Joanna Piotrowska is a visual artist and photographer, born in 1985 in Warsaw. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and the Royal College of Art in London. She lives and works in London and Warsaw.
In her projects, Joanna Piotrowska uses what we associate with comfort and safety to take a glimpse under the dark lining of reality. Through the lens of her work, growing up becomes an act of brutal self-taming, a safe home – a cheap, makeshift shelter, an exotic holiday – a theatre of cultural-economic violence. And even the roses in her sophisticated still-lifes hide thorns.
Piotrowska gained recognition on the local scene as an undergraduate student for her work titled 5128. The idea behind it was born when the artist went to her great-grandparents’ house in the village of Bartoszowina, only to find ruins on the spot where it once stood. The series 5128 was created in the Bieszczady Mountains, and its title refers to the numerous houses which, according to pre-war maps, were located in the area traversed by the artist. After 1947’s ‘Operation Vistula’, during which thousands of representatives of ethnic minorities were displaced from this area, only traces of most of the settlements remain. These traces are not necessarily architectural – sometimes the seemingly most transient turns out to be the longest lasting. Thus Piotrowska did not photograph the remnants of the foundations, but the plants growing unexpectedly in the groves of an orchard or wild roses, forming rectangles marking the boundaries of former plots of land in the forest thicket and rising towards the sun, not at all resembling their neatly trimmed ancestors.
The door to an international career was opened thanks to Piotrowska’s next project, the FROWST series, completed in London and published in 2014 as a photobook. This time, the artist focused her attention not on the traces left by people, but on interpersonal relations, and specifically those of families. She focused on less pleasant ones based on oppressive domination or unhealthy dependence. Though the artist used the black and white aesthetics associated with documentalism, and her models are actually related to each other, FROWST is not a documentary. The photographer did not observe her characters in everyday situations; instead she created situations by modelling her characters in front of the lens. She used the method of family constellations by the German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger (considered by many as a pseudo-therapeutic psychodrama).
Using photographic pantomime with psychodrama elements, Piotrowska draws psychological portraits of her characters, focusing not on facial expressions and physiognomy but on gestures and body language. She reaches the truth in a roundabout way, building at the same time situations distilled from reality and artificial, like scenes of stuffed animals in natural history museums.
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The photographer’s taste in set design sometimes seems almost surreal. Piotrowska often places her protagonists in home interiors, although they are a far cry from home cosiness. Flattened by the camera’s flash and the black and white palette, the interiors covered with shiny panelling and filled with patterned bedspreads, carpets, lace curtains and napkins become cramped, claustrophobic and disturbing.
This type of interior is also the setting for the action of her subsequent series, based on a similar photographic strategy. In s.w.a.l.k the photographs feature teenagers, girls aged between 11 and 17 years old, reproducing poses from an old self-defence textbook. The photographs do not, however, resemble stop frames from films like Karate Kid. The photographed girls look as if they are bending under an attacking, often invisible force. The gestures of self-defence become a choreography of self-discipline. The artist used this feature of the gestures to create a choreographic performance titled Self-defence.
The s.w.a.l.k series refers, among others, to the book In a Different Voice by the American feminist and psychologist Carol Gilligan, which looks at how young girls learn self-discipline and adapt to social norms. Thus, Piotrowska once again created a posed yet extremely realistic and insightful group portrait. It is a peculiar atlas of adolescence, with an emphasis on its dark sides – emotional distraction or a sense of discomfort in one’s own body, which starts to feel like mismatched clothes.
The feeling of danger in a seemingly safe situation is also evoked from another black and white series entitled Frantic. In this case, the surroundings have ceased to play the role of stage design that enhances the suffocating atmosphere and have become the main narrative medium. The characters featured in the photographs taken in London, Warsaw, Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro are homeless people in their makeshift shelters made of personal objects. They resemble fortresses from children’s games but the structures are built by the homeless to protect themselves from the cold and rain. The creators of the constructions do not look like they are having fun. They seem to be helplessly waiting for an inevitable catastrophe, like the protagonists of Lars von Trier’s Melancholy, waiting for a cosmic catastrophe in a home made from a few sticks.
Frantic is also a series of peculiar psychological portraits, but this time the characters are told about the objects they collect and the constructions they make – shelters pedantically finished or nonchalantly or even carelessly built of two elements available at hand. It is also another kind of collective portrait, a representation of universal helplessness and fear, everyday life lurking in fear of a climatic disaster and global conflict.
The How Are You project, carried out in Kenya in 2015, distinguishes itself from the previous formally coherent black and white series. It stands out not only because of its lively colours – home interiors have been replaced here by an anonymous room in a cheap hotel, filled with only a few simple pieces of furniture with a bed and a mosquito net hanging above it. Instead of cool perfection and symmetry, the frames are characterized by certain randomness. Shots posed in a manner typical to Piotrowska are accompanied by blurred shutters, with the characters cut off in the frame or captured in half motion. Finally, next to a group of Kenyan men behind the lens, it is no longer the photographer's friends who appear, but the photographer herself.
In the post-colonial Kenyan landscape, it is men – who, unlike Piotrowska, pose naked without exception – who become objectified sexual objects. For a short moment, global capitalism and neo-colonialism prevail over patriarchy. The photographic story by Piotrowska is close to films such as Paradise: Love by Ulrich Seidl, telling the story of African sex tourism practised by middle-class representatives of the global North. Again, however, Piotrowska is not interested in documenting, but in bringing out the widest possible range of real emotions, this time including her own discomfort, from the staged situation.
The exceptional in terms of form visual essay entitled The Black Garden, which is somewhat of a distant after-image of 5128, published in Frieze magazine together with a text written by Harry Thorne, is also connected with working through one’s own fears. In this work, Piotrowska moved the lens back from people to plants, but this time that was not entirely her own choice. Furthermore, this time the aesthetically sophisticated photographs of flowers have nothing to do with trite still-lifes. The photographs shot in a London garden recall a story that took place in the mountains of the Caucasus, in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh – a disputed territory between Azerbaijan and Armenia, formally belonging to the former, in practice a separate country, though not recognised by any other government.
During the trip, the photographer was arrested and accused of… being a Russian spy. Before she was released from long interrogations (as there was no evidence against her), she had to ‘prove’ that she was an artist and take a few photos under military supervision. So she directed the camera at the potentially safest, most innocent object in sight – blossoming roses. Once again, idyllic appearances hide a traumatic story, this time one which is extremely personal.
As a rule, Piotrowska’s work is as far as possible from commercial, glamorous fashion photography, and she uses the aesthetics of a documentary only when it comes to form. Both these genres, however, have been devoured by the photographer in a unique way in the Never is a Long Time project. During a month-long residency in Latvia, the photographer took portraits of patients leaving a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics near Kuldīga. In cooperation with the fashion editor of Dazed & Confused magazine, Elizabeth Fraser-Bell, Piotrowska tried to undermine the rules of fashion photography by introducing people who – for most photographers – would, at best, become models in the convention of a social documentary, as fashion models.
Selected solo exhibitions:
- Stable Vices, Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, Switzerland
- All Our False Devices, Tate Britain, London, United Kingdom
- Condo Mexico City 2018, Arredondo\Arozarena / Dawid Radziszewski Gallery, Mexico
- Art Basel/Statements, Dawid Radziszewski Gallery, Basel, Switzerland
- Frowst, Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, Kraków Photomonth
- How Are You, Bookstore, Exhibition, Kraków
- s.w.a.l.k Project Space, Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland, United Kingdom
- 5128, zpafgallery, Kraków
Selected group exhibitions:
- Antarctica: An Exhibition on Alienation, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria
- SUPERSTITION, Museum Marres, Maastricht, the Netherlands
- Structures of Meaning | Architectures of perception, GRoom, Sadie Coles, London, United Kingdom
- Give Me Yesterday, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italyateway, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
- Sculptures, Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York, USA
- 10th Berlin Biennale We Don’t Need Another Hero, Berlin, Germany
- Being: New Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York, United States
- Room, Sadie Coles, London, United Kingdom
- Give Me Yesterday, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy