Joanna Piotrowska’s photographs make our everyday world seem strange and unsettling – and the art world can’t get enough of them
Joanna Piotrowska works with the strange and contradictory power of silence. Voiceless bodies touch, stiffen and submit; a woman indicates where she is most vulnerable on her collarbone. People interact in unusual ways. Her images of objects are equally bizarre: she photographs toys used to stimulate animals in captivity. Elsewhere, roses pictured in a disputed conflict zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Piotrowska was accused of espionage and questioned in 2015, are delicately sagging.
The acclaimed artist, born in Poland in 1985 and now based in London, examines oppressive social and psychological constructs in grayscale. The last few years have been incredibly busy for Piotrowska, with a string of big shows at MoMA, Tate London and Kunsthalle Basel. Currently, her work is exhibited at the Venice Biennale, and she is also the subject of solo exhibitions at the Kestner Gesellschaft Museum in Hannover and the non-profit association ARCH in Athens. In September, she will be included in the Biennale de Lyon, and she is working on a solo exhibition scheduled for March 2023 at Hagiwara Projects in Tokyo.
Piotrowska’s work oscillates between black and white photography and film, drawing a comparison with documented performance or sculpture. “It’s always very exciting to find these territories where photography can be seen or can exist in a slightly different and new form,” Piotrowska told Artnet News.
Besides Piotrowska’s interest in non-verbal language (photography first intrigued her for a “certain form of stillness”), she also likes to express herself in writing, and literature is another of her passions. . Initially reluctant to speak on a video call for this story, Piotrowska noted that she tended to do written interviews where she could spend a day on each question. “I work very slowly and try to look at everything from every possible angle,” she said. In the end, she did both: write answers to questions and speak during our call to respond to others.
This listening approach is evident throughout his artistic creation process. Piotrowska’s photography and film installations are always “carefully thought out” and mapped out, said her longtime dealer Phillida Reid, co-founder of Southard Reid in London. She described Piotrowska as a high-level performer who “can be detached…but completely understands all the emotions that make up the psychology or the human elements within it.”
Near and far
The idea of detachment is inseparable from Piotrowska’s work, with her unfettered depictions reminiscent of oddly poetic demonstrations in the manner of a guide. This is no coincidence: his photographic series of women and young girls posing in self-defense positions is inspired by a manual, which features men in the same poses.
“When I look through the lens, sometimes I feel like I’m looking at other species,” Piotrowska said. The artist said that black-and-white photography “corresponds to this kind of cold observation”.
By placing less emphasis on the individual with her surprisingly unique style of detachment and what she calls the “observational” aesthetic, Piotrowska explained that she is better able to understand what interests her: “how we all participate in the oppressive systems we create”.
But as in life, with its arm’s length approach comes its contradictory opposite, a sense of intimacy. “I think those two are very close,” she said. “Everything I work on is quite personal and close to my heart.”
In his works too, things are not what they seem at first sight. In the series “Frowst,” a title that refers to “suffocation” or “comfort,” family members are seen in the house, placed in awkward and sometimes disturbing physical proximity. The project stems from her experiences growing up in Poland, a nation she has described as a conservative and rigid society. It examines the contradictions inherent in “a family institution”, which, according to the artist, can “be very nurturing and supportive, but also often quite an oppressive environment, in quite a hidden way”.
Piotrowska has also spoken out on women’s rights and access to abortion, donating limited-edition photographs to raise funds for the cause in Poland. His work manages to address hot political topics through hidden innuendo. “When I think of politics, I think of notions of ambiguity, nuance, hidden, repressed, indirect, stiff or rigid, so it makes sense that these notions show up in the way political subjects are depicted in my works. “, she writes.
For his current exhibition “Sub-Rose,” at ARCH, which includes photographs of roses taken in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Piotrowska recalls how military police followed her as she documented an abandoned town, destroyed by the fighting and overgrown with flowers. She was subjected to intense interrogation by officials.
“At the same time, I was compelled to continue photographing,” she said. “I didn’t want to make my situation worse, so I decided to censor myself and turn away from the conflict or any political aspect of this place. The only safe subject was flowers, so I started shooting roses.
Piotrowska has steadily gained recognition since graduating from the Royal College of Art in London in 2013. “She’s an artist’s artist,” said Natalie Gaida, director of Galerie Thomas Zander, which also represents Piotrowska. “I think the main interest came [early] museums, because all curators love work. She said collectors, including younger millennials of the artist’s generation, are drawn to her sensibility as an artist.
Dealers Southard Reid and Galerie Thomas Zander have said that Piotrowska’s work is in high demand which cannot always be met. (The artist also works with the Polish gallery Dawid Radziweski and the Galeria Madragoa in Portugal.) A turning point occurred at the time of his exhibition at the MoMa in 2018 and the double whammy of 2019 at the Tate, in Great Britain and at the Kunsthalle Basel.
“Its collectors are very special,” Gaida said. “When they buy his work, it’s really from the heart, and not just to invest, which is good.”
Piotrowska’s gelatin silver prints are offered in small limited editions of one to seven prints, plus artist’s proofs. And while they can be acquired individually they are often sold in unique groups of five works related to his museum installations. Prices range from €5,000 ($5,078) to around €50,000 ($50,782) for groups of works.
Her work is generally most visible in Europe, an observation that Gaida attributes to her wider recognition coming just at the time of the pandemic, while travel restrictions kept her on the continent. But that is changing. “From the beginning, there has always been a regular collection [of Piotrowska’s work] of America,” noted Reid, who presented a solo booth of Pietrowska’s works at Frieze LA earlier this year.
Find the voice with ‘Sub Rosa’
Channeling her traumatic experience into Nagorno-Karabakh for the first time in this form, Piotrowska said, “‘Sub Rosa’ is actually my most personal work”, and her first collaboration. In collaboration with the designers of Formafantasma, she created sculptural steel frames for the interrogation room, which enclose and hold Piotrowska’s rose photographs. The prints are not covered with glass and sometimes wrap around the metal barrier/frames which suffocate them.
The series is “significant work for me, a natural continuation of my interest in how photography can be presented in a sculptural way,” said Piotrowska, which she has already done to varying degrees. “How images are set up has always been a big part of my practice, and I always work with space first,” she said, comparing the act to a performance, where the construction of the image is secondary.
Moreover, “after seven years of detention”, Piotrowska said ‘Sub Rosa’ allowed her to ‘own’ the experience of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ‘there was no one to turn to for help’ and where she felt ‘vulnerable and speechless”. There are no Polish or British embassies or international organizations in the unrecognized region.
With this new series, which will travel to the Southard Reid gallery in London in October around Frieze, “self-censorship, and keeping myself quiet have become something opposite… It has turned into something ‘pretty vocal.’
Writing to me at one point, Piotrowska described her artistic practice as “life driven”. She said she was looking for a “ignition moment” that stems from lived experiences, a moment that is intuitive and precedes rational thought. “Feeling with the body or looking with my eyes, seeing children playing, being questioned by the police, watching brothers hugging,” are such examples, she said. “There is so much hidden meaning in everyday life, in simple situations, gestures.”
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