For a long time, I have been fascinated by Manet’s painting, Olympia. There is no question why – it is her confrontational, perhaps even disdainful, direct gaze, which makes the viewer immediately conscious of his own voyeuristic gaze. I say ‘his’ because this was the viewing audience of 1860’s Paris.

Since discovering Manet’s Olympia, she has returned to me in several guises; a real woman (whose name was Olympia) with whom I had a spontaneous and enlightening conversation in a London art gallery, the mechanised doll in Hoffmann’s strange and eerie tale, The Sandman (stumbled on while researching the subject of The Uncanny) and finally, today I discovered a new incarnation – Katarzyna Kozyra’s Olympia (1996).

This is a series of photos and a video which documents Kozyra’s fight with cancer. Her body confronts the viewer with the realities of illness and death, rather than as a healthy and attractive subject of the (male) gaze. Kozyra’s Olympia was controversial, just as Manet’s was in its own time, but then she is no stranger to controversy. From her first well known art work, Pyramid of Animals (1993) to her Bath House series, she is not afraid to confront the viewer with uncomfortable realities.

In Man’s Bathhouse 1999, she disguised herself as a man (complete with penile prosthesis) and sneaked into the baths with a concealed camera. I’m not sure how I feel about secret filming, but I think her work demonstrates great flexibility, as well as a profound interest in the process of art-making. As soon as she is cast as a ‘serious’ artist producing works about death, illness and ageing, she reinvents herself as a ‘man’, an operatic castrato, or a cheerleader. With her cast of characters, perhaps illustrating different versions of the self, she genuinely seems to be amusing herself as well as the viewer, with her own versatility and willingness to play the fool.

 

Joanne Herbert