Shelters - hiding in plain sight, as photographed by Joanna Piotrowska

For many lockdown is a first experience of being trapped within their own home. I, however, had begun to understand isolation in the few months before the official rules were introduced. Since moving to the north of England from Oxford my sense of belongingness and connection to society plummeted. As a Polish immigrant living in the UK for four years prior to this health crisis, I was familiar with the hardships of leaving your country, culture, family and friends. Yet, moving to Yorkshire exposed me to an even greater feeling of displacement. Poland - a homeland I was supposed to feel so grounded by, became a distant land of origin that I could no longer connect to. 

The political mess and expansion of ultra-conservative views is what repulses me when thinking about being a more active part of Polish society again. Nonetheless, what seems to exasperate me most in refusing to “belong” again is the stance of rejection some of my fellow Poles exhibit in response to my “foreignness”. As a person choosing to live outside of Poland and embracing the diversity of the UK I am often treated as a traitor, and not a “true patriot”. 

My new English home outside of the university bubble is equally difficult to accept despite how welcoming and open Northerners are. The pressure related to setting up a fully adult life in an unfamiliar environment is immense, especially when doing so while being separated from family, friends and not knowing any locals. Whilst many would treat this blank reality as an opportunity to create a new and exciting life for themselves, I took the more introverted and enclosed path. My house became my exile - a safe space protecting me from the challenges of finding a job in the greatly saturated creative industry, making new friends, and trying to belong. Hiding indoors where I could omit those troubles and pretend that I do not need to face them became an easy way out. 

This extensive and overtly personal introduction might seem completely irrelevant to the title and subject of this essay. Yet, I decided to begin this text with my personal experience of self imposed isolation because I was hoping that it would not only shine some light on my perception of Joanna Piotrowska’s work, but that it would also resonate with more people in this unusual time dictated by the pandemic. It was important to me that the readers of this piece would relate to my situation slightly more than they would have before the pandemic, and perhaps could see my points more accurately. Especially since writing this essay was long overdue, being an analysis of an exhibition that happened almost a year ago. A delay that probably would have been looked down upon before lockdown is now more acceptable, as all galleries and museums are shut. After all, many, if privileged with time to do so, are using this it to reflect on the past and finally take up tasks we had too little time to do before. This is not to say that I have finally found some time to take up an unimportant task I was ignoring, but rather that having all that free time with myself forced me to stop avoiding this deeply close to heart and troubling subject. 

More importantly, I am writing this piece because Piotrowska’s work and its significance became even greater to me now, in the unusual circumstance of this health crisis, than they were before when I was only faced with my identity crisis. This essay will analyse the themes of safety, protection and space in relation to the notion of home and its portrayals within Joanna Piotrowska’s photographic works. 

Back in September 2019 I visited Leeds Art Gallery, which, at the time, was part of Yorkshire Sculpture International 2019, a series of sculpture centred exhibitions in various locations in Yorkshire. Although Piotrowska’s photography based oeuvre is theoretically 2D, it is strongly related to sculpture and the three dimensions in what it portrays. Additionally, for her part of the exhibition Piotrowska selected a few sculptures from the Leeds Gallery’s archives to accompany her own pieces, and perhaps accentuate and bring out their relationship to sculpture. 

But first, lets start with how Piotrowska introduced the notion of home without showing any of her work. 

Walking into Leeds Gallery was my first direct contact with art since moving to Yorkshire after graduating in August 2019. I was not sure what to expect, the euphoria and pride of finishing art school and being in the degree show has slowly given place to uneasiness and uncertainty of life post university. Quite surprisingly, I felt very at ease and as if I stepped back into a familiar, comfortable environment. This was the first time in a long while, since I did not achieve that state when visiting Poland anymore, nor when I stayed in Oxford. It was a promising and reassuring start to my viewing.

After crossing through the main hallway and passing by Nobuko Tsuchiya’s exhibition, all while my steps on the marble floor echoes through the empty gallery, I stepped into the room where Joanna Piotrowska’s work was on show. The ambience had suddenly shifted  due to a simple, yet drastic, change. The purplish carpeted floor muffled my resonant tread and with that suppression introduced a completely novel environment. For one, the soft ground, so uncommon and unsuitable for a gallery setting, was an unfamiliar and intriguing introduction to the exhibition. More importantly, it felt bizarrely comforting, the kind of feeling one gets when finally stepping inside their home after a long day. This soothing relaxation and homely effect was perhaps instigated in me because of the few years I have spent in the UK, since carpets seem to be a staple of British homes. (I have even seen a carpeted bathroom once!) 

Yet, that pleasant familiarity quickly subsided and an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness and discomfort took its place. It was as if I intruded into a stranger’s home and did not even take my shoes off beforehand. 

This emotional rollercoaster was an accurate introduction to the exhibition. Frantic is a series of black and white photographs portraying people from various locations in the world, captured inside hideouts, or as the artist calls it, makeshift shelters, they had built inside their homes.

I am suggesting that the staging of the exhibition that triggered my sudden shift in feelings is appropriate for Piotrowska’s show because it truly reflects the ambiance captured in her photographs. At first viewing the portraits seem to be united by the universality of the form of the makeshift structures the subjects came up with. It seems that forts are a ‘default’ construction when thinking of a self-made hideout. Most of the portrayed people seem to incorporate a more or less tent-shaped creation in their design. Their expressions and poses suggest discomfort. Nonetheless, it seems to be eased or lowered by the surrounding of the makeshift spaces. This cohesion and recurrence generated the same comforting reaction I first felt when stepping inside the exhibition room. The uniform approach of the subjects was reassuring because of how rare uniformity, or rather agreement, is amongst people in the current profusely divided world. Upon closer inspection, this initial realisation also brought out the subtle and more defined differences, or personalised specifications of the hideouts. For example, in Figure I a distinctive element is a fan, suggestive of a hot climate and thus hinting at the specific locations of the shoots, and also a collection of soft-play balls appears as one of a kind, technically structurally non-essential, yet necessary feature for the hideout to be complete. 

Just like in the introductory perception, the feeling of ease quickly subsided for the awkwardness of intruding into someone’s personal space. Seeing the individuality embedded within the uniform shapes of the shelters exposed the uniqueness of the scenes. Since the photographed subjects seemed to be quite emotionally distressed, pictured supposedly amidst a very private process of recovering from stress, viewing them became an invasion. My primary revelation about Shelters being a non-abrasive insight into the subjects relationships with their homes spaces and objects had been quickly corrected, and a feeling of uneasiness came in its place. I not only empathised with their unclear yet evidently disturbing situations, I could identify with them. 

Figure III: Installation view of Untitled (2016-2018), Black and white photographs, Joanna Piotrowska © Julia Michiewicz

Figure IV: Installation view of Untitled (2016-2018), Black and white photograph, Joanna Piotrowska © Julia Michiewicz

Figure V: Installation view of Untitled (2016-2018), Black and white photograph, Joanna Piotrowska © Julia Michiewicz

Figure VI: Installation view of Untitled (2016-2018), Black and white photographs, Joanna Piotrowska © Julia Michiewicz

Considering Piotrowska’s pieces within an emotional framework was not my only response. As in the case of being slightly shocked by the carpeted floor and then quickly moving onto thinking about its lack of utility within a gallery space, I started looking at the hideouts more critically. My judgement began with a realisation of the fragility of the subjects’ creations. Their instability, or rather the titular makeshift quality, was initially ignored by my childlike fascination with them. Nonetheless, the adult rationality soon took over, it was clear that the structures were not far off from collapsing. Were some of the participants too afraid to come in, and this is why they are not depicted within their creations, or are they hidden well enough for me not to see them? Whilst debating these possibilities and the risk factors, I started wondering if the portrayed people were almost blindly trusting and comforted by the childhood connections to dens, or rather if they were actually entrapped within the enclosed environments. 

As the artist explained in her interview for Tate: 

‘Inspiration for this works comes from a common children’s game in which they build a den or shelter. To them, it is a simple, innocent and playful game. It evokes the feeling of comfort and safety and yet, if played by adults, it is automatically considered in the current global climate. Adults must consider factors that are political and economic, as well as thinking about existential migration and the growing inequalities in our society. The game of creating a shelter becomes charged with a notion of emergency and insecurity.’(1)

  • (1) Tate. (2019, March 26). In Conversation with Joanna Piotrowska – Interview. Retrieved June 14, 2020, from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/joanna-piotrowska-28684/conversation-joanna-piotrowska

Figure VII: Installation view of Untitled (2016-2018), Black and white photograph and sculpture selected by the  artist from Leeds Arts Gallery’s collection , Joanna Piotrowska © Julia Michiewicz

Figure VII: Installation view of Untitled (2016-2018), Black and white photograph and sculpture selected by the  artist from Leeds Arts Gallery’s collection , Joanna Piotrowska © Julia Michiewicz

Figure IX: Installation view of Untitled (2016-2018), Black and white photographs and sculpture selected by the artist from Leeds Arts Gallery’s collection, Joanna Piotrowska © Julia Michiewicz

The sculptures chosen by Piotrowska to accompany her photographs were particularly telling in this regard. Although made from a variety of materials and different shapes and colours, their common quality was an illusory sense of being solid and impenetrable. In Figure VII the red metal structure is only provisionally tough, presented off centre on a very low plinth, it appears far less imposing and a bit unbalanced. The hexagonal column in Figure IX at first looked well constructed and stable, yet the protective shield made me question its durability. Perhaps, the small wooden parts creating the tower are not even permanently connected? - I thought. Similarly, the cute sloths in Figure VIII, though forming a unity, are still not fully merged, the separation in between their bellies seems to be an obstacle keeping them apart. 

This whole reasoning brought out Piotrowska’s intention of investigating social structures. It seems that the makeshift structures are representations of social structures, our dependence on them, but also their instability and potential to collapse. What resonated with me the most after the viewing was the impossibility of assessing whether those social constructs, and thus the makeshift shelters, are what is keeping us together or rather potentially trapping and suffocating us. The crisis evoked by the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdown uncovered a new meaning in Piotrowska’s exhibition almost six months later. It was not only about how unaware I was about the existence of and my dependance on social structures. Even though I was purposefully isolating myself from my troubles and removing myself from society, the option and possibility of rejoining it was keeping me unaffected and falsely secure. Only the prohibition of contacting others and the government imposed isolation made me realise my lack of effort in contribution to society. I realised that in order for the social structures to be sustainable everyone needs to care and do their part, including me. Equally, the ideas grafted in me by viewing Piotrowska’s show, now uncovered an even more threatening truth. Home, a concept I have always connected with comfort and safety, can easily become a trap rather than a place of security.  (How privileged have I been, and for how long, to only find this truth now in my twenties! Better late than never I guess…)

Perhaps the way forward, the way to preserve and rebuild our relationships with each other, our unity and private spaces is through maintenance, through checking on the stability of our shelters, through helping others when they cannot spot or fix their structural imperfections, but also through renewing our childhood beliefs and trust, through hoping they will not collapse. 

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