In the Grip of Body Language
by Zora Rusinová

In contemporary theory the prevailing opinion is that "postmodern art depicts the body as an empty container ... the human figure as empty in itself or emptied out“ (McEvilley), because artists often concentrate on the torso, anatomically interesting fragments, or sexual symbols, or they probe into the entrails, and the face ceases to be the bearer of meanings. But this loud emphasis on corporeality and seeming absence of spiritual content may have the effect of provoking more intensive reflections on the duality of body and soul, since due to the figurative tradition of Western culture and art we have a deeply ingrained perception of their complementarity. It seems that what has really been emptied out is not actually the body, but rather the forms for expressing its spiritual contents.

For me Dorota Sadovská's work evokes these very questions, where her representation of a body – whether her own or someone else’s – seems to incline towards the polarity of both the abovementioned components. This observation is also strengthened by the fact that the author herself, seeking to subject her work to theorists' reflections, chose to divide her works into two sections: one associated with religious motifs, where symbolic and cultural meanings of the body are thematised through iconography, and another which brings to the surface the existential givens of the body, anchored in its biological, gender and social context. However, both expressive positions seem only at first sight to be existing side by side in mutual independence, and any attempt to separate them would mean to concentrate solely on their first-level motivic reading. In actual fact they intersect and overlap. That is to say, it becomes evident that in Sadovská’s work to date the historical and especially archetypal contexts of the body, and its visionary retrospective reconstructions, cannot be fully "cut off" from the rhetoric of contemporary symbolism conditioned by lived personal experience.

An ideal example of this overlapping of both levels of body perception is Sadovská‘s exhibition project In the Interface (Medium Gallery, Academy of Fine Arts and Design, Bratislava, 2004). If we compare it to her earlier series of the saints, where she also worked with the body taken as torso, at first we have the feeling (due perhaps to a very artistic depiction of corporeality) that her interest in the physical aspect has deepened and that the body does not now represent merely a cultural category and emblem of spiritual values, as before. In fact, what we have here is simply a different application of expressive means where the emphasis on spirituality is shifted, as it were, from the theme to the painting as such, to the analysis of this medium (situated at the "interface“ of centuries and millennia) in an age when the matchless expressive capacities of cybernetic programs are dominant. Already in this cycle Sadovská‘s painterly utterance broke free from its subjection to the theme, as a clearly formulated ethical quality of martyrdom of the tortured or constricted body. Quite the contrary, the body became an excuse for celebration and exhibition of everything that can be achieved by palette and paintbrush. Moreover, as she had done several times before in projects involving the saints, Dorota used the method of installation to attempt to release the painting from its time-worn form of presentation, providing it with new space contexts and showing that a painting is a flexible expressive phenomenon capable of "permanent renaissance“. She had nine large-format compositions with brilliantly-painted backwards-angled female heads hung in the corners of three gallery rooms. The non-traditional location of the series (in the corners between two walls) sensibly blurred the edges and dragged the viewers into the rhythm of its more or less circular connectedness. Just by evoking the impact of a fresco painting through her use of space, Sadovská again revealed how deeply the history of fine art painting as a discipline, in particular the scenic effects and expressive hyperboles of mannerism, have suffused her consciousness. This convulsive, downright rotating linkedness of the series of monumental "female necks“ may also be perceived, however, as the symbol of Sadovská‘s own search for further direction as a painter – her journeying from the traditional hanging painting, through painting as an object expanding into space, only to return to the starting point in some imaginary "closed circuit", back to the limits of the painting.

Each portrait of a woman in this grandiose spatial concept, with the head caught at a steep angle, lost the character of an individual likeness and brought to mind rather some monumental landscape of the body. It was clearly revealed that the face is the identifying mark of personality, and by suppressing it or distorting its perspective and conversely emphasising some other part of the body (in this case the neck and shoulders), the particular form of the human being becomes lost. Since the naked fragments of body are anonymous, psychological introspection, one of the main ambitions of portrait-painting, remained on the sidelines. Conversely, each of the portrayed heads became rather a pretext for playing with the relief of cavities, with the contrast of convex and concave lines, but also with subtle aesthetic values nuanced by lighting: illusive plasticity and glowing skin pigment against the Caravaggio-style dark engulfing background. A viewer used to the traditional portrait genre followed the curve of a long arched neck till the gaze halted at the frontier of chin and forehead, where (due to steep foreshortenening) it was carried away on the curves of lips and teeth, the subtle details of nostrils, earlobes or eyelids. All of these “body landscapes” resembling one another and at the same time differing in particular details, perceived in their own right and simultaneously as "pars" in a certain sublime "totum", had something in common with the sophistic effect of the advertising billboards. This was made more intense not only by Sadovska’s painting style, verging on photorealism, but in particular by the "close-up" visual system, recalling the pop-art "unnaturalness" of paintings by J. Rosenquist or T. Wesselmann, where common objects are blown up and thus lose their identity and become alluring simulacra – a deliberate statement on the exaggerations of advertising.

The exhibition title "In the Interface" is no accident in the context of Sadovská’s work. This series of figurative paintings, no less than her earlier paintings of the saints, is proof of the fact that as "Scooter Queen 1" she has one foot in traditional academic painting and the other in the expressive potential of the new media. As a matter of fact, alongside painting and photography, performance art caught her interest, and also the specifics of light painting. She not only often combines them in her projects but even subtly re-evokes the effects of one through the other. The unifying aspect is in fact the exploration of the body by distorting its perspective, torsifying it, dynamically playing with its separated parts, or making interventions in space. A particularly interesting work in this regard is the video Slough (2003). Here the monitor shows in slow motion parts of chests, arms, hands and legs moving over one another in visual chaos, seemingly belonging to no one, so that the sense of what is female and what is male disappears. The resulting palimpsest of the limbs is a denial, as it were, of the importance of any kind of social difference, in favour of the body as a biological entity. Since the naked body loses the signs of more definite social classification and gender identification, in this "monumental still life" Dorota Sadovská breaks with the visual codes of the subculture: as opposed to erotic extrapolation, she emphasises those bodily parts which, rather than differentiating the two classic sexes, make them more alike. The intermediary here, between us and the image of the body, is the general notion of corporeality, common to all human beings. Thanks to the naturalism of hairy legs and backs dotted with spots and blackheads, sexual identity becomes indifferent, and indeed its vulnerability and transience are stressed, just as in iconography vanitas is expressed by fading flowers or low-burning candles. Only secondarily do questions arise within this depersonalised corporeality: issues connected with the body's diverse private and public meanings, problems of its interaction with other bodies from the point of view of gender and social functions.

Male-female polarity disappears completely in the photo series Parasites (1998-2006). Whose are those chained cramped feet and joined fingers, that decor of cut-out sketches occupying the wall-ends like a virus or mould? Men's or women's? Are they parts of a human body at all? Their mirror-like juxtaposition is such that the isolated body fragments acquire a horrific kind of symmetry, and on the other hand, they lose not only gender but also biological identity. They resemble post-human forms or mysterious unknown arthropods that can appear at any time and fasten themselves anywhere. Only on taking a close look does the viewer realize that what he/she sees are parts of a human body, without being aware at all that it is the author’s body. At the same time, in the context of Sadovská’s work it is perhaps the most sophisticated approach to the morphological effects of digital photography and the expansion of the medium into space.

Sadovská chose a different form of corporeal trace, in this case intangible, in I must be better (2001), a sparingly expressive but poetic video of feminine self-reflection. Her physical presence is here restricted to elementary contact with the hand, which is drawing ever-new invisible pictures with her hair. This ritual act, bound up with her personal mythology, seems to imply an effort not only to stop time but also to go beyond the borders of the everyday routine and ordinariness associated with body care, and in pure play to offer a symbolic picture of the moment, which always exists only as already past, something gone and ungraspable.

The fact that for Sadovská the body represents at the same time object, tool and material is confirmed by the series of large-scale photographs Corporalities (2003). In this series of nine monumental photographs of a woman’s chest, which becomes the projection area for exhibiting concentrated expression, female breasts are pressed by hands. Her rough manipulation with the female body, ranging in expressive tension from connotations of sex to pain, calls to mind the sculptor's preparatory modelling of the substance to be moulded. At the same time it is as if, through the medium of sight, she was activating other senses also, touch and hearing, with this suggestive hand-signals' alphabet. On a second plane, she evokes the tortures of regular preventive self-examination of breasts, or the professional touches of a doctor's hand. Unlike Annie Sprinkle’s photo series Bosom Ballet (1991), where the performer, wearing black long gloves which contrast with her white skin and red-painted nipples, deforms and twists her breasts to the rhythm of The Blue Danube Waltz; here, Sadovská’s view of the female body is far removed from the jargon of pornography. Nor is she re-enacting here the provocative narcissism of Carole Schneemann's or Hannah Wilke's early performances. On the contrary, her attitude to the signs of her own gender is matter-of-fact, purposely uninvolved; her individual "ego" retreats into the background. In her effort to deny and neutralize the predetermination of the female body in a rhythmically modulated plan of bodily deformations, she comes close to the obsessive self-analysis of the Cuban performance artist Ana Mendieta. Overall, the series comes across as a succession of lapidary gestures, where the classic attributes of womanhood associated almost always with erotica and physical pleasure, or alternatively with love, fertility, maternity are supplanted by a message about the fateful character of the female body, from which there is no escape.

Finally from the aspects of Sadovska‘s understanding of corporeality, one cannot exclude the manner of her self-representation through mocking up visual image and layout of a fashion magazine for women. Her self-ironic stylisation as cover girl is not only a demonstrative criticism aimed at the mass media ideal of woman, but it also expresses an attempt to spike the guns of contemporary consumer culture – advertising and the media in particular – with the refined strategies of contemporary art, which is ignored because of insufficient promotion and its constant lack of immediate appeal for most of the "cultured" public.