Writing: On the Work of Joanna Piotrowska

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On s.w.a.l.k by George Vasey

Written for Piotrowska’s solo exhibition at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland in 2014.

In Roman Polanski’s film The Tenant,1976, the protagonist (played by Polanski himself) becomes increasingly harangued by his neighbours to the point of frozen paranoia. We’re never quite sure what is real and imagined, nightmare or actual horror. The film, the third in a trilogy (including Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion), suggests that the apartment is cursed by some malevolent spirit. The home, for Polanski, is the last space of refuge and often becomes a site of physical as well as mental trauma. We often project our darkest fears and desires onto architecture, and task it with its own agency and for Polanski the apartment is society’s psychic underbelly.

The young Polish photographer, Joanna Piotrowska, similarly to Polanski, wrings psychological drama out of the domestic. Piotrowska’s black and white photographs document domestic spaces where no-one ever feels quite at home. The persistent use of flash flattens the pictorial space, conflating the subject’s body with the surrounding topology. The architecture in Piotrowsk’a photographs feels animated while the body is frigid, or ossified. Of course, photography is both mute and static, and these two qualities are often enhanced within the images. Significantly, it can be difficult to place the photographs, the airless interiors and clothing could be taken from any era during the last 100 years.

Piotrowska doesn’t view her photographs as documentary images but rather documents from performances. The body is always misbehaving, instructions translated through the body are always open to interpretation. As such, Piotrowska’s work isn’t about a documentarist impulse to identify and represent but rather a more abstracted interrogation into embodied agency. It is not what is said, but how it is said. Piotrowska’s new work offer images of people involved in oblique dances inspired by self-defence poses next to pictures of animal enclosures. Many of the scenes take place inside an inscrutable house furnished entirely in varnished wood. The flash picks up the grain of every surface, each part of the image busy with detail. The new work extends Piotrowska’s dominant preoccupation with issues of domesticity and containment. Each work seems to pinpoint the moment when intimacy moves towards the claustrophobic.

In one photograph, two hands are clenched by what seems to be an older man (deduced by the hairier arms). The image has been tightly cropped, removing any contextual information other than the fists and arms. Do the hairless arms belong to a woman or a boy? The older male hands are doing two separate things. The left hand is grabbing the other person’s wrist aggressively while the right hand is defensively blocking a clenched fist. It is a typical Piotrowska gesture — the image is giving us two separate messages. In a society that closely polices the body’s actions (when to conceal or reveal it, when to stand still, or walk and run). The ambivalent subjects in Piotrowska’s work feel radical in their irresolution. A body that is telling us two different things has the ability to shift its communicative focus and carve out new possibilities. In the new works there is a great emphasis on cropping, which is both physical and metaphorical. Each image resists easy assimilation, like reading a book with the pages torn out, the images are enigmas. Piotrowska is adept at using the conventions of photography (flash, cropping and composition) to make images that feel inexhaustible in their potential readings.

One can draw parallels between the use of their body by figures such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Piotrowska’s interest in gesture. Slaptick is a form of bodily semaphore, where the body is tasked with a communicative agency. In the photographs the body does the job of the face which often remains either concealed or emotionless. Erving Goffman’s famous analysis of movement in social situations articulated the coded nature of seemingly inconsequential and improvised movement. The awkwardness of the social is played out significantly in Piotrowska’s work, like Keaton, the body is graceless and decontextualised. The body is often an impediment and offers an opaque counterpoint to the elegance of bodily representation found in advertising.

The unease is often palpable in Piotrowska’s work — elbows, knees, hips and legs become unwieldy prosthesis. The focus of Piotrowska’s attention is the grammar of everyday action; hugging, grabbing, leaning and kissing — signifiers of emotion are translated into a type of caricature. Piotrowska’s photographs provide a megaphone that amplifies the silent language of the gestural. Piotrowska uses the silence of photography to find a new type of vocality.

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