For this edition of Fan Mail, Marta Stysiak of Warsaw, Poland has been selected from our worthy reader submissions. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you! If you would like to be considered, please submit your website link to firstname.lastname@example.org with ‘Fan Mail’ in the subject line.
When viewing the body in the series “with” by Marta Systiak, I wonder if I should be aroused or not. Or, if I am aroused and the artist did not intend this, what does that mean? Sexuality is often part of the viewer’s attraction to the nude, even when the work does not overtly sexualize the body. Stysiak further complicates this notion by depicting the nude singularly, alone and autonomous, yet paired with a pet.
When considering Stysiak’s photographs, the 1781 oil on canvas by Henry Fuseli titled The Nightmare comes to mind. It depicts a woman, her body draped by a nightgown, in a pose of ecstasy while dreaming, depicting a demonic creature alongside the head of a horse with piercing eyes. The animals and objects in the room act as symbols in the dream, expressions of the subconscious. Though Stysiak’s works are based in reality, they can be read in a similar, intimate and symbolic, way. How a person organizes their space, how they occupy it, and what animals they choose as their friend, all offer insights into their personality. Stysiak’s photographs observe aspects of the human pysche, rather than ideals of bodily beauty.
I think of Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed & Two Noughts (1986), which, in part, speaks to the relationship between man and animal. Two twin zoologists, in shock after the simultaneous death of their wives, examine the process of death and decay in search of understanding their suffering. Venus de Milo, a vampish colleague, tries to seduce the scientist brothers to liven them up a bit. In a bedroom scene, she is naked and talking with one of the brothers as he lay in the bed, holding a glass plate of snails, observing and touching them, talking poetically about their vital role in the processing of decaying material. The scientist is more interested in the snails and his work, and viewing his nude body with the little creatures becomes unerotic and depressing, but beautiful. The snails seem to bring more refuge than the woman.
Since antiquity, the nude has been used to present the ideals of human form. Examples of non-sexualized or non-idealized nudes are not common in the early history of photography. An early and bold departure from this tradition is found in the photographs of Diane Arbus. Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N.J. (1963) shows the ideals of nudism–no shame in exhibiting the body in its most natural state.
Trying to understand her subjects’ basic connection to nature, Stysiak depicts them as nude, alongside whatever connection to natural world she can find in their lives. In the city, this means pets, parks, potted plants or the bathtub. The objects and the space tell a story too, revealing some of the identity of the portrayed subject. The gritty filmstock shows the process of the photographer–I imagine her entering the space with a small unobtrusive camera, no tripod, without lighting equipment, in the comfort of the darkness of night. The use of flash photography gives the impression that the images are not posed, but pulled from a collection of vernacular photos.
All of these images are taken in the city, where “the animal becomes the only link a person has with nature,” according to Aleksandra Szymczyk, who writes about Stysiak’s work on her website. Szymczyk continues: “The relation with the animal becomes a substitute for the old forms of community, because the anonymity and loneliness in the city are much more painful.”
Stysiak’s photographs do not seek to flatter, nor to take advantage of her nude subjects. The view of the body gives clues about age and lifestyle. The pairing of a pet with the nude body shows that the intent is something other than simply revealing the beauty of the body. Instead, the images are about the relationship between figure and animal. Pets provide their caretakers with a special kind of companionship. We are often willingly nude around our animals – our platonic friends. Some people are more or less comfortable with their pets being around while they engage in sex. A dog seems to know what is going on, but we don’t consider it coherent enough to be embarrassed. Still, an intelligent animal has some understanding.
Stysiak’s images reveal a range of relationships with the animals. For example, the woman posing with her horse is much more erotic than the man sitting on his sofa next to the fishtank. It seems a bit taboo to talk about animals in the context of sexuality. Animals have no shame in expressing their sex drive.
Viewing the nude body in the public context is often conflicting–for some, there is a natural urge to eroticize (or be repulsed or offended by) the body. For others more accustomed to seeing the it, there is a greater acceptance of the utility of nudity. Knowing they are being photographed, Stysiak’s subjects enter into this conversation, as they display their bodies in a public place, the internet.