Gender Truce: Elizabeth Czartoryski Offers Composition as Explanation
By Brian Boigon
THE PERCH is a performance installation work based on what Montreal-born, Toronto-based artist Elizabeth Czartoryski calls a “gender truce” theory. Through this term, she investigates the idea of surrendering oneself, one’s body, to others in order to create a gender-neutral platform for transformation and equality. Since its debut at Toronto’s Trampoline Hall in 2017, the performance and the stationary artworks that accompany it have been installed at Toronto’s Mulherin Gallery and the Contact Photography Festival. Trained as a visual artist and architect, Elizabeth’s performative art work spans multitemporal fields—from performers to photo documentarian recordings and drawings. She is deeply concerned with how our gender fields are constructed, disrupted, and maintained inside the body as a media device that navigates the duality between public (exteriority) and private (interiority) of our bodies.
THE PERCH includes nude performers draped over both sides of a blank white wall. Elizabeth sets up a suture to her “gender truce” while keeping some of the stitches in time open and exposed. By creating a symmetry in THE PERCH, it opens itself up to the asymmetry that surrounds it. As such, Czartoryski’s art pushes and pulls the viewer into the battleground of identity about which she has been the subject since her early childhood in a Polish-Catholic family and subsequent formal training in the arts and architecture.
After studying computation arts and design at Concordia University, where interactive installations, animation, and an array of digital software ruled the day, Czartoryski was drawn to analog works by artists like Judy Chicago, the Guerrilla Girls, and Kristof Wodzicko.
As an architecture student at the University of Toronto, Czartoryski was uninspired by what she felt was a constant reference to architectural precedent through a male perspective. Her work experience designing high-end retail and residential projects had left her cold. It was when she began teaching architecture at the University of Toronto that Czartoryski found more time to work on her artistic practice. The move catapulted her into an open field of artistic imagination. This is the point at which THE PERCH began.
Brian Boigon: How did you come up with THE PERCH?
Elizabeth Czartoryski: THE PERCH was instigated by two parallel worlds. The first world emerged from the inequalities in my immediate family household dynamics that I witnessed growing up between my father and mother, me and my two brothers, my extended family, and my religious Catholic upbringing. The second world involved a very vivid dream I had a few years ago. I saw a field surrounded by trees, with a kilometer-long, pitch-white wall in the center. Urbanites from the city dressed in civilian clothes, frolicked from the trees surrounding the wall and started to walk towards it while stripping their clothes. Once they lined up close to it, they looked at the wall as though in meditation, and slowly, like a wave, they perched themselves over the wall, alternating to form a stitch of bodies. When I awoke from this dream, I had to pay attention.
The dream produced a deep sense of longing, which I had to unlock and deconstruct. So, THE PERCH was born from the relationship between my autobiographical and dream realities. I strongly believe dreams are extensions of our true selves and what we believe; in places where values and morals are challenged, and egos are lost and found.
Can you describe the relationship between your performance and installation work in THE PERCH, since it has taken on its own network of operations that are grounded by an art context, no longer buttressed by the dream?
We all perform differently. The installation depends on the performance. The performance activates the installation. Seeing the installation without the performance is like visiting an airplane without flying in it. The anticipation is never met. The performance triggers and challenges our sensorial experience. Seeing the performers’ flesh in person—bodies that are not familiar to you—allows you to explore the body as a medium, its color, bruises, and scars. These performers take the time to teach us about ourselves and our performativity in everyday life.
How has THE PERCH evolved? Did it start as a performance installation or did it go through multimedia iterations before it entered the gallery space?
Initially, THE PERCH was supposed to be a photographic riff on Newton’s compositional logic exploring gender. As an interpretation of my dream, I considered bringing seventy models to Richard Serra’s Shift project out in King City, Ontario. I was very hungry to get the project going, though I found the scale of a kilometer-long wall for the first iteration premature. So I decided to create a smaller version of THE PERCH performance at Trampoline Hall in Toronto, a recurring stage for experimentation. The project was tuned there and then exhibited at Katharine Mulherin Gallery in 2017, followed by Contact Photography Festival in 2018, which included performance, photography, and Suture Drawings. The most recent iteration of THE PERCH was its first outdoor performance at the Partners in Art annual general meeting where I was invited as the featured artist.
How does ritual fit into your work?
We move from ritual to ritual. Prior to THE PERCH, I interpreted rituals and traditions as a symbiotic system of celebrations of life; from religion, to daily family occasions, to brushing my teeth with Colgate every morning. Being brought up by a conservative Catholic-Polish second-generation immigrant family, I learned the values of tradition and ritual in that ecology. Its patriarchal environment infuriated me and was difficult to look past. I misunderstood the difference between the etymology of the word “routine” and “ritual.” My days were filled with rituals, I thought.
In my recent work, my research on Catherine Bell’s book, Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions, is a central influence. Bell argues that since the 15th century, ritual has been a tool for sociocultural change and is a “performative medium for the negotiation of power in relationships.” This is exactly what THE PERCH does—it re-evaluates and reboots our gender politics through performance.
What is it about the body that you are drawn to? In terms of your artistic influences, what do you see as the difference between body aesthetics in Francis Bacon and Marina Abramovic?
My admiration for the body as an armour, its psychosexuality, color spectrum, and the politics inscribed onto our human shell has always fascinated me. The body is a very powerful medium. We like to hide behind our layers—our clothes protect us from the cold, the sun, society’s judgement. We feel safe when we hide. I understand this concept very well. When we encounter nudity in a respectable environment, we are overwhelmed with curiosity and are drawn to it like sharks in a bloodbath. I believe nudity is the highest form of vulnerability and strength, and to alter our thinking we must learn to explore it.
Both Marina Abramovic and Francis Bacon are my virtual mentors. Both use the body in extreme states. Bodies in their work seem to be in sitting, standing, or in resting positions, and yet their compositions produce transformative gateways to other realms of thinking.
Bacon treats the body like a dream state; he paints and draws from photographs primarily of his lovers and close friends. When I think of someone I love when they are not present, they definitely take on Bacon’s visual characteristics of faded, slightly deformed and melancholic strokes.
Abramovic’s work has a similar effect on me. She works on compositions that depict bodies in real-time and real-flesh. They are projections from a completely different world and consciousness. Her work is dynamically three-dimensional, where one can walk around and in between new realities. The audience has a lot of freedom in her work, and her body representation is always very vivid to me—the clean lines of flesh feel very vulnerable, yet very powerful.
Did your previous work in architecture influence your ideas around rituals and performance?
Architecture gave me a military-like regime that helped me develop a rigorous design method for producing projects. That said, when I was at the University of Toronto, I was angry at architecture for not being expressive and lacking in cultural meaning in Canada. I did not understand what everyone was talking about when they used words like “innovation” and “engaging the public.” I felt the work was doing the complete opposite. This was when I turned to the work of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, John Hejduk, Archigram, Marina Abramovic, Helmut Newton, Lina Bo Bardi, Peter Zumthor, and Superstudio. I needed provocation by works that had a direct impact on my emotions—where elegance was met with challenging questions. I collaged my drawings like a madwoman. To this day, I still feel our software packages like Rhino, AutoCad, Sketchup, and Adobes act like microwave oven instructions, where one’s hand is filtered and then processed into a bland mac ’n cheese architectural disaster. Everyone’s work looks the same to me.
Can you describe the creative-intellectual-spiritual space in which you create your art?
When I work artistically, I feel as though I am half present with the drawing, photograph, or performance and half in a dream state. I do not make the distinction between mind and body, but rather experience a very intense exchange between both worlds. Sometimes they speak to each other into a beautiful Polish waltz, and other times they want to massacre each other with knives and shards of glass. Both somehow work to my advantage. When trying a new method or new medium, I am very aware of the apparatus in my hand—how it moves and responds. Once I experiment with it, it transforms and embeds itself into my sleeve. I feel more open to taking chances with its advantageous mistakes.
What response did you get from the audience during THE PERCH?
Prior to every performance, the audience is always chatting away, moving around the room looking at THE PERCH photographs and Suture Drawings. The crowd always seems rather loud and rowdy to me. When the performance begins, the audience goes silent. They part like the Red Sea, stand in this army-like stature along the gallery walls as the performers walk slowly to their locations. It’s as if a code of conduct was announced prior to the show. It brings up the idea of permission. Who will freely walk around the performers and sculptural wall? It is a living breathing artwork, isn’t it? Post-performance, I hear all kinds of reactions from visitors. Some question their sexuality, some compare their genitals to the performers, some feel intense anxiety, some feel overwhelming empathy for the performers, some are in shock as to how long the performers endured on the wall, and some remark on the markings left on performer bodies. Others are simply grateful for sharing this powerful moment with everyone; some wonder about the meditative state the performers were in, some reminisce about how their family and friends were struggling deeply with their gender identities and politics at home, some have realizations about how difficult it looked to climb on the sculptural wall, others wonder about the structural integrity of the wall. The dialogue is fascinating. And this is exactly what performance is meant to do, allow us to question and explore deep societal issues in real time and create a safe platform for discussion. We are all aware of these issues—it is about how and where we decide to negotiate them.
What is next? How do you see the next body of work relating to the current body?
When it comes to thinking through my next body of work, I see it as a fluid continuation of what came before. Where can I shine light on equality? THE PERCH is an ongoing project, so what I am about to embark on parallels the universe of that piece already in motion. I have been completely startled by the abundance of recent harassment cases in the news. Every week, I am reminded that people with ambitious minds, but lesser power, are mistreated and taken advantage of. I suppose looking through history, this comes as no surprise. Yet, I believe it’s up to us to respond to this disgrace, greed, and cowardliness.
My next body of work is called Flesh Estate. It investigates sexually charged corporate power struggles and their direct impact on the body through drawing, performance, sculpture, and video. I am currently looking at site-specific venues for this work in Toronto, New York, and Warsaw; hopefully all coming together in 2019. This project has an urgency to it, so the sooner the better. There is no time to waste.
Brian is an artist, writer, and professor of architecture at the University of Toronto
His current research involves a sci-fi quantum design universe called the “Interopera.” www.brianboigon.com
Originally published on En Pointe, an interview series from Point Line Projects.
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