Joanna Piotrowska stages images of violence and vulnerability in her latest monograph

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Stable Vices collates three bodies of work that collectively address the complexity of power dynamics, and modes of oppression and control, through enigmatic black-and-white images

With her eyes closed, and facial expression neutral, a woman points her right index finger at her left eye. In the following image, she uses the same hand to signal towards her clavicle. And, in the next, her finger appears to tap the inside crease of her elbow. These three images open Joanna Piotrowska’s new monograph, Stable Vices, published by Mack. The connection between each of these specific body parts—one’s eyes, their collarbones and jugular, the soft flesh of their elbow points—is their potential weakness. Self-defence instruction manuals, which fashion the body as a potential target and a potential weapon, identify these areas as sensitive pressure points. The points at which one should direct their attention to disarm an opponent during a fight. Piotrowska’s images are ambivalent: we may read her protagonist’s gestures as either an instruction (hurt them there) or an invitation (hurt me here). Throughout the book, she stages these varied simulations of violence and victimisation for the viewer in complex and enigmatic ways. They blur the lines between attack and defence, vulnerability and strength, aggression and passivity. 

The book’s extensive selection of images derives from numerous series made by the artist over several years. Three texts break the publication into loose sections, while the mixture of photographs, all untitled, demonstrate the spectrum of interrelated concerns that drive Piotrowska’s practice. Reading the North American feminist and developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan’s work, notably the book Joining the Resistance (1991), influenced Piotrowska when creating the first series of images. The book details how adolescent girls unconsciously subordinate themselves and conform to patriarchal culture’s dominant paternalism. “The structures of domination become invisible because they have been internalized, incorporated into the psyche, they appear not as manifestations of culture but as part of nature – part of us,” Gilligan explains.

© Joanna Piotrowska.

Piotrowska depicts young women in a series of contorted and extreme positions, as if engaged in a fight with a ghostly, absent opponent. There is an uncomfortable intimacy, and a sense of voyeurism, in witnessing their excessive physicality. They are pictured twisting, kneeling, crawling, crouching, back bending, or balancing on one leg. Their homely environs, complete with decorative rugs, fussy furnishings, net curtains, and wooden panelling, render their postures bizarre. Their anonymity — they are typically hidden by their loose hair or turn away from the camera — enhances the images’ surreal intensity. It forces the photographs into the realm of the symbolic. Piotrowska has previously spoken about the body as a kind of alphabet, and here, emulating the figures in the instructional self-defence manuals, her subjects appear engaged in a learned choreography. 

In her essay, Defenceless Dawn, Sara De Chiara writes: “The allusion to an invisible enemy calls into question a more subtle kind of violence when compared to the sensational, physical aggression of men towards women; an oppression so deeply rooted that it goes unnoticed.” Another series of photographs — where a disembodied masculine hand covered with wiry dark hair shares the frame — interrupt the images in the publication’s first section. The close range of the photographs fragments the body into segments. In one, the large hand rests over a woman’s face, covering her mouth and closing her eyes with its fingers. In another, only their hands and arms are visible; he clenches her forearm with two hands, causing her veins to bulge as her fist tightens in response. Resisting any definitive interpretations, the images are suggestive and ambivalent in their deliberate lack of context. While Piotrowska captures her images exclusively in black-and-white, the implicit psychic terrain is a grey area, alluding to the unpredictable vicissitude of empowerment and agency.

© Joanna Piotrowska.

The second series of photographs in the book derives from a project where Piotrowska invited people to build a fort in their homes, recreating a typical childhood game. In an interview with the curator Magdalena Komornicka, published last year, Piotrowska remarked: “When taken out from its youthful context and played by adults, unexpected qualities come to the foreground: the seriousness of seeking physical and emotional comfort, problems of migration and homelessness, as well as notions of accumulation of goods and materialism”. The series visualises the theory that a domestic space is an extension of oneself. Materials and furniture, which the subjects already owned, were used to assemble the tent-like structures. The images depict hide-outs constructed from sofa cushions and blankets, strewn across dining chairs, or balanced over standing lamps. Participants either lie supine or prone on rugs, occasionally curled into foetal positions. The space underneath a desk or kitchen table becomes a cramped resting place. The paraphernalia of life appear — books, house plants, iPhones, ashtrays, their everydayness rendered dysfunctional and arbitrary by the unsound and insecure nature of the temporary shelters. The sentiment of protection is juxtaposed by vulnerability and fragility. “What inclines someone to build a room within a room? A home within a home? Walls among walls and a ceiling under a ceiling?” writes Dorota Masłowska in her text Vacancy, which introduces the series within the publication. “Is it some creative horror vacui, an urgent desire to make something that is supposed to organise the emptiness, both physical and metaphysical? Is it perhaps the fear of being consumed? Devoured by home, by its emptiness, silences, routines?” 

© Joanna Piotrowska.
© Joanna Piotrowska.

The publication’s third series derives from Piotrowska’s photographs of empty animal cages and enclosures. The environments prompt visceral associations with subordination and control. Unlike the staged nature of her previous work, none of the images was set up or constructed, but instead, all captured in situ. “During my visit to the zoo I realised that cages have common features with domestic spaces – they are similarly arranged,” she has said, “We design for animals just like we design for ourselves – to provide them with everything they need, according to our ideas about their needs … full of well thought out props such as a tree trunk, ball, blanket, plate with food”.

Her particular use of the term ‘prop’ signals their inherent theatrical nature, creating an artificial yet allegedly natural environment. In Animals Beyond the Forest, the book’s concluding text, Joanna Bednarek compares the absence of the animals in these enclosures to the same “anti-spectacle strategy” that Piotrowska adopted in the earlier self-defence images: making “us think about the pervasiveness and ambiguity of power structures instead of showing power in all its violent glory”. Another set of photographs punctuating the final series reiterates this sentiment: portraits of accessories relating to human dominance over animals, including leather handling gloves, a mousetrap, some rope, and a steel grabber. 

The book’s title, Stable Vices, derives from an equine term that is used to describe negative behavioural habits which horses develop from isolation and confinement. These disruptive traits were initially attributed to the horse being ‘abnormal’. However, it was later accepted that their actions are ‘indicative of an abnormal environment’. The shift in emphasis — the implication of the environment as the cause and the effect — can be used as a metaphor to illustrate how socio-political structures significantly bear on human behaviour. Piotrowska’s images perform these gaps and slippages in power dynamics, the in-betweenness of existence. They visualise the complicated constellation of perpetually shifting relations.

© Joanna Piotrowska.

Stable Vices by Joanna Piotrowska is published by Mack.

Philomena Epps

Philomena Epps is a writer, editor, and art historian living in London. She writes regularly for Artforum, Frieze, and Flash Art, among others.