Consolations of a floating man


Wojciech Nowikowski

Initially entitled ‘Waters, Lands’, the series of four large landscapes I painted in May–June 2008. They emerged (were expelled) quickly in succession as if there were still a sort of momentum or need to finish (exhaust) the series of works from the ‘Again, Again’ exhibition from just four months before.

The theme of landscape (and water in particular) was already there in works like Cenote, Drifters and Submerged as well as in some works on paper.

The four large, heavy-intone, nocturnal paintings felt like building a fortress, a place of solidity and trust. Unknown to me at the time, the scenes related (unsurprisingly perhaps) to places from my youth – happy places; happy times. Surrounded by these massive (in relation to my studio) lands/forests/rocks, Ifelt sheltered.

With hardly any horizon and subdued light, in the middle of the water (an island?), I was safe. The fifth and final work was painted nearly a year later. There, the land opens up and light fills the canvas.

From the colour of loss to the colour of light

Renata Salecl

We often observe a landscape in order to find peace, to relax after everyday life, to contemplate harmony, to wonder about the transition of life or simply to take in the smells and voices that nature imposes on us. Sometimes paintings of landscapes themselves offer such solace of calm and harmony to the viewer.

Wojciech Nowikowski’s landscapes offer no such solace. Their forms and colours do not give a harmonious feeling of peace, they do not intend to bring a dreamlike state of bliss. They rather open up perturbing questions, they let us see the cracks in our perception and they offer an opening into the unknown – both promising and frightening at the same time.

The first canvases show landscapes overburdened with darkness. Layers of paint seem to cover each other in the attempt to create a new landscape, which will hint at a different story. The colours collide as if they are in rivalry, which will tell its story and which will be pushed into the darkness and remain silent. In the end, however, they resolve into a landscape that offers a possibility of structure and a slight opening for the light – a promise of things to come.

In the midst of the passionate competition of colours, one can occasionally see the traces of a human form. Is it a body hidden in the woods? A ghost coming from a place beyond? A body in pain? A possibility of a future being? Nowikowski has used the uncanny organic body-like form in his previous work, and it looks like these forms have returned in the new canvases, but now they seem even more dissolved, less of a threat and more a remnant of life.

As the series progresses the mood changes. It is as if simply piling on the darkness, mixing deep reds, browns and greens in no longer enough to smother the light that lurks in its shadows. The light which at first looks like a river buried beneath dark, ominous woods, suddenly erupts like a fresh stream that brings a promise of the new. The landscape changes, opens up. It is almost as if it starts to split itself – a transformation occurs.

In the last work, light takes over, darkness is pushed away, colours are translucent and forms are broken up. The ominous image of things floating underneath has vanished. The old world is transformed.

It is as if nature gave up on covering itself with layers of masks, and as if it can now expose the cracks and openings which hint at the loss that can never be covered (painted?). Now a new meaning to the loss might surface.The shifts that occur with the progression of Nowikowski’s recent works allow us to reflect on the psychoanalytic idea of melancholy and its relationship to lack and loss.

Lacanian psychoanalysis is well known for offering a theory that we perceive our world through a fantasy lens. The landscape that we see is very much determined by the unconscious way we cover up the cracks in it, since the lack forever perturbs any coherent picture of that landscape.

In order to see the landscape as landscape we need first of all to suppress the point from which it might well be imagined that the landscape observes us. The scenario that we create from our surroundings must exclude the eye from which we might feel ourselves to be observed.

The cracks in the world (like the gaps between the split canvases?) can become something threatening and also something promising, something that presents an opportunity for the new, an opening to the unknown, a rebirth, and a new start. The cracks however can also be perceived in a melancholic way as losses that cannot be mourned, as openings that do not offer a possibility of renewal. A melancholic’s problem is that he confuses lack with loss. He feels as if the lack is something that can be covered up by a particular object. The landscape of his surroundings he perceives to be without the lack so he thinks that an object can be found to cover the lack and make the picture complete. In his fantasy, however, the melancholic endlessly mourns the fact that the object is not at the place he imagined it to be – he feels that he has gone through a non-recoverable loss, that darkness is all that is left to him and that there is no space for light or a glimpse of a new object emerging.

Wojciech Nowikowski’s work at first appears like a melancholic memory of landscapes, which are like layers of stories piled one on top of the other. In the first paintings one gets the feeling that one is observing the artist’s struggle with loss. One wonders if it is a loss of the homeland, loss of a person, loss of dreams or an overwhelming anxiety of being thrown into the world he finds alien and whose landscape is never quite right, which is why he constantly needs to repaint it. However, as the paintings progress and when earthy colours give space to cracks filled with light, the melancholic impression vanishes. The observer now senses a surging energy. In the pictures he can observe a struggle over which colour of light will try to define the cracks that open up in the landscape. What he perceived before as a melancholic rumination over loss changes into an existential quest over what lack stands for. At that moment, a feeling of optimism takes over and the observer starts contemplating through the use of which colour loss has ceased to be loss and has become an opening: the colour of light.

Renata Salecl

Philosopher and sociologist, Renata Salecl is Visiting Professor at LSE, as well as Senior Researcher in Criminology in the University of Ljubliana (Slovenia).

Her books include Per(versions) of Love and Hate (1998), On Anxiety (2004) and Tyranny of Choice (forthcoming 2009). Her writing on art includes Art and Catastrophe, Anxiety in Arts and Wars.

Painting by Wojciech Nowikowski - Consolation II 2008-09 acrylic on canvas 152x244cm