this is at the same time distinguishing from the tendency in contemporary aesthetic practices of artists to assign their works to assistants. The artist is also an artisan, Lyahova’s objects claim, making things with his/her hands. At the present, however Lyahova also makes her works with a computer. The ice cream as an object is a corporeal metaphor of elapsing time. The soap was also handmade. After the action, the object disappears; it can remains as memory and as documentation, but that is an existence of a different order.
The atmosphere invites the viewers/guests to partake of the author’s "face". The ice-cream masks are trimmed with fruit (like triumphal, funeral wreaths).
Nadezhda Lyahova, Vanitas, performance, Sozopol, 1999
On a violet velvet table-cloth, contrasting with the bright colours of the still life and the shine of the silver spoon indicating clearly that a meal will be taken, a fruit - carnal salad is served: we are present at a merry sacrifice. Even the artist can swallow herself; she can partake of her own "face". If the ice-cream mask is not eaten up, it will melt - Ars brevis. Ice cream is of the same order as the sandglass, the torch, the smoke, the music instruments eaten by the devouring time. Ice cream here replaces and represents live flesh - et vita est brevis. In front of our eyes, the "tooth of time" tangibly gnaws at and through the ice-cream mask (imprint) of the artist’s face until breaking it into shapelessness, similar to the lye from the decaying soapy masks.
The staging as a whole seems to refer to a certain extent to the Baroque concordia discors, to the corporal, the splendid, to death and (in)finity.
I can choose between several possibilities: abstain from eating because I will fall down to a symbolic cannibalism. However, I can eat as well, and without going deep into it, I can accept what is being offered as a party, a spectacle, a feast. It is a little disgusting to scoop up from the skull, but the ice cream is of a special brand, tasty and the fruit is tempting. By swallowing it, do I swallow the artist herself in a magic way; do I take her character while the mask makes its way into my internal organs? I can go on making associations with the food, death, plenty and simultaneously eat but I can also chat with people at the table, if I do not like ice cream. The feast presupposes togetherness, joy, exuberance of flesh, of corpora. That is also similar to the Baroque exuberance of materiality. The mask and the fruit can be a spectacle, a ritual and art. You can be a viewer, a participant and a gaper too. The offers co-exist.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Vanitas. Feast - being together, performance, Sozopol, 1999
Nadezhda Lyahova. Vanitas copiosa, performance, Sozopol, 1999
Nadezhda Lyahova. Vanitas copiosa, Sozopol, performance, 1999
Images II part
I am going back to the exhibition "Soapy Reflections". If "Vanitas" is a general title for transience and mortality, for images of disappearance, the 100% dissolved author’s soap is one of these images. In fact, it is part of a long, of a classical tradition. The wire resembling a child toy, ending in a circle invites us to turn the liquid, the author’s soap into soapy bubbles.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. 100% liquid author’s soap, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, 1999, Sofia
The transition of the elements one into another, the elimination of their solidity, the dissolving of the form in sounds, light, air, and water seems to be a key feature of Lyahova’s objects and installations. The leading suggestion is most often one of disappearing, of a desire for the life beyond.
The children who were brought to the opening of the exhibition "Soapy Reflections", as well as some of the adults, had fun blowing the liquid (the essential author herself!) in the air and following the flickering and bursting up of the multi-coloured bubbles.
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections. Homo bulla, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, 1999, Sofia
Nadezhda Lyahova. Soapy Reflections, Homo bulla, ATA Center for Contemporary Art, 1999
This way all of us - viewers and participants, makers of soapy bubbles - fell into the iconography of mortality and melancholy, with some needed changes, though, among them the merriment and joy that replaced melancholy. The unsuspecting viewers of the exhibition became voluntary participants in, to use a Baroque metaphor, theatrum mundi.
Therefore, the soapy bubbles are part of a possible context of the delight in creating forms and the melancholy over their transience. "Man is a soapy bubble" is a known iconographic type named "homo bulla" whose origin is believed to be in Antiquity (it cannot be any different). This definition was evidenced in Varro and Petronius - "we are no more than soapy bubbles" ("nos non pluris sumus, quam bullae"), which through Erasmus’ "Adagia" was received during the Renaissance and Reformation. In the area of images, the comparison appeared during the 1520-es as an inscription in the Flemish repetitions of "St. Hieronymus" (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lissabon), by Dürer. Only in the second half of the 16-th century through the figure of the cherub blowing soapy bubbles, the translation of the words into images became a fact and was related to other motifs of the complexity of "vanitas" - smoke, fading flowers, hour-glass, all of them allegories of the shortness of human time. The main development of the type "homo bulla" was carried out in the Dutch still lives of the 17-th century (Bialostocki 1966: 187-231).
Hendrik Goltzius. Quis evadet? Copper engraving, 212 x 153 mm, 1594
The already mentioned engraving by Hendrik Golzius Quis evadet? of 1594, depicts a boy blowing soapy bubbles, leaning to a skull which is gnawing at a bone. The beginning and the end of human life are put close to one another, as if childhood breaks down straight into death. With a melancholy glance, the child is following the disappearing soapy bubbles mingling with the dense smoke, coming out of an urn. The urn is placed on a cut column around which a dried plant without leaves is creeping. Even the column, which is usually a symbol of staunchness and durability, does not suggest stability. Broken columns or pillars appear in the images depicting "the Adoration of the Shepherds" and symbolizes the withering away of paganism, the pre-Christian world; here the pillar supports the general suggestion that there is nothing, which is not subject to time - even the stone or the marble is corroded by it. "Who will slip away?" reads the inscription exactly on the broken pillar, which can be of no use any more.
The boy finds himself in a surrounding, in which there is no symbol of life. The grass is thinned out, somehow eaten through and dried, part of the blossoms (front left) are fallen on the dry ground; the image is confined from the left by a steep slope on which the tree can hardly keep and we can almost sense its slow pulling down. The engraving itself does not offer any convincing suggestion of religious beliefs or at least of life after death, it rather urges us to realize how shaken this world is, given the absence of another one that would support it with eternity and meaning. The complexity is due not so much to the fact that the support is somewhere else but to the insecurity about whether such a place exists. There is a far-off town in the distance; the highest building perhaps is the church. Nevertheless, it is too far away and too small to be a support. The skull does not symbolize the victory over death, on the contrary - the vulnerability of man from time, the iconographic type of the boy who could be a cherub, the Infant, the little John the Baptist, here does not mean any sanctity or sweet eternal beauty but doom and destruction.
The visual suggestion is reinforced through words - a quatrain - below the image.
However, Białostocki provides another quatrain as an illustration to this engraving: "Why can’t we learn to die before the term/shaking off the chains of the enticing body, while still alive,/ after death, we travel light/ the spirit soars in the sky where it felt bliss even before5.
This question put as a recommendation to die, "shaking off the chains" voluntarily can be interpreted simply as a refusal to live and through such refusal the motives for that behaviour can be sought in the context. Then we could turn either to the very micro-context of the artist and his environment or to the larger counter/reformatory context of that period. Then I would explore the possibility of reading the engraving through the issue of salvation and the loneliness of man who for the first time in the new (after Antiquity) was left without any secure spatial, temporal or value landmarks, alone before and in the Universe. Bialostocki also provides another illustration - the comparison of the Earth to a soapy bubble by Petter David in 1610. In Pascal’s Sphere Borges says that Pascal feared the Universe and wanted to pray to God but God was to him less real than the threatening Universe.
The performance Tale with No End was staged on a beach at Sozopol, Bulgaria, 1999.
Nadezhda Lyachova. Tale with No End, performance, Sozopol 1999
From the second (positive) plaster cast of her face, the artist cast an image of her image in sand, the way children make sand figures on the beach. The comparison with the children’s game of casting figures in sand is in contrast with the cold dramatism of the installation. Generally, there is nothing sentimental in Lyahova’s works of art. The cast masks, facing away from the sea (the bodies are as if buried and invisible), are caught up and washed away by the waves; their obliteration is gradual but inevitable.
Nadezhda Lyachova. Tale with No End, performance, Sozopol 1999
Nadezhda Lyachova. Tale with No End, performance, Sozopol 1999
The lifetime of the sand face is measured by the rhythm of the waves - measuring the (short) lifetime of the human. Time is an actor in this work as well - time is eternal, immutable, elevated, anything but historical. None of the sand faces leaves a trace; the human, represented by the metonymy of the face, is not an object of power and control but neither is it loved or remembered, nor are the faces interrelated in any way; oblivion reigns. The message is one of uniformity and doom. There is no salvation. The title Tale With No End can be interpreted only as ironical. The face of the person, the most social part of the body, which here is also the ‘face’ of the author, is repeatedly erased and turned into nature, into natura morta.
Tale With No End also exists in the form of a video installation. The video makes the performance even more dramatic by compressing it into four minutes. The effect of the roar of the waves, the engulfing and washing away of the faces is perhaps more powerful when seen on the screen than on the beach, for here our visual field is limited by the frame and we concentrate on it. In Bulgaria since the early 1960s, the sea has become a longing for beaches, evoking associations with summer (for those who come here there are no other seasons), with ‘holidays’ and ‘recreation’. This background is absent in the video installation - here the beach is a wasteland; it is a socially unassimilated space where the traces of someone’s crime are being erased. The plastic mould invokes associations with cheap products and industrial usage. The same seem valid for the "production" of the sand faces; they are of little value, anonymous, the author takes the role of a perpetrator of a crime. It is as if Lyahova has read the last sentence of Foucault’s "Les mots e les choses", but she has not.
In the first video Casts of the Author’s Face (1999; 9, 20 min.) one can see a female figure (the artist) scooping up sand in the plastic cast of her face and pressing it into the sand.
Nadezhda Lyachova. Casts of the Author’s Face, video installation, 1999
In one of the shots, she creates the faces only in between the coming and going of the waves - the rhythm of the work is determined by the natural rhythm. In another shot we see an endless row of sand faces at various stages of obliteration. In both cases, however, the presence of a human figure is a deficiency vis-à-vis the obliteration of the human, because exactly this obliteration is the concept of the work. The greatest deficiency comes from the fact that the face of the author is visible. In 2001 Lyahova made another and shorter video - "Images of Transformation" (5, 48 min.) - in which only someone hands are seen, evenly making similar and anonymous faces of sand. Compared to the whole figure, the impact is different - the hands belong to an invisible artifex, whose intention, although not clear, arouses anxiety and fear. The computer-generated music contributes substantially to evoking these feelings6.
New Hopes (Nadezhdi) (1999) is an installation consisting of positive casts in ice of the author’s face, likenesses of her face.
Nadezhda Lyachova. New Hopes. Positive Ice Cast from the Author’s Face, Sofia Underground Festival, 1999
New Nadezhdi are placed in a freezer - they are designed for the new millennium and must be preserved for it. They will remain frozen as long as the new millennium lasts, preserving the novelty and transporting it through time. Unaffected however by time, they will turn into eternal hopes, whereby the idea of novelty - of historical time - will be erased.
‘Nadezhda’ is the name of the artist, but it is also a common noun in Bulgarian; it means ‘hope’. Generally, the meaning of the word can be defined as something that is non-existent, a desired future-to-be. As long as they remain frozen, the new hopes will be an immutable image of desire, of expectation. If they are thawed, they will lose their form, turning into a transparent (the ice will melt) but formless reality. Hope does not coincide with reality.
However, are those ice casts really an image of expectation?
The casts are packed in the freezer as if in a can or mass grave. The individual, the face is erased through quantity and uniformity, and so is the human - through the possible associations with of an act of mass violence whose result we are observing. New Nadezhdi (Hopes) are an image of disappearance, of threat, of the regression that eliminates civilizational efforts. They suggest an eternity that does not bring hope and expectation because it is a pre-historical, Ice-Age eternity. Their display in the basement of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, where the 1999 Sofia Underground Festival was held, enhanced this effect.
New Hopes (Nadezhdi) refute their name and definition - something is frozen not in order to become reality, but in order not to turn into reality. The fissures running through the ice likenesses turn into a metaphor for the fissures in time, in social existence. The ‘new hope’ proves to be a frozen threat.
Nadezhda Lyachova. New Hopes. Positive Ice Cast from the Author’s Face, Sofia Underground Festival, 1999
Thus, the somewhat tautological phrase ‘new hopes’ acquires a meaning different both from the name of the author and from the state of ‘hope’. At the same time, it is impossible to think of the attribute ‘new’ outside of the hackneyed and ideologized uses of the entire semantic field associated with the idea of ‘new’, whose pitfall the artist simultaneously falls into and escapes from.
The Tale Without End installation was displayed at the Book Art Museum in Lódż, Poland, in January 2000.
Nadezhda Lyachova. Tale Without End, Museum of the Book, Lódż, 2000
The materials used in this installation are ice, sand, and wire mesh. The casts of the author’s face are placed on square pieces of wire mesh suspended from the ceiling, the ice faces hanging as if floating in the air. Below them on the floor are small piles of sand, with the sand absorbing the drops from the melting faces. The ice casts are the same as those in the New Nadezhdi installation; taken out of the freezer (of the state of potentiality), they are transformed - melting, the face disappears. In the freezer they are pressed against each other, without air; here there is enough room, but each face cast is again separate from the others and alone in itself. The face casts melt without interrelating with each other. Common space and loneliness.
Depending on the temperature in the room, the ice casts will take different time to melt; the general effect is of a homogeneous time, that flows slowly and absorbs the form within itself. We can tangibly follow the mystery of time as if we were looking at natural forms. When the ice cast melts the sand will have accepted the face, but not as a form; the erased face will be the time stopped in the sand. Unlike the masks erased without a trace on the sea coast, here the melting form of the face leaves a trace in the sand, albeit a formless one. One of Nadezhda Lyahova’s paper artworks, called Traces, shows precisely imprints of indefinite form, the paper keeping the memory of someone’s weight; here one cannot speculate about the form that caused the imprint as the trace left is without origin.
The next work, called An Attempt at Capturing the Essence, presents a different solution - the melted ice cast is ‘captured’ by its origin, by the mould from which it was separated.
Nadezhda Lyachova. An Attempt at Capturing the Essence. Ice cast from the author’s face melting back in the mould from which they have been cast. ATA Center for Contemporary Art, Sofia, 1999
Re-collected, without being reconstructed - for the time being, it is only a water mass that has taken the form in which it was ‘captured’. There would be no difference between water poured straight into the form (mould) and the water from the melted ice cast. There would be no difference if we are not present at or do not know melting in that case is a result of a is transformation. The water was a face, which we can reconstruct in order to recall it, or simply to remember that we have pressed this ice cast against our body, to remember the sensation of cold. Lyahova’s works represent the difficulties involved in the desire for remembrance. These ice faces, their transformation, draw us into remembering things that are not necessarily in our past experience but that affect us.
Nadezhda Lyahova. , Vanitas, 1999
A work entitled "Vanitas" juxtaposes a face and a mask, a portrait and a still life. It is a computer-processed image depicting the caption ‘vanitas’, the artist’s face, and an ice-cream cast of her face surrounded by fruit on a platter. Perhaps meant to be reminiscent of the Baroque style, the platter has an unevenly scalloped edge where the straight line (implying rightness?) is used very sparingly and, contrary to its character, supports the sinuous line of the platter (of life?). The radiating lines of the plane (the table) meet at a right angle (which, too, may not be entirely right); resting upon the right angle is the oval of the face, reflected in the oval of the mask whose relief form is discordant with the flat plane of the table but concordant with the form of the platter. Could I define all this as concordance of the discordant, as a Baroque-like concordia discors? ‘Concordance of differences’, as I would translate this term, leads me to conclude that in the culture of the Baroque, gestures, melodies, colours, words, voices are heard and seen within one and the same space where each presence has to persuade the others of its truth. Truths are experiences, exaggerated and staged experiences. A culture simultaneously of experience and of knowledge.
Do I have to know what ‘vanitas’ means in order to ‘hear’ the silence of the image? Concentration, introversion (the closed eyes) is the mode of presence not only of the face but also of the mask cast from it. And as befits a Baroque-like image, it is synaesthetic - we "hear" the silence of the light. The general message is less that of memento mori and meditation on one’s own behaviour, whose subjectivity is signified by the face (how should I behave, what should I be in the face of the inevitability of death) than of longing for disappearance, for shining forth.
Or I have not to know that, for I already understand that the image promises consolation in the face of sumptuous mortality, of one’s own mortality? Succulent pieces of fruit surround the mask, while the head and shoulders radiate a shimmering light. In disappearing, one shines forth. Perhaps the image is a variant of memento mori, but it is also a longing for duplication and liberation from the self, a longing conveyed precisely by the ‘eloquence’ of colours and forms. Or, having been created in 1999, the image offers a beautiful variation on the theme of the end?
The caption is important not just because of the meaning of the word. It divides the image but it connects by dividing: the face and the mask are brought together through the vertical lines of the letters. Because of its similarity to logos in TV ads, I expect it to rotate at some angle, to recede into the distance or pop forward; it is solid but also floating, constructively (un)stable. Other elements also confirm the overall (in)stability of the image: the mask is seen from above, while the face is almost frontal to the viewer; the face emerges from or recedes into the darkness, the table is a prop but its surface vibrates and seems to move, the platter can ‘slip’ towards us any moment.
Placed on a billboard or on a screen, the image will advertise the product "Vanitas". Computer processing, that is to say, technology, is used to create a dream-like (ir)reality with its own unstable measures.
Nadezhda Lyahova. I and Myself, Cast from the Author’s Face in Real Size, Photography, Soap, Water, 2001
The last piece from the macro-work made up of installations with masks is again a computer-processed image juxtaposing the face of the artist and one of the masks made of soap. Among the definitive characteristics of these installations is the difficulty of tracing the origin of the masks cast from the face; we see transformations and likenesses, but not imprints replicating the face. This last work displays the same characteristic even more distinctly, for what is present in it are two masks rather than dependence between face and mask. One mask is bathed in light while the other looks as if it is sinking; the colour tonality as well as the location of the two enhances the difference. The mask and the face are not interrelated; they are introverted, self-sufficient.
Finally, a work, which announces material expectations in the title, but the visual image shows how the weight of the bodies dissolves in light.
Nadezhda Lyachova. Food, Watercolour, Bulgarian Artbook, ATA Gallery, Sofia, 1997
‘Food’ as lightness, as lack of weight is present in several works by Lyahova. She has participated with Food in a group exhibition called Bulgarian Artbook (ATA Gallery, May 1997, Sofia). Silhouettes of a knife and a semi-sphere of a plate are disappearing on and as if through the page. The silhouettes are an empty space; they are deprived of density, of weight. The grey-green watercolour around the plate and the knife is not a dining table but dilution and air. ‘Food’ is an absence of body. Who eats if there is no food? What ought to be a round plate is only an unstable half-circle, a shimmering light, while the knife is a thinning flame. There is no other cutlery. Food is loneliness.
The white space on the left side contains its negation in the concentration of the black colour - the five letters of the word ‘food’ (in Bulgarian). However, they are pure visual signs because of the graphic contrast. Food is only a sign. The image lends ambiguity to the word ‘Food’ that designates as present something that is absent.
Food is a correlation of colour and absence of colour, a potential fullness of colours. The oval line of the plate and the vertical lines of the knife are uncertain, hesitant contours produced by applying a pale colour around them, while they themselves are colourless. The white space is unwritten or obliterated potentialities, an end and a beginning. The white space, the infinity simultaneously absorbs and propels the black colour, the lines of the letters, from and towards the surface (the same disappearance and appearance as in the plate that is a shimmering light and the knife that is a pale flame).
Presence and absence, disappearance and appearance are the theme of Food. Food is a presence of opposite unities, a liminal state of (un)solvability, of (im)possibility of choice. In addition, as is often the case in Lyahova’s works, silence is tangible.
All works discussed here, without exception, use the face, the body however is absent. The absence of a body is also a constituent characteristics of Lyahova’s works. The main message of all installations is that of obliteration and transformation of form. It is also significant that the obliteration is of the author, of her face, obliteration of the senses, of speech, of memory. The renewed attempt to reach a beginning leaves a feeling of the infinity of remembrance; it is a desire to return through transformation, not as replication. The change of elements is also a main characteristic - the freezing of the water, the melting of the ice, the burning of the paper. Sometimes transformation is a return - the melting of the ice cast and its recapture into the mould-form from which it was separated, interplay of form and formlessness, transformation and reconstruction.
P.S. The essay is based on a lecture, given in Amsterdam in October 2010 as part of the project "Capturing Metamorphosis", September - October 2010. The Project consisted of an exhibition and lectures in Allard Pierson Museum. Curators were Alena Alexandrova, Martine van Kampen, Vladimir Stissi.
I have not included all the literature used during my work on the text of the lecture. The rich literature on the topics discussed could be found in my book "Historicity of the Visual Image", Sofia, 2009. The book is available also in internet.
1. I would like to mention that his is the "devouring time" motif, so characteristic for the European Baroque. [back]
2. With regard to literature - this is the envisaged co-authorship of the readers who are invited to take up the novel after a couple of chapters written by the author. By getting involved in the act of writing, the reader radically changes his/her attitude to the text - and becomes a co-author. [back]
3. Lucas van Leiden, 1494-1533, Youth with a Skull, engraving, 185 õ 145 mm, ca. 1519. The History of Printmaking II. Mantegna to Hogarth. Virtuoso Engravers of Four Centuries. 7 September 2007 - 27 January 2008, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest. cat. 92., fig. 49, p. 135. [back]
4. Katalog: Manierismus in Holland um 1600, Berlin, 1979, N. 85. [back]
5. Here is the quatrain given by Białostocki on page 199 of the cited book and which does not coincide with the one under the illustration of the engraving but is of the same meaning: Cur non sponte discimus mori ante diem?/Excussa blandae carnis dum vita superstes,/Compede post mortem liberiore gradu/Spiritus astra petet iam sedem ubi foverat ante. [back]
6. In 1999-2001 Nadezhda Lyahova and I had some talks about her installations, including on the problem of the author’s presence. I suppose our talks could have given her an idea to make a second video. [back]
Białostocki 1966: Białostocki, Jan. Kunst und Vanitas. // Białostocki, Jan. Stil und Ikonographie, Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1966, S. 187-231. Insbesonders S. 199-200.
© Andel V. Angelov