View of “Marzena Nowak,” 2011.

View of “Marzena Nowak,” 2011.

Marzena Nowak

View of “Marzena Nowak,” 2011.

In video, installation, and painted works, Marzena Nowak presents the human body as the site of psychic sensations and states of excitement. In the past, the artist has used a phrase from Freud, “Die Psyche ist ausgedehnt” (The psyche is expansive), to describe her project, representing a view of the body as both part of and an extended expression of internal processes. Experimental approaches to the body—measuring, localizing, temporalizing, and wounding it—constituted a central theme in the avant-garde art of the 1960s and ’70s, one that has remained an important component of contemporary artistic practice. The fact that, especially in the ’60s, interrogating the body tended to give work a certain subversive, socially utopian character is clearest in the work of artists from the former Eastern Bloc—for example, the sometimes quite drastic films and videos of Polish artist Józef Robakowski. Although Nowak is Polish and her work contains frequent references to the art of that time, she was born in 1977 and so belongs to a generation for whom questioning the body has different implications. Nowak’s specific approach to the human physique is most apparent in her video works: The three black-and-white looped videos included in this show each focus on a specific body part: a hand whose fingers almost imperceptibly tremble (Untitled [Hand], 2010) a mouth whose lips are being kneaded by fingers (Untitled [Cosmos], 2004); the symmetrical formation of two hands that appear to be giving mysterious signs (Untitled [Mizianie]) [Untitled (Fondle)], 2010). The peacefulness of the hand at rest gives way to latent tension; the rhythmical kneading of the lips takes on a sexual dimension; the two hands interact as independent protagonists removed from their bodies. The body, then, is staged here less as the object of specific procedures than as a sensitive indicator of internal processes and emotions.

In the Great Hall of the Salzburger Kunstverein, the video pieces, with their emphatically plastic corporeality, were juxtaposed with installation works and paintings with a strong graphic slant that inevitably evoke more cerebral, less visceral responses: Canvases covered with grids in which colorful triangles have been inscribed according to intuitive principles and lines of overlapping patterns follow a Conceptualist approach, according to which the governing principles of a model of action channel the physical activity of painting. Monotony, repetition, rhythm, and stasis can thus be experienced not only as optical categories but also as physical ones.

Nowak often works with gaps that challenge the viewer to actively complete her works, asking us to engage with them by performing a labor of empathy. The small metal sculpture Space Between Big and Second Foot Toe as Keyhole, 2009, clearly exemplifies this modus operandi: The space between the toes was modeled with a sheet of steel folded around a hollow at its center; mounted, it preserved the view of the wall behind it. And so this “adapter” functions not only as a positive of the negative physical interstice but also as a peephole inspiring the viewer to engage in an act of imagination. This physical and psychic drawing-in of the viewer takes place in a climate of extraordinary interpretative openness that leaves space for experiences simultaneously surreal and real, painful and jubilant, familiar and strange.

Daniela Stöppel

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.