Joe Ziolkowski

Space Gallery

For his “Numbered Series,” 1988– , Joe Ziolkowski suspended more than 100 people upside down against a blank backdrop in his studio, photographing their nude torsos from the navel up. With this simple 180 degree reversal, Ziolkowski managed to blur individuality, emphasizing instead a kind of psychic abandon. Of the 20 pieces from this series shown here, only one depicted an individual struggling against his predicament, trying to pull his body upward to fight against the doped-up state this position usually induces. The other 19 participants seemed to accept being turned upside down more or less benignly; in each, the subject closed his or her eyes, lost on a dizzying inward journey of blissful oblivion. Ziolkowski clearly allows his subjects to hang about batlike for awhile, and, as their upper bodies become engorged with fluid, he captures the stunned vertigo—the moment when resistance shifts to surrender, when identity melts away and is replaced by something very peaceful but exceedingly vulnerable.

While a few of Ziolkowski’s subjects’ arms hung limply or were held straight out in a flying or cruciform gesture, most were wrapped around heads or torsos, hugging their bodies in subconsciously indolent caresses. These works seemed to invert Michelangelo’s Ignudi or his Dying Slave. Abandoned to an extreme physical state and a personal and self-induced intoxication, these figures convey a heady sensuality that makes distinctions of race, age, or even gender secondary. Ziolkowski celebrates the beauty and the dictates of the body even when—especially when—its psyche is absent or confused.

In many ways this extraordinary and evocative series has begun to transcend its original motivations. Ziolkowski began taking these photographs as a response to one of the more egregious manifestations of the fear surrounding AIDS in the late ’80s. In 1988 the Illinois General Assembly passed a statute requiring couples planning to marry to be screened for HIV; 80,000 such tests were performed before the law was overturned, with 17 people testing positive. Ziolkowski saw metaphoric possibilities in this state-sponsored intervention. The disconnection experienced by many of Ziolkowski’s friends—the period of emotional drifting between taking the test and receiving the results—originally informed this series of photographs, but the whirling bodies now suggest an unexpected path toward a strange, personal freedom.

James Yood