> Frowst

Joanna Piotrowska / Frowst

November 2013
Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi

Joanna Piotrowska was born Warsaw, Poland, recently completed her MA at Royal College of Art in London and has exhibited her work internationally in Ireland, Spain, Poland, Russia, Israel, France, Latvia and in the UK.  Works from her compelling photographic series Frowst are included in Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2013 (Spike Island, Bristol and ICA, London) as well as the current exhibition Jerwood Encounters: Family Politics, curated by Photoworks showing at Jerwood Space, London.  Below, Christiane Monarchi interviews Piotrowska about the background and inspiration to her series Frowst, which also received the Photomonitor commendation at Show RCA 2013.  


Christiane Monarchi: Your recent series Frowst was met with great critical acclaim when shown at Show RCA 2013. The title, which can be a noun or verb, relates to the enjoyment of lounging around in warm, stuffy places.   At first glance the poses of your subjects appear quotidian, perhaps; yet upon reflection, the tension and interaction in each frame opens up a plethora of potential narratives.  Could you tell us a bit of background to the creation of this series?

Joanna Piotrowska: I think that what limits us and what makes us free always comes from the way we are brought up. Our relationships with others are dominated by our family relationships. I wanted to show ambiguity of relations between family members and highlight that tension which was created by physical or mental closeness with another person.

I wanted to highlight loneliness and anxiety and the family as a carrier of these two states. I am interested in how these mental states are produced and why particular desires, fears and needs manifest themselves in relationships between people.

Hence, I asked family members to pose together in quite intimate situations, situations which are very rare between us (as adults) and our parents and siblings, which in the past used to be very natural. I literally wanted to bring back that physical connection that we experienced when we were children. This connection never disappears but transforms itself later on into different phases of emotional entanglement which do not necessarily allow us to live the way we want. In other words this entanglement does not allow us to be free.

In Frowsty spaces we can’t breath easily, it’s a good metaphor for being a part from a bigger whole. The space of intimate drama is always airless.


CM: Are the subjects known to you, and to each other?

JP: People who pose for me for the Frowst series are always family members such as mothers with sons, fathers with daughters, siblings etc. They are mostly my friends and their families. Usually I am familiar with one individual whilst I don’t necessarily know his or her siblings.


CM: How does the choreography happen in each of these images, do you direct your subjects, or are they performing their own emotions?

JP: I was very interested in Constellation therapy and I have read many books by Bert Hellinger who is the founder of it. There are many charts in his books which describe movements and gestures of people who participate in constellations. I think many of those gestures merged into my works as I was intrigued by every single thing that happened there. I was broadening my interests in psychology by further reading about psychodrama and therapy systems and made a lot of sketches for poses that I would like to try out.

At some point I noticed that it was quite difficult to encourage people to pose for me in particular ways and I realized that I should look for a way to get rid of the awkwardness of the situation. I guess they didn’t understand what I want to gain and it was hard for me to explain it in words because although I knew what would be the kernel I wasn’t sure how I can make it happen. One day I was photographing a mother with her adult son and I saw on the fridge the picture of them taken many years ago, showing her holding him in her arms. I though that this ease presented in the way she held this tiny body is incredible. It also shows her son’s dependence and inertness (which in some way is quite scary). I asked them to repeat this pose but obviously they couldn’t do it in the same way. This struggle for staging intimacy and not being able to repeat the spontaneous moment of tenderness raised an interesting effect that is loaded with a plethora of new meanings. As soon as people re-enact a pose or gesture, inspired by their old photographs (therefore their past), their engagement is easier. So I guess there is something – as you interestingly put it – in performing their emotions.

I always have some ideas which I would like to realize in shoots which derive from my observations of relationships but I also know that reality can be much more surprising and interesting. So I try to be sensitive to what I sense between people and I often just experiment with ideas. Some people find it easy to be physically close and some of them not – it influences the process of the work. Some of them trust me so I can be more experimental and some of them are distant and I allow this. The final affect also depends on how I find myself in these (sometimes) uncomfortable situations when I am at someone’s domestic space and I generate odd, private performances for the camera.


CM: Have you considered performing in works yourself?

JP: Yes and I did it. It wasn’t good; I found it very difficult to perform and to be behind the camera at the same time.


CM: Some of the images in the series could be read as revealing a taboo, whether familial or intergenerational at least – and is strongly communicated by the subjects’ touching each other.  You have communicated, wordlessly, many conflicting emotions with no titles at all.  Are there taboos here to be inferred?  

JP: I titled the pictures with roman numbers.

I think that because they are not very clear they do not reveal a taboo but rather they suggest that there might be something to reveal, something that is hidden or repressed so it’s unconscious. The destructive aspect of family life is definitely a taboo. Especially in catholic, homogeneous societies in which family is sacred and it is defined what is appropriate. I think loneliness and despair of the individual functioning in a web of relations is also taboo.

I was trying to create disturbing images which are on the edge of experiences. The gesture, which can be innocent can be also interpreted as violence or abuse, fraternal love can be seen as something loaded with sexual tension etc.

My aim is not only to impudently critique the family (society) by saying the family is depraved but to arouse anxiety, to put one into a state of perplexity and point that fear which does not know its cause – the primary state of being lost in the world, solitude.

There is also something which interests me and goes beyond the basic family theme. These are unresolved conflicts and stratified tensions that are inherited from generation to generation and they are responsible for our mental states here and now. Very often on constellation therapies the problem is rooted in Second World War traumatic experiences. It shows literally what happens in public, political and economic areas where reality finds itself in private, personal space and how tight is the system we function in. This social system is also responsible for our mental health. 


CM: While your works have such strong emotional subtexts, interestingly, they are communicated in black and white, which could lend an air of distance, perhaps even nostalgia and melancholy.  Had you every experimented with colour in this series?  What does printing these images in black and white mean to you?

JP: Black and white photographs evoke the past. I want to play with nostalgia and its association with longing for past moments of happiness. Nostalgia also brings to mind at once two important terms: home and pain.


CM: The RCA Show installation, comprising a portion of your series, was a compelling hang of hand printed images, pinned directly to the wall, sometime showing their handled edges, the natural curve of the worked sheet.  Could you tell us more about the process of printing these works, and the importance to you for communication of the imagery?

JP: I do not really want to communicate something about imagery. I like things as they are. I like traditional fibre-based paper because it creates nostalgic feeling and I like to work with my hands instead of working with machines so hand made prints have more value for me than digital ones. Curving happens naturally when the print dries. This is how it is, I don’t really see the reason to perfectly straighten it.

I have mixed feelings about frames. I don’t really see the point of having them in shows. Framing for shows is a purely aesthetic decision, a photograph doesn’t need protection for such a short period of time and protection is primary the frame’s role.  One should frame when one wants to sell, it’s always easier. Limited edition and nice frame makes an image a desirable object, but is it really the point? I don’t want people to be deluded by the package. People spent loads of money on frames for the final show at Royal College of Art, I don’t really understand that, you have to transport it after a few days and store it in your room and it’s huge, it’s not very practical.


CM: It would seem that some of these works could be read as ‘film stills’, where choreographed actors are in the midst of a scene.  Would you consider working in moving image on a future project ?

JP: Yes, I would like to experiment with a different medium (such as film) in my next works. I find film/video art far more inspiring for me than contemporary photography which is not my favorite medium in arts. When I worked on Frowst, the trigger for the situation was the awkward physical closeness between people that was a very important part of the project. In future I would like to work with this performative element in a more explicit way. Sometimes an image is too detached for me and I miss in the final work the real presence of personal interaction, which is often more straight forward and more striking than a still image of this.


CM: Have you been inspired by other works of art or literature in creating Frowst?

JP: Yes, of course. I think it is impossible not to be inspired by other works of art if you are engaging with art on a daily basis. Literature and film have a great influence on this work. Mainly Bernhard and Haneke, Polish black and white cinema from the 1960’s. 


CM: What are you working on next?

JP: I want to be more fit. 


Joanna Piotrowska was born in 1985 in Warsaw, Poland. She received her MA at Royal College of Art in London. Selected exhibitions include: The Suspension of History at Basement Project Space in Cork, XV Call Luis Adelantado in Valencia, Family Politics at Jerwood Visual Arts in London, Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2013 at Spike Island and Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. She took a part in the learning place program in Former West conference at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. In 2011 she was awarded the Genesis Foundation Scholarship. She is selected for The Catlin Guide 2014 which showcases the latest crop of Britain’s most talented new artists.


Jerwood Encounters: Family Politics, curated by Photoworks showing at Jerwood Space, London, including works from Piotrowska’s Frowst series, continues until 8 December 2013.