“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.”
– Alice Walker
When Alicja Brodowicz chooses Alice Walker’s words as the epithet to her series Visual Exercises, she evokes the basic truth of the project: nature is a strange paradox where the simultaneous absence and abundance of perfection generates beautiful forms. Beauty is marred by perfection; beauty is glorified and enhanced by the “contorted,” by the “weird”. Anything belonging to nature belongs to this paradox. Which is to say, anything of nature is perfect and without perfection, “beautiful.”
In evoking this wonderful conception of beauty, “Visual Exercises” announces what kind of project it is going to be: one dedicated to showing the deep, internal connection between the human body and nature, that people are creations of nature and therefore beautiful regardless of any seeming imperfection. We are like trees, contorted and weird but still beautiful. Visual Exercises is an art of body positivity rooted in the natural world, a celebration of nature as it encompasses and exceeds the human body.
Visual Exercises asserts that the natural world and the human body compose each other. Importantly, and obviously, the viewer will notice a common structure in Brodowicz’s series: the pairing of nature with the human form. This style is known as the diptych, a classic form going back to Roman antiquity. The diptych juxtaposes two seperate images, the point of which is to ask the viewer to put the two discrete images in relationship with each other or to even treat them as a whole. As a result of combination, the viewer experiences the unity between the two parts rather than their disconnection.
So, the diptych does more than point out similarities (that an apple is like a pair of legs because of spots), the pairings signal an internal relationship between both sides. The tone of sanctity, afforded by majestic rendering of subject matter and black-and-white, speaks to a shared, living connection between these two objects. They speak of each other as the same, and so we look at apple the same way we look at human legs. Equally, that is. In an egalitarian way.
The diptych, then, helps creates unity out of disparate subjects, but Brodowicz’s eye for similarity between the human body and nature highlights an already existing continuity that goes unnoticed. Through Brodowicz’s rendering of tree bark and back skin, the diptych reveals the natural world in the human body and the human body in the natural world. Lines and creases, the tough of bark is the soft of skin. The textures feel different, but we perceive their unity through formal elements such as line.
Again, the bark and the back are not just alike, these qualities speaks to their reflective relationship. Like a mirror, they create each other because they both exist. While that may sound like an overly dramatic tautology, it actually means that the bark and the back, like the apple and the legs, are interdependent–unable to exist without the other. They (nature and the human body) constitute each other.
Earlier, I treated the body and nature, tree roots and foot, as if they were ‘different subjects,’ separated from each other in an ontological manner, but can it be that Visual Exercises protests this sundering of humanity from nature? I think so. Brodowicz strives to show the unity between them, which presumes there is separation to bridge.
Consider the origins of ecological crises that we know today–climate change, pollution, etc.–I think it is safe to say the root cause of humanity’s troubled relationship with planet Earth comes from a fear of the body, of anything natural, what is “ugly”–“contorted” and “weird,” to cite Alice Walker again. Fear of what is different because it symbolizes death, this fear translates into a chauvinism toward the earth (anthropocentrism) that leads humanity to believe in a fundamental separation between itself and nature.
Of the many, many things that can and have been said about this troubled relationship between humanity and nature, many of us will relate to a certain disconnection from the environment. This series works to repair this severage with great effect. By calling us to identify with bodies, we at the same time identify with nature. We come to sympathize with the mood and emotion of roots and plants, what prior to the diptych might be abstract. Nature becomes vulnerable, emotionally relatable in a way that makes it knowable on a plane of equality. Nature then reflects back on the body, and there is no longer such thing as a flawed, imperfect body.
Part of what makes Brodowicz’s art so moving is promoting body positivity and self love, healing that comes through reconnecting with nature, of seeing oneself as belonging to a whole instead of steeped in isolation.
Viewers will notice a tone of sanctity in these images; that is perhaps how the quest for unity sounds in a world where the human body and nature are fractured apart by ideologies that promote self-alienation. Poet, essayist, activity bell hooks writes widely about how separation from nature goes hand-and-hand with alienation and violence. In her anti-mountaintop removal essay, “Moved by Mountains” hooks writes:
“Estrangement from our natural environment is the cultural contest wherein violence against the earth is accepted and normalize. If we do not see earth as a guide to divine spirit, then we cannot see that the human spirit is violated, diminished when humans violate and destroy the natural environment.”
In short, alienation from ‘our natural environment’ promotes and normalizes violence against the earth and any property of it (including human bodies). To counter this process, hooks argues for the deep unity between humanity and nature. Unity leads us away from ‘estrangement,’ toward peace and love.
Repairing this estrangement is beautiful. “Visual Exercises” shows us that nature and and humanity are tied together through composition, or that our composition contains such striking, integral similarities that prove our deep relationship. It is not one or the other, humanity versus nature. There must be both, a dipythic.