Meeting Joanna Piotrowska // Hester

In her first London solo exhibition, Joanna Piotrowska presents Hester as she continues to explore the relationship between body, psyche and domestic space. Following on from her series Frowst, she continues in her melancholic exploration of the tensions that exist in the universal idea of family and the domestic environments that forcedly manipulate our identity.  The sense of the reactive nature of humans remains present, reverberating in the space between entrapment and freedom. Disorder is very much at the surface of Frowst – vibrations of unscripted spontaneity, violence and escape that appear fleetingly before we assume familiar positions in the theatre of domesticity.

Warsaw-born-but-London-based photographer Joanna Piotrowska’s select and painstakingly curated series explores the ideas of physical and psychological disorder and reimagines the domestic space in surreal images of isolation that carry the ambiguous threat of violence. The universality of domestic relations is central to her images, the uncertainty surrounding our view of familial spaces and the fine line between willingness and entrapment are inescapable in Hester.

Greeted at the gallery door by an achingly melancholic photograph of an empty animal cage, the effect of isolation is immediate. The eye is drawn to the corner, to the rigidity of the suspended barred cage. “I find it so weird that we trap animals in cages; it says a lot about how we treat each other,” the elfin and unassuming Joanna confesses to me. “I was really attracted to this one cage, a giraffe cage, there is something really similar in this image to the images of the domestic spaces.”

Hester provides a black and white series – a technique creating an atmosphere associated with spaces used for psychological studies of human behaviour. “Black and white really makes you focus more on the forms and on the body. I started to do the Frowst series in colour but when I saw the reds, blues and greens, those colours were very distracting. I wanted to limit it so the viewer could focus only on the bodies and the sculptural forms.” The images, particularly the interiors, still carry a density, a saturation of tones that augments the captivity of domesticity. “It makes it more melancholic, and brings a sense of loneliness as well. Isolation in domestic space and between people.”

Joanna’s interiors present a space for interaction that is empty of subject or the comfortably preoccupying furniture we expect in a domestic environment. The rooms in fact seem to want to be filled to distract from their isolation. One cannot avoid but to focus on the emptiness and the potential for unknown happenings we so willingly fill in with ordinary, banal scenes of imagined domesticity – yet the confinement in the images unsettles our familiar projections. The camera focuses on the confinement of corners, and picks up oppressive, geometric patterns in the floor and walls. Her habitual heavy flash creates a painterly effect in the glass doors creating a gently unsettling impasto of fragmentation that propels you from the enclosing corner. Constant glimpses of stairs tease the eye and the subject by hinting at a release, yet only lead to a blank, solid wall with perverse disturbing humour. “It’s her house actually,” says Johanna, speaking of the female subject that fills this confining homestead – a surprising insight considering her alienated form and uncomfortable, repelling pose.  “Most people I photograph are my friends. It’s an advantage because I know them well and they trust me so I feel comfortable trying new things, unlike trying to make strangers pose in awkward poses.” Though she keeps her connections familiar, she reveals she would one-day work with people she didn’t know to see if the effects would differ, perhaps showing a more natural defence.

Hester provides a black and white series – a technique creating an atmosphere associated with spaces used for psychological studies of human behaviour. “Black and white really makes you focus more on the forms and on the body. I started to do the Frowst series in colour but when I saw the reds, blues and greens, those colours were very distracting. I wanted to limit it so the viewer could focus only on the bodies and the sculptural forms.” The images, particularly the interiors, still carry a density, a saturation of tones that augments the captivity of domesticity. “It makes it more melancholic, and brings a sense of loneliness as well. Isolation in domestic space and between people.”

Joanna’s interiors present a space for interaction that is empty of subject or the comfortably preoccupying furniture we expect in a domestic environment. The rooms in fact seem to want to be filled to distract from their isolation. One cannot avoid but to focus on the emptiness and the potential for unknown happenings we so willingly fill in with ordinary, banal scenes of imagined domesticity – yet the confinement in the images unsettles our familiar projections. The camera focuses on the confinement of corners, and picks up oppressive, geometric patterns in the floor and walls. Her habitual heavy flash creates a painterly effect in the glass doors creating a gently unsettling impasto of fragmentation that propels you from the enclosing corner. Constant glimpses of stairs tease the eye and the subject by hinting at a release, yet only lead to a blank, solid wall with perverse disturbing humour. “It’s her house actually,” says Johanna, speaking of the female subject that fills this confining homestead – a surprising insight considering her alienated form and uncomfortable, repelling pose.  “Most people I photograph are my friends. It’s an advantage because I know them well and they trust me so I feel comfortable trying new things, unlike trying to make strangers pose in awkward poses.” Though she keeps her connections familiar, she reveals she would one-day work with people she didn’t know to see if the effects would differ, perhaps showing a more natural defence.

The large, rural home was shot in Poland, where the artist creates all of her work and captures the condensed captivity so heavily weighted in the images. “I try to create a sense of being a little bit trapped because the house feels a little airless. It’s very dark, and because you have all those patterns around, it feels like she’s squeezed.” The notion supplies the reason behind her curation of Hester; she takes advantage of the corners and the walls and windows of the small Soho gallery to emulate the claustrophobia of familial domesticity, creating a universality of mood and psychological feeling that extends beyond the frameless image. “For me, it’s so important to work within the space. That’s why for each exhibition I show different sizes of images, use different installations that are all unique to the gallery space. In Southard Reid, the gallery is really cosy. It reminds me of home.” Indeed, the ceilings in the gallery are architectural, yet carry something of a barn building in the white, painted iron beams and scrubbed wooden floor. But it’s the large, panelled window that makes the upstairs gallery seem almost created as a bespoke auditorium for the exhibition, teasing the captive viewer with the view obscured by the wall of the next building. The window is transformed visually into merely an aesthetic pattern, a variation in texture corresponding with the photographs, and yet holding a symmetry that their fluctuating sizes try to deny, ironically disordered in its regularity.

The absent co-inhabitants of the image, though physically present in the Frowst series, hold more of a reactionary position with the females in these photographs. Piotrowska creates a sense of isolation but using only one person – a move away from the constructed familial scenes in Frowst. There is the constant, absent presence of another: the sense of physical or psychological violence, of unwanted relationships that inflate individual loneliness. The unseen hits you with a more reckoning force than what is present. The photographs reveal the entrapment of domesticity, particularly for the woman. “I think we used to see the domestic space as someplace here we feel free because we are separated from the public. Something intimate. But it’s not really, it’s also the source of tension and those roles of the behaviour in the family. Role playing, all of that, all happens in the domestic space. I see it as a stage. Physically we’re safe, but we also have to protect our mental state.”

The downstairs gallery presents a small but bold image of a curled fist that threatens violence, whilst evoking restraint and even strength in peace. “I’m really interested in that tension we have in our bodies,” she tells me. This is a tension that is manifested within our psyche equally from other people and our environment. “Suspension and mental tension really interests me – the feeling you get if sensing an attack.” The ambiguous fist is abstracted, fragmented away from the body in an act of dividing the body from behaviour and environment. The heavy contrast makes the veins prominent.

The women in the photographs in the upper gallery are directed into self-defence poses. They appear both in and out of control of their bodies, both surreally aggressive and vulnerable. They convey a perverse euphoria in their movement with a fractured and freeing disorder amongst the oppressive geometry of the walls and floor of the interior space. “Playing with the gallery space inspired me to repeat this image of the one interior,” Piotrowska reveals. It’s an eerily reflective corner of a room; glossy glass panelled doors mirroring the harsh flash of the camera correspondently between the walls of the claustrophobic crease. “It reminds me a little of a dream you have all your life, a recurring dream,” she says, sparking into animation as conversation progresses onto the spiritual. “It’s very strange that it’s something we have in our subconscious mind that is unique to us, yet a shared experience.” She sees ideas of dreams as a link between Hester and the exploration of familial relationships in Frowst; a universal concept that we are involuntarily subject to, yet is so acutely conditioned to individual experience. “I was thinking about how you seem to find yourself often in the same position in life – that escape is never really possible. You always face the same problems. I wanted to show it in some way by repeating the same image several times.”

Yes there is something sardonically humorous about this repetition. In an exhibition of such small expanse, to repeat one image three times in fluctuating sizes teases the viewer into futile investigation and self-doubt. Joanna flickers a small smile and an unrevealing gaze, refusing to disclose its substance either way. “I think I’m playing mind games as well,” she says with a drifting tone. Read next to the uncomfortable figures in the other images, not threatening in themselves, but revealing a potentially threatened subject and space, the potential for perverse humour delivers a startling glimpse of one’s own unreadable psychology. The voice of Joanna adds to the internalization, whispering on loop in the upstairs gallery to ‘relax the space behind the eyes’. “You mean you could actually hear it?! Some people have said they can’t.” She laughed as I questioned their integrity.

Joanna Piotrowska’s Hester is a revelatory experience, profoundly capturing both the personal and the universal sense of the unfamiliar familiar. By questioning our relationships with family, with domestic experiences and our very idea of sanctuary in the home, she forces us to question the honesty of our security of our inner selves and the environment we have forged an existence in.

Words by Liana Maher