Agnes Janich

Review 14

War and the Body
Zuzanna Sokolowska, Poland's leading culture portal
Nov 14th, 2012

Every time the body comes up in an exhibition, questions about the borders of art arise. The audience expects yet another visual scandal, a perverse artist-spectator game and a discussion on the role of contemporary art. Sometimes, even a corpse. In the realm of the body, everything is possible, as we know from Katarzyna Kozyra's and Grzegorz Klaman's works. One could thus expect that the ever-present physicality will stop shocking us. Quite the opposite.The body is not just a physical object, a biological and social entity. It is also a conglomerate of what we need and want. What we believe that we should look like, how we should behave and react to bodies of opposite gender. An that is just the beginning. The body is a vehicle of memory both individual and collective. It stores events both pleasant and violent. Remembers the truth of the matter. Cuts, bruises and hurts. Agnes Janich's exhibition, Body Memory at MCCA Elektrownia, speaks about all this. An exhibition built on the much explored topics of gender differences and identity exploration. The visitor can thus expect sexuality, sadomasochism and violence all inclusive, with detours to pain, perverse pleasure and brutal self-hurt. Not to make it all too easy, Janich offers visitors an added bonus of spiritual and physical love and historical memory with references to WW2. Ones who expected a scandal may feel disappointed just as those who expected easy eroticism.

Agnes Janich is an artist of Polish roots who graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York. In her practice, she employs photography, installation, film, sound, performance, sculpture and public art. She often focuses on the body, placing it in varying contexts. In Body Memory, that is most often self-aggression as well though-through and intricately planned as an act of murder and also leaving a lasting stain. The Radom exhibition is comprised of three separate projects. Presented in the clinical white walls of the gallery, Janich's bodily wound depictions are painfully vivid. It is difficult to ponder on the unquestionable visual pleasure of looking at works since they, at the same time, make one's stomach hurt.

The first presented project, I Hate My Body When You're Gone, is a series of films and photographs on self-abuse, granting the artist a deep and perverse pleasure. All in the safe and seemingly calming setting of a white-clad bed, Janich bites herself, smears her body with lipstick, scratches her breasts, cuts her toes with a knife, making them bleed and provokes vomiting by repeatedly sticking her hand down her throat. Tension rises, as does the feeling of queasiness deep inside us. We do not know if the experiences the artist provokes for herself do indeed bring her pleasure. She seems like a trapped animal, hypnotized by the headlights. Janich screams of pain and torment in longing for the lost Other half, whose absence makes her body worthy only of decay. The artist tries to make the spectator react: scream, take the knife out of her hand or simply to hug her, which would end the cruel process of self-decay. Janich's actions are rituals of self-punishment for someone leaving and an evident call for attention. The fractured body pushes us to ask banal questions like: how are you now, making evident the human equation between: I see and I have, I understand. Our gaze makes her somehow ours, her body no longer objecting in a pause between instances of self-mutilation.

One can not recall Marina Abramovic here, the specialist in wound of various shapes and sizes. Abramovic shows us how can one use one's body in the name of art. Art cathartic and haunting. Art that leads to no solution. The first of the Rhythm performances of 1973, where she put white paper on the floor and 20 knives and 2 tape recorders on top of it. After turning one of the on, Abramovic started playing with the first knife, trying to make it into the spaces between her left hand fingers. When she was done with all the knives, she repeated the action, now with the recordings accompaniment, trying to cut herself in all the same places that before. She recorded that as well, only to sit calmly and listen to it all at the end. This is how the artist herself commented on this kind of body art: The difference between performance and theater is: in the theater, you have a dull knife and ketchup. In performance, the knife is real and so is the blood. You give all you've got. You don't hide behind a role or a prop. The audience will feel every lie and if it doesn't believe you, the performance will only be a series of events bordering on insanity. Both Abramovic and Janich show nothing but the truth. A truth both powerful and revolting. Their works explicitly show us how near death is, without needing to employ any actual corpses.

The second project on show, Is a Whole More Than a Sum of Parts, is a document of journey of self-exploration through the eyes of Others. The spectator witnesses Janich putting her finger in her wounds, one wound at a time, asking questions about whether the definition of femininity and the limits of the self. More on these doubts: Janich's third project at MCCA, the Annoying Flower performance, presented to a large crowd at the opening. Janich wrote all over her body: You do not have imperfections, You are hypocritical, My blue butterfly, When if comes to dominance in bed, with you I could be the expert, You embody wisdom. An assistant put the texts on the gallery's wall. Janich asserts the truth about us becoming ourselves in Other's eyes, this creating our identity.

The fourth project, That You Have Someone, is a series of strongly erotic photographs at times bordering on kitsch. Still, they treat of something much more profound: love, and love in historically challenging times. Janich has worked on the topic of WW2 for years now. Jewish by origin, the artist reads her body as a memorial of the events she attempted to experience. For five years, she had her head shaved bare and dressed only in black. She ate and slept little, walked barefoot on the snow and made it a point to reach the camps in question on foot, frost and blizzard notwithstanding. She dug through numerous archives and met dozens of survivors. This was, in her words, the only way to try and experience the impossible to experience. As a result of many years of research, the series of erotic images of herself and her then-partner were made and written over with stories of impossible love, love unfilled, love in screaming red ink. Janich's stylized images evoke clean and perfect bodyness, alluding to love eternal, brutally interfered with by history.

Body Memory is an essay on self-destruction with the common denominator of the body. The past is written info it, a past Janich tries to decode. It's most obvious language is pain, pain making her know that she still feels, making her make good with the world. The artist is not afraid to abuse her bodily flesh to show us haunting secrets of existence normally just whispered upon. Her body becomes an absolute, a sacrifice, an offering. An all-encompassing declaration of: I will do everything, give everything, just to get closeness in return. The exhibition isn't concentrated upon any unifying topic other than bodyness in its all different aspects. Despite this puzzle, it's strong visual content makes Janich's oeuvre resound profoundly. The artist exposes the body in its naked pain, making physicality a haunting construct half-way between romanticism and terror. The artist redefines nudity in its current cultural context. Body Memory is made of a double optics: first, of the limited, physical body, second, of its liveliness, its sensuality, its intimacy, its identity all facing the unrelenting power of history.

© 2003 - 2018 Agnes Janich