Joanna Piotrowksa: Entre Nous | Le Bal, Paris

BY Zoé Isle de Beauchaine, July 1, 2023

For the last ten years, the Polish photographer Joanna Piotrowska has looked at the ambiguity of family relationships and human behavior through performance and photography, exploring systems of domination. An atmosphere of constraint emanates from her black-and-white photographs, which are striking for their formal elegance as well as the unease they convey. Presenting Piotrowska’s first solo show in France this spring, Le BAL conceived of a decor of velvet carpets and curtains that perfectly reflected the muted ambiance of her work. 

For her first series, Frowst (2014-21), Piotrowska asked friends to pose with their family members. In these images, gestures express both tenderness and oppression. The influence of contemporary dance is evident here. In an interview with the Tate in 2019, when her work was on view there, Piotrowska spoke of her admiration for choreographers Pina Bausch, Boris Charmatz, or Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, whose minimalist and repetitive piece Rosas danst Rosas resonates with her own take on body expression.

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2023. ©Marc Domage

For Frowst, Piotrowska also explored the therapeutic concept of the family constellation, developed in the 1990s by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger as a means to uncover the familial subconscious through role play. Frowst’s exploration of family relations is echoed in a more recent video, Little Sunshine, 2019, in which individuals of various ages play a children’s game where they have to make each other laugh. The gestures feel oddly aggressive, and a game that is meant to be funny winds up being unnerving. 

Taken together, the gestures photographed by Piotrowska form a corporeal vocabulary that replaces verbal communication and enables her to express a social critique of the way pervasive systems of domination affect the evolution of our bodies. Such systems have a particular impact on women, and Piotrowska dedicated an entire series, Self-Defense, 2014-22, to women’s bodies. Inspired by feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan’s description of the way young girls self-censor to conform to the expectations of patriarcal society, these images show clenched female bodies fighting a hidden threat through the reenactment of a self-defense manual. 

Frowst and Self-Defense are put into conversation through an architectural space delineated by pink carpets and pale-rose walls. The decor suggests a living space, reminding us that patterns of domination most often blossom in the domestic sphere. Le BAL astutely created openings in the temporary walls, offering new associations between the pictures and turning this apartment into a labyrinth. 

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2023. ©Marc Domage

On the top floor of the exhibition space the double-edged role of the household as a place of protection/oppression was crystallized by a series of children’s dens constructed inside a home. Used, in these images, by adults who seem to seek protection from some invisible menace, they feel more like shelters than play spaces. These individuals are also reminiscent of frightened animals. For Piotrowska, there is a link between the spaces we inhabit and the ones we have created for animals. Several photographs, paired with the indoor shelters series, show empty cages or zoo enclosures, in which appear small toys or objects deployed to make animals feel “at home.” But the true nature of these spaces is highlighted: displayed as shelters, they are, in fact, prisons, a dichotomy that echoes the social structures the photographer aims to expose.