In Joanna Piotrowska’s black-and-white series of photographs Untitled, inspired by self-defence manuals, the man, the male figure, has undergone a total eclipse. Each picture shows a young woman caught in an unnatural pose, with unbalanced postures, exaggerated twists, her hands contorted and her face often hidden by hair or fingers, when they are not turning their backs to the camera lens.
These precarious poses, excessive gesturing and movements that seem to be suddenly executed, communicate a state of emergency, as if they were reflex actions to something that remains unknown to the viewer.
Women’s bodies break the repetitive motives of fabrics, curtains, tablecloths, and wallpaper as well as the regular geometric patterns of tiles, parquet, wooden slats that envelope the domestic spaces in which the photographs were taken, apparently cosy and homely environments that emphasise even more the strangeness of their behaviour.
Are they practising awkward gymnastic exercises? Are they performing a mysterious choreography designed for a single dancer? Or rehearsing the cryptic scene of a play? Are they sending an encrypted message through body language?
The iconographic source of the series comes to rescue us from drifting through questions and conjectures, providing a buoy on which we can anchor an interpretation of this vocabulary of gestures: the reference to self-defence manuals unveils the foundation of Joanna Piotrowska’s work in performance, in this case consisting in the re-enactment of moves taken from those books.
The highly disorienting effect is due to the complete cut-out of the attacker’s body. Self-defence stances – including blocks, strikes, grabs, chokes – are performed against the void, a ghostly sparring partner, a weightless opponent.
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 in society that it goes unnoticed.
Before even resisting a man, the unpredictable movements performed by the women, that generate uncertainty in the viewer due to their ambiguity, seem to be turned against the space that surrounds them, arising from the desire to establish a different relationship with it. ‘Angel of the domestic hearth’, women’s space of action has for too long corresponded to that of the house, confined to four walls, which has now become too small. Through reckless poses, the female protagonists of the photographs try to escape a perimeter of constraint that demands ordinary gestures, to appropriate it in an original and unusual way, avoiding the routine mechanism that home and family impose and expect, and refusing to be pigeonholed.
These are small gestures of rebellion against a steady and composed posture, against a balanced composition, against photogenicity, against a neat space that they want to break in order to escape from it.
In this regard, it is worth mentioning Chantal Akerman’s cinema which, although not a direct source of inspiration for the series, is a constant reference in Joanna Piotrowska’s theoretical research.
In particular Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels (1975), a movie that already in its title suggests that the protagonist, a housewife, identifies with her home. The fixed camera documents three days of the young widow’s life, regulated like clockwork. Viewers observe Jeanne while she mechanically carries out her usual, banal chores, and unperturbed she prostitutes herself by receiving clients at home, with the same zeal that she puts into housework. Until the perfect choreography of simple daily gestures, performed like a musical score, gets stuck, her daily routine no longer works and a series of small domestic catatrophes leads to the tragic ending.
The ‘autistic’ body, closed in on itself and its own enigma, which seems to unfold in the photographic series is therefore a misunderstanding. The image is no longer indecipherable if we ideally complete it with, for example, the threatening presence of a man or, better still, if we shift the focus from the body as the subject of the picture to the network of invisible relationships, bonds, hierarchies of power, that an unarmed body, captured in the attempt to wriggle out of constraints, reveals.
That these invisible ties between people represent the core of Joanna Piotrowska’s project is made explicit by a group of smaller-sized photographs, also belonging to the series, featuring the encounter between two people – man and woman, mother and daughter – reduced to the contact between their hands, a hand touching a shoulder, or a face. A gap within the narrative, an element of emotional intensification, according to Daniel Arasse’s analysis of details in the history of painting, these close-ups of particular gestures invite viewers to a closer perception and communicate on a more intimate level.
The subjects in their entirety are almost completely cut off from this representation. Only their relationship remains visible, distilled in the gestures, tense and suspended as in a magnetic field of energies. At the same time as they vaguely allude to a vocabulary of hand gestures, they deny any possible shared, univocal reading of the relationship they are conveying: a physical and metaphorical arm wrestling between an act of aggression and a magical rite of enchantment.
Excerpted from the essay ‘Defenceless Dawn’ by Sara de Chiara, from Stable Vices by Joanna Piotrowska
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Also available in French translation in Entre Nous by Joanna Piotrowska
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