Ex Purgamento: Latin for ‘out of the dirt’. Refuse, in other words. Riddance. What nobody wants and has been scoured away. This, however, is where Natalia Zagórska-Thomas finds her material and her inspiration. She understands the mute eloquence of things – of objects, oddments, tools, fabrics – and wants to make them speak, or speak again, in her work. They may, after passing through her hands, speak louder than she does. That is one of the mysteries of her practice.
Zagórska-Thomas grew up in Poland in the 1970s and ’80s. An early influence was the generation of Polish artists who came to prominence after the Second World War: Tadeusz Kantor, Wladyslaw Hasior, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Alina Szapocznikow, Konstanty Balka, and others. Whatever their similarities and differences, their art shared the need for new, redemptive forms of expression after the cataclysm of war.
It was, in its strategies, an art of making do and mending. It incorporated the humblest of materials – the discarded, the broken, the generally unconsidered – to make something new and vital.
Tensions and ambiguities prevailed. There was no doubting the seriousness of the enterprise, and yet a down-to-earth humour and knockabout theatricality were often part of it. Such objects as found themselves put to this roughly improvised, new use – a bucket, say, or a bicycle wheel – occupied a mid-way position, simultaneously declaring and denying their prosaic origins. So the detritus of material culture was made to provide visual metaphors for the immediate human condition: buckets and bicycle wheels seemingly caught in a struggle to remain true to their own natures, while at the same time evolving, elevating themselves above their decrepit and limiting physical state in the effort to convey larger meanings.
After working as an artist for several years, Zagórska-Thomas trained as a conservator specialising in historic textiles. Working as a conservator requires close attention to both the physical and the cultural essence of each object, whose physical condition will yield forensic evidence of its unique history. The relationship can in some ways be compared to that of doctor and patient.
Unlike a human patient, however, an object has no value beyond the meaning we assign to it; nor can it choose how it should be treated. It must remain passive in the face of physical intervention, which, no matter how careful, can only serve either to confirm or to alter its meaning. Yet many objects that a conservator handles have spent a relatively short time being either used for their intended purpose, at the beginning of their lives, or collected as cultural artefacts. Some have been hidden for hundreds, or even thousands, of years, in attics, in burial sites, embedded in earth or sunk deep beneath the sea. It is then that, safe from human interference, they undergo their greatest metamorphosis. They change shape, colour, texture, even chemical composition. Then sometimes, after this period of relative autonomy, they emerge, as if blinking, into a human culture totally foreign to the one they left behind.
What if such objects were not just passive recipients of our manipulation? What if they had identities, desires and ambitions of their own? In other words, what if, instead of merely reflecting humanity, they had the power to interpret and influence it? These are questions that Zagórska-Thomas asks through her art.
And the process that she hypothesises is something like this…
Let’s assume that certain objects have outlived their usefulness. Through long contact with human beings, they have assimilated some of the symbolism placed upon them, then used it as a starting-point for their own pursuit of autonomous identity. Because they are not considered – by humans – valuable enough to be collected for themselves, they are engaged in a fight for survival. Taking such snippets of human experience as they have picked up from literature, visual art and music, they adapt them to create new meaning for themselves, one which will justify the value of their existence, not just to us, but to themselves as well.
Tadeusz Kantor said, ‘The object exists between eternity and the rubbish heap.’ It is in that space, suspended between destruction and immortality, that Zagórska-Thomas’s objects fight with her for control of their own destiny.
Christopher Reid & Natalia Zagorska-Thomas