Diana Lelonek is a visual artist who combines photography, installation art, and bio-art. She is currently working on a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Art Institute in Poznań.
Lelonek previously studied photography at the Art Institute in Poznań – it was her main medium at the beginning of her career. With time, she expanded her practice to other media. She has always been interested in the relationship between man and the environment, or, to say it more grandiloquently, between culture and nature.
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One of Lelonek’s first attempts to capture this theme was her work titled Long Before – a series of eight photographs first shown in 2014 at the now defunct Lookout art gallery in Warsaw. Two types of photos interweave in this project – portraits and para-documentary scenes, both quite uncanny. In the portraits, Lelonek obscured that which is often considered as most important in portraits – the faces of the models, as she covered them with dirt or with layers of moss.
The effect resembles Ewa Juszkiewicz’s works in which colourful Polyporus mushrooms grow on the faces of baroque ladies. Other photographs resemble stills from nature documentaries. However, instead of animals, we see naked human males running away from the camera like the Biblical Adam, ashamed of his nudity.
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Diana Lelonek, No title, from ‘Yesterday I met a really wild man’ series, 100x80, 2015, photo: courtesy of the artist and lokal_30 gallery
This theme was continued in Lelonek’s next series, 2015’s Yesterday I Met the Really Wild Man. This time, the photographs depicting a group of nudists do not seem to be taken candidly. Instead, they are monumental compositions – a spectacular photographic epic about people who do not merely ‘return’ to nature but rather become a part of it as just another species of animal.
In terms of form, Lelonek’s photos may evoke Zbigniew Libera’s The Exodus of People from the Cities. However, its level of emotionality is entirely different. Libera’s series is a catastrophic, post-apocalyptic vision whereas the atmosphere of Lelonek’s photos is almost idyllic – even though every scene of this idyll is invaded by traces of the Anthropocene. Cities and factories pile up in the backgrounds and telephone lines stretch across deserts. However, ultimately, these elements are not very distinguishable from ordinary flora.
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This apparent equilibrium falters in Lelonek’s subsequent works. This time it is not man who dreams of ‘returning to nature’ – it is the environment that takes revenge against the creations of culture. The artist goes beyond photography in order to not merely depict the elements of nature but to present them in action.
As a part of one of the projects of Klub Krytyki Politycznej in Cieszyn, Lelonek created Bloom in 2016. It is a discreet installation with a political-environmental theme placed in Cieszyn’s city centre. The artist inserted elements of flora from a demolished bus station into flower pots on Głęboka Street. These were clippings from a lush ecosystem created in just a few years in a spot which remained an enclosed, inaccessible and unused piece of land because of a conflict between city officials and an investor planning the construction of a supermarket.
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Ministry of the Environment Overgrown by Central European Mixed Forest, a work for a billboard campaign created by the Sputnik Photos collective as a protest against logging in Białowieża Forest, also had a political character. It depicts exactly what its title describes – a spectacular vision of the environment’s retaliation against the department that governs it.
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Diana Lelonek, ‘Academy parasitized by different kinds of molds and bacteria’, from: ‘Zoe-therapy’ series, 56x70, 2017, photo: courtesy of the artist and lokal_30 gallery
In Lelonek’s next works, the process of expropriation of human creations by other organisms is presented in a less direct manner – but with greater conceptual panache. One of the key works for Lelonek’s evolution as an artist was Zoe-therapy realised in CSW Zamek Ujazdowski’s Project Room.
In a mini-laboratory, the artist animated an organic vendetta against the foundations of an anthropocentric civilisation. Under her watchful eyes, colonies of mushrooms, bacteria, and microbes performed a blitzkrieg on portrayals of the fathers of humanist culture. They knock homo sapiens from our imagined high horse by mercilessly devouring and colonising portraits of Darwin, Husserl, and Aristotle.
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In this work, Lelonek indirectly returned to photography. However, at the same time, she altered it by giving it a bio-art makeover. In subsequent creations, colonies of living organisms react not only with paintings but also with other items. In the A New Archaeology for Liban and Płaszów project, realised during Kraków Photography Month in 2017, Lelonek does not select emblematic figures representing Western culture to be devoured by a microbiological army. Instead, she combines traces of different eras, historical traditions, and orders – both trivial and exceptionally dramatic.
Items found by the artist come from two sites in Krakow – Płaszów Concentration Camp and Liban Quarry. They include pre-historic fossils, elements of the set of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler List which were left behind, and ordinary trash discarded by visitors. All of the items are colonised by microorganisms with equal severity.
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Center for Living Things, Lelonek most famous and monumental project, started in 2016 and still ongoing today, is in a similar spirit. It also has items left behind by humans and colonised by living organisms in its centre. However, in this case, it is not about the era they are from but about the functions they served.
They are items abandoned and no longer needed, dumped in the wild: running shoes, bottles, margarine packages, electronics… What connects them is the fact that they all become elements of a greater biological puzzle when thrown out by humans. At the same time, its elements are that what led to their creation and discarding – the economic system of late capitalism and the attitude towards goods which is, strangely enough, tightly entwined with biological systems.
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Sea-buckthorn Heap, the artist’s latest and probably most interesting work, started in 2018 and is still continuing today. It’s an attempt to answer the questions about the interlacing of ecology, economics and politics which were provoked by Center for the Living Things. However, this time it has a concrete geographic and social foundation – the rehabilitated areas of Greater Poland’s opencast mines.
These areas, made barren due to the mining industry’s activities and turning into steppes because of climate change, are not very welcoming to most plant species. However, one plant feels at home there. Fortunately for humans, it is a plant which is especially rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants – sea-buckthorn. In her project, Lelonek advocates for the region to be rebranded as a producer of sea-buckthorn-based products. Jams and juices made from the plant are, at the same time, an answer to the regional impasse, a medium for speaking about the region’s products and, finally, yet another product of capitalism – no longer based on heavy industries and carbon but on premium regional eco-products. The latter aspect is the most interesting and enriches the work with an unexpectedly autocratic character.
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Selected solo exhibitions:
- 2017 – It Grows for Me, lokal_30 Gallery and Bęc Zmiana Foundation, Warsaw
- A New Archaeology for Liban and Płaszów, MOCAK, Kraków
- 2015 – Yesterday I Met a Really Wild Man, Lookout Gallery, Warsaw
- Zoe-Therapy, CSW Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw
- 2014 – Long Before, Lookout Gallery, Warsaw
Selected group exhibitions:
- 2018 – Najpiękniejsza Katastrofa, CSW Kronika, Bytom
- Cześć, Giniemy!, Galeria Szara, Katowice
- Centralna, Środkowo-Wschodnia, Galeria Arsenał, Białystok
- 1st International Art Biennale RIBOCA, Riga, Latvia
- Pejzaże Antropocenu, Bałtycka Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej, Słupsk
- 2017 – Zeitgeist, lokal_30, Warsaw
- Jest Tak, Jak Się Państwu Wydaje, Galeria Arsenał, Białystok
- Uporczywe Upodobanie, Galeria Labirynt, Lublin
- 2016 – Single Shot, Instytut Fotografii Fort, Warsaw
- Wracając do Białowieży, Galeria Arsenał, Bialystok
- 2014 – Po Deszczu, Galeria Szara, Cieszyn
Originally compiled in Polish by Piotr Policht, Dec 2018, translated by PG, Mar 2019