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Joanna Piotrowska’s photographs make our everyday world seem eerie and unsettling – and the art world can’t get enough of it | Pro Club Bd

Joanna Piotrowska works with the strange, 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 object images are similarly uncanny: she photographs toys that are used to stimulate animals in captivity. Elsewhere, roses photographed in a disputed conflict zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Piotrowska was accused of espionage and interrogated in 2015, hang delicately.

Born in Poland in 1985 and now based in London, the celebrated artist examines oppressive social and psychological constructions in shades of grey. The past few years have been incredibly busy for Piotrowska, with a number of major exhibitions at MoMA, Tate London and Kunsthalle Basel. Her work is currently on view at the Venice Biennale and is also the subject of solo exhibitions at the Kestner Gesellschaft Museum in Hanover and the non-profit ARCH in Athens. In September she will be included in the Lyon Biennale and is working on a solo exhibition planned for March 2023 at Hagiwara Projects in Tokyo.

Piotrowska’s work moves between black and white photography and film and draws comparisons to documented performances or sculptures. “It’s always exciting to find those areas where photography can be seen or exist in a slightly different, new form,” Piotrowska told Artnet News.

Joanna Piotrowska Installation view of “Sleeping Throat Bitter Thirst”, 2022 at the Kestner Gesellschaft. Photo: R. Zakowski.

In addition to Piotrowska’s interest in non-verbal language (photography initially fascinated her because of a ‘certain kind of silence’), she also enjoys expressing herself in writing, and literature is another of her passions. Initially, Piotrowska was reluctant to speak via video call for this story, but noted that she tends to do written interviews, where she can devote a day to each question. “I work very slowly and try to look at everything from every possible perspective,” she said. She ended up doing both: writing answers to questions and talking about our call to answer others.

This coordinated approach is evident throughout their artistic creation process. Piotrowska’s photographic and film installations are always “thoroughly thought out” and elaborate, said her longtime dealer Phillida Reid, co-founder of Southard Reid in London. She described Piotrowska as a high-functioning artist who “can be aloof…but fully understands all the emotions that make up the psychology or the human elements in it.”

Near and far

The idea of ​​detachment is inseparable from Piotrowska’s work, with its unbridled depictions reminiscent of strangely poetic tour guide-style demonstrations. It’s no coincidence: her photographic series of women and young girls posing in self-defense positions were inspired by an instruction manual showing men in the same poses.

“Sometimes when I look through the lens, I feel like I’m seeing a different species,” Piotrowska said. The artist said that black-and-white photography “fits that kind of cold observation.”

By placing less emphasis on the individual, with her strikingly unique style of detachment and what she calls her “observational” aesthetic, Piotrowska explains that she is better able to understand what interests her: “as we all do participate in oppressive systems that we create.”

Joanna Piotrowska installation view from "sleeping throat bitter thirst," 2022 at the Kestner Gesellschaft.  Photo: R. Zakowski.

Joanna Piotrowska Installation view of “Sleeping Throat Bitter Thirst”, 2022 at the Kestner Gesellschaft. Photo: R. Zakowski.

But as in life, with their arm’s length approach comes their contradictory opposite, a sense of intimacy. “I think the two are very close,” she said. “Everything I work on is very personal and close to my heart.”

In her works of art, too, things are not as they first appear. In the series Frowst, a title that refers to a stifling “stuffiness” or “coziness,” family members are seen indoors, in uncomfortable and sometimes disturbing physical proximity. The project stems from her experiences growing up in Poland, a nation she described as a conservative and rigid society. It deals with the inherent contradictions of a “family institution” which the artist said can be “very enriching and supportive, but also often a quite oppressive environment in a very covert way”.

Piotrowska has also been vocal about women’s rights and access to abortion, donating limited edition photos to raise money for the cause in Poland. Her work manages to address hot political issues through lurking overtones. “When I think about politics, I think of notions of ambiguity, nuance, concealment, oppression, indirect, rigid or fixed stance, so it makes sense that these notions appear in my work’s depiction of political issues,” she wrote.

Johanna Piotrowska Untitled (2014). Courtesy of Kunsthalle Basel.

For her current exhibition “Sub Rosa”, Speaking to ARCH, which includes photos of roses taken in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Piotrowska recalls being followed by military police as she documented an abandoned town ravaged by fighting and overgrown with flowers was. She was intensively interrogated by officials.

“At the same time, I was forced to keep taking pictures,” 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 sure subject was flowers, so I started photographing roses.”


sight range

Piotrowska has steadily gained recognition since graduating from the Royal College of Art in London 2013. “She’s an artist,” says Natalie Gaida, director of Galerie Thomas Zander, which also represents Piotrowska. “I think the main interest came [early] of museums because all curators love the job.” She said collectors – including younger millennials of the artist generation – are drawn to her sensibilities as an artist.

The two dealers, Southard Reid and Galerie Thomas Zander, said Piotrowska’s work was in high demand, which could not always be fulfilled. (The artist also works with Polish gallery Dawid Radziszewski and Galeria Madragoa in Portugal.) A turning point occurred around the time of her exhibition at MoMa 2018 and the 2019 double whammy at Tate, Britain and Kunsthalle Basel.

Joanna Piotrowska installation view from "sleeping throat bitter thirst," 2022 at the Kestner Gesellschaft.  Photo: R. Zakowski.

Joanna Piotrowska Installation view of “Sleeping Throat Bitter Thirst”, 2022 at the Kestner Gesellschaft. Photo: R. Zakowski.

“Your collectors are very special,” Gaida said. “When they buy their work, it’s really from the heart and not just as an investment, 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 she can be purchased they are individual frequently sold in unique groups of five works that resemble their museum installations. Prices range from €5,000 ($5,078) to around €50,000 ($50,782) for groups of works.

Her work is generally more visible in Europe, an observation Gaida attributes to her wider recognition during the pandemic while travel restrictions kept her stuck on the continent. But that is changing. “From the very beginning there was always a lot of collecting [of Piotrowska’s work] from America,” noted Reid, who had a standalone booth featuring Pietrowska’s work at Frieze LA earlier this year.

Find your voice with “Sub Rosa”

Channels her traumatic experience Nagorno-Karabakh For the first time in this form, Piotrowska said: “‘Sub Rosa’ is actually my most personal work” and their first collaboration. Together with the designers of Formafantasma, she created sculptural steel frames for interrogation rooms that enclose and hold Piotrowska’s rose photographs. The prints are not covered with glass and sometimes curl around the metal barriers/frames smothering them.

The series is “an important work for me, a natural continuation of my interest in how photography can be presented in a sculptural way,” said Piotrowska – something she has already done to varying degrees. “How the images are installed has always been a big part of my practice, and I always work with the space first,” she said, comparing the action to a performance where the construction of the image is secondary.

“Sub Rosa” at ARCH, Athens. Photo: Paris Tavitian.

Also, “after seven years of detention” Piotrowska said Sub Rosa allowed her to “take ownership” of the experience in Nagorno-Karabakh, where “there was no one I could turn to for help” and where she felt “vulnerable and speechless.” There is no Polish or British embassy or international organization in the unrecognized region.

With this new series, set to travel to London’s Southard Reid Gallery in October centered around the Frieze, “the self-censorship and silence has become something of the opposite… It’s turned into something quite vocal.”

Piotrowska once wrote to reply, describing her artistic practice as “life-driven”. She said she seeks an “ignition moment” that comes from lived experience, a moment that is intuitive and precedes rational thinking. “Feel with your body or look with your eyes, see children play, be interrogated by the police, see brothers hug,” she said. “There is so much hidden meaning in everyday life, in simple situations, gestures.”

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