The Body Merges with Pain: Corporeality in the Works of Krystyna Melnyk

12 february, 2024

Anna Kovalenko

Depicting pain is no simple matter; many artists narrate their stories through this phenomenon, with only some creating an image that causes real empathy and a sense of relatedness. Krystyna Melnyk is one of the young Ukrainian visual artists who works with the issue of painful experience that finds expression in the body while also doing it highly skilfully. Some of her works I got a chance to witness myself at the current exhibition When All the Good Became Good and Left and the Evil Released in the Kyiv-based gallery The Naked Room.

At first glance, Melnyk’s works somehow resembled the canonic suffering of Jesus depicted on the Christian icons, but if, in the case of Jesus, the observer does know the Christian myth behind the image, in the case of her pieces, there is no explicit background story as to why the subject experiences an interaction with such outer power as pain. The artist herself seems to be aware of this resemblance: some of the artwork titles reference Christian vocabulary, such as  Altarpiece X. There is a sequence behind the Roman numerals we see in the titles — those are part of a bigger work that the artist has been recently working on, a large altar. The inspirations for it were drawn from different epochs: from the Northern Renaissance visual narratives to artists like Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and Gerhard Richter.

Krystyna Melnyk. Altarpieces IV & VIII, levkas and oil on canvas. 2023 All photos courtesy: the author.
Melnyk does touch the realm of sacred feelings not only metaphysically: the artist has been using levkas/gesso (a paint mixture to coat the surfaces like wooden panels) and soil, along with oil, as the materials for her pieces. Those are usually used in icon paintings and allow for more durability of works and, thus, can witness longer periods of their creation. From the actual materials to the metaphorical senses, the leitmotif of the sacred fills the room of the gallery with a light feeling that the candles are about to be lit and the church incense should soon be inhaled as the divine is unfolding right in front of our eyes.

The gallery name — the Naked Room — gains a whole new meaning with this exhibition. Melnyk managed to conquer the space with both the tranquility of her works and the intensity of the bare presence of “naked,” uncovered forces in them, one being the actual naked body of a subject whose identity we are yet to discover. Here comes in handy the notion of “intra-action” by Karen Barad (they/them), an American physicist and theorist in the field of feminist science studies. Their neologism was originally produced in terms of physics studies, gaining a wide interest throughout different fields of thought like ecocritical literary studies and can overall be applied to the translation of visual arts nowadays, too. Barad proposes the term “intra-action” as an alternative to interaction: while interaction assumes that bodies exist as subjects independently before interaction occurs between them, intra-action understands that individuals only gain agency through intra-acting with each other, and agency itself is not “an inherent property, but a dynamism of forces.” In When All the Good Became Good… body and suffering find expression only through their action towards one another. This does not in any way imply that the body does not possess agency of its own — this does highlight the fact that in Melnyk’s works, the agency of the body is defined by the medium of pain it goes through.

Let’s look closer at one of the Altarpiece sequences, the one under number X. The distortion of the subject’s lips catches attention. “What causes this disturbance?” — a natural question pops up in my head. And the very first reaction my neural connections produce is pain. Neither I know, nor do I need the details of the background story — there is an obvious “dynamism of forces” in the image I feel distinctively. Yet I can not but wonder where one of them, the pain, came from, deforming the human.
Krystyna Melnyk. Altarpiece X, levkas and oil on canvas. 2023.
The curatorial text reads: “Influenced by Georges Bataille, and in particular his text Story of the Eye, Melnyk seeks to convey a sense of the sacred through the idea of the suffering body as described by the philosopher. Tenderness and even admiration for this body, despite its fatal deformity, are the feelings that engulf an observer of the artist's works. Because it is through the experience of pain, suffering and disgust that one can get closer to humanity…”

I do not find a certain visual answer as to why the subject intra-acts with the suffering, yet I do find the divine suffering is indeed present in the pieces. People suffer every single day and so many stories are left untold, unnoticed, deep down in the sorrows of a wounded storyteller’s mind and body. They get stuck there, they accumulate, they mute person even more in their suffering. They seem to become the core identity of a human who physically can not/ is scared/ feels not privileged enough to tell their story. Krystyna Melnyk speaks out loud for the ones in pain (whatever its origin is) and subtly yet loudly states its presence in our lives. 

Arthur Frank, a researcher who devoted himself to studying illness experience and suffering, in his The Wounded Storyteller says that “the mind does not rest above the body but is diffused throughout it.” Same with the untold story of pain. It becomes diffused in the body. Only some find the strength to gather the molecules of pain together and voice them out. It goes beyond the body. The voice that liberates, or at least eases pain a bit. The voice that helps others relate. And this is what Melnyk is doing — reaches out to me with the voice of the pain through its visual realisation.

One more thing that connects all the pieces like a red thread is the vulnerability of Melnyk’s bodies. While for many centuries, humanity nurtured the idea of our agency being above other living beings — we are finally making progress in accepting that we are no more than a vulnerable organism. We are only now slowly and cowardly stepping aside from the human-centered, anthropocentric point of view, allowing the idea that there are other powers present in the universe. The theoretical concepts of exposure and transcorporeality by Stacy Alaimo, a scholar and writer in ecocultural studies and material feminism, come to my mind while I am in the gallery space. According to the ideas of Alaimo, our body does not exist on its own — it is constantly being shaped by interactions with other forces and subjects.
Krystyna Melnyk. Altarpiece II, levkas and oil on wood. 2023.

Looking into the works through the lens of Alaimo’s ideas, Melnyk’s altarpieces confirm that we are indeed transcorporeal creatures.  The notion itself contains the essence of the concept as the prefix trans- in Latin means “across, beyond” and the corpus — “material/concrete object/body.” These combined suggest that the physical body can be “crossed”, entered, and affected by outer influences, and so transcorporeality suggests the fluidity of the body. The body in Melnyk’s paintings is exposed and defenseless, and this, once again, reminds me of the Christian icons — after the full-scale invasion, the author started defining herself as an iconographer rather than an artist. While the subject is a separate entity in the pieces of Melnyk, it is still deeply affected by pain that materializes in the wounds' fluid borders, questioning its autonomy and integrity. In Altarpiece II, I distinguish the neck and shoulders of a human being, but they are in the process of transformation — the borders of the body are slowly vanishing as if becoming liquid or melting down.

A tender body in pain is a great example of transcorporeal experience, the one that Stacy Alaimo explains in her Bodily Natures: “Imagining human corporeality as trans-corporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, underlines the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment.’”

Through the connections with other powers, we do feel that the body is transcorporeal — it transforms itself due to the changes around and experiences it goes through. Alaimo says: “bodies extend into places and places affect bodies.” This is relevant for both the images that depict the body melting into the realm of pain and the gallery's space. The place impacts us with Melnyk's works on the level of the body and sensations through empathy, calling for attention. In Altarpieces and other presented works, the human and pain merge, giving rise to a new sense of self-perception, and the artworks convey this message gracefully.

When All the Good Became Good and Left and the Evil Released is on view at The Naked Room (21 Reytarska Street, Kyiv) through February 28, 2024.

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