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The unheimlich manoeuvres of Joanna Pietrowska

9 May 2023

The plush blue carpet is the first thing you notice in ‘Entre nous’, an exhibition by Joanna Piotrowska at Le Bal in Paris. A peculiarly domestic touch in a gallery space, it also dampens the sound, making visiting this exhibition an unusually quiet experience. The effect is both cosy and disconcerting. That’s entirely appropriate as the aptly titled show occupies an eerie and intimate space between the familiar and the unsettling.

The gallery space on the ground floor includes several photographs from Piotrowska’s publication Stable Vices (2021), including a series of shots of empty zoo enclosures and another showing makeshift shelters constructed in people’s homes. Both show kinds of houses – the shelters are almost houses within houses – but neither series is remotely comforting. The animal enclosures seem barren and cold, like the grim gilded cages they really are. The shelters look a little like childrens’ dens, but more strongly evoke DIY nuclear fall-out refuges, the kind you used to see in Protect and Survive leaflets in the United Kingdom. Born in 1985, Piotrowska is a young woman dealing with the everyday and the domestic, but there’s nothing homely here, only the unheimlich.

installation view of Joanna Piotrowska exhibition

Installation view of ‘Joanna Piotrowska: Entre nous’ at Le Bal, Paris. Photo: courtesy Le Bal

The same gallery also contains a TV playing Animal Enrichment, a colour film showing quasi-scientific experiments. Behind a large blue curtain there’s a two-channel film featuring a group of people in a sunny park. They’re playing a game called Little Sunshine (also the title of the work) in which they try to make each other laugh but, as this isn’t explained, their gestures are both funny and weirdly aggressive. Combined with the title it makes me think of a catcall, the kind of street interaction in which a women might be told to ‘give us a smile’ or ‘cheer up love’. There’s a feminist edge to this defamiliarisation of all-too familiar encounters, an edge that becomes sharper as you go through the show.

Descending the stairs affords a view over the basement gallery: there’s another carpet, this time pink, and a whole series of temporary walls. Seen from above they suggest an architect’s floor plan or maybe a Cluedo board, and again that’s wholly appropriate – especially the murder mystery element. Some of the images shown in this room are new and being shown here for the first time, but they’re also old, crops Piotrowska made of photographs her father took at a family gathering. She found them after his death in 2021 in a small box of belongings. Her crops home in on details such as a silver necklace or a grainy candle, suggesting some kind of ritual, but also a queasy sense of surveillance. Again there’s a blurring of boundaries, an overlap between the domestic and the catastrophic.

Untitled (2023), Joanna Piotrowska. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne; © Joanna Piotrowska

Other images show what look like family members in front of a wardrobe, or a landing with several white doors. The doors don’t look like they lead anywhere, which lends this shot a claustrophobic, imprisoning air. Also here is another series from Stable Vices, which depicts women re-enacting images from a self-defence manual. Pairing family photos with these instructions seems notable, as does the effect of Piotrowska’s rich monochrome images against the gallery’s faint pink walls. Both the crops and re-enactments work to reclaim images and thereby, perhaps, regain agency for those depicted in them. Upstairs the photographs are framed in bright colours, drawing attention to the act of scrutinising and enclosing. Her work suggests a link between photography and power, between who is wielding the camera and who is subject to its gaze.

Installation view of ‘Joanna Piotrowska: Entre nous’ at Le Bal, Paris. Photo: courtesy Le Bal

Piotrowska is a fast-rising star – this exhibition, her first solo show in France, is at the prestigious Le Bal and she had a solo outing at Tate Britain in 2019. MACK, publisher of her other monographs, has made a new publication to accompany this exhibition, designed to be read alongside Stable Vices. Piotrowska’s work was also included in ‘The Milk of Dreams’, the main exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2022, which was named after a book by Leonora Carrington. It’s not surprising to see another Surrealist be linked to ‘Entre nous’; an essay in the MACK pamphlet by the curator Sara De Chiara refers to Magritte, specifically his painting Gigantic Days (1928), a representation of an attempted rape.

Piotrowska studied at the Royal College of Art and lives in London, but she’s originally from Warsaw. In 2020, she donated 100 limited-edition photographs to a Polish women’s rights charity, after Poland banned abortion almost outright. Piotrowska’s work may refer to art history and have formalist concerns, but it’s also urgently political. The exhibition seems to me to be about power and control, though it’s done with a velvety touch.

photograph of a man lying underneath furniture

Untitled (2016), Joanna Piotrowska. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne; © Joanna Piotrowska

‘Entre nous’ is at Le Bal, Paris, until 21 May. A book of the same title is published by MACK.