Warsaw

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2014, gelatin silver print, 16 1/8 × 20".

Joanna Piotrowska, Untitled, 2014, gelatin silver print, 16 1/8 × 20".

Joanna Piotrowska

Zachęta National Gallery of Art

It is commonly said that every protest needs a face. A face gives a protest not only an identity, but also credibility and public trust. However, not every face can be the face of every strike, every act of civil disobedience, or every resistance movement. When a specific aspect of the system is criticized, the act of resistance is particularly pronounced. “Good girls don’t protest,” repeat mothers and grandmothers. Good girls don’t curse, shout, get angry. And yet they do: Once again this past fall, Polish women took to the streets to decry new governmental restrictions on their reproductive rights.

We do not see the face of the protagonist of Joanna Piotrowska’s Vital points I, 2019. With her index finger, she points to her collarbone. This photograph is one of a series in which teenagers illustrate which zones of their body are most vulnerable during an attack. Other images on view showed girls learning to adopt defensive or aggressive postures of self-protection. For visitors to the exhibition, these enigmatic poses, inspired by the 2011 book Joining the Resistance by American feminist Carol Gilligan, acquired an excess of meaning: They also bore witness to the confrontations between protesting women (including very young women) and police happening on the streets of Polish cities. Teenagers have become the faces of the marches in defense of women’s rights as human rights: a thirteen-year-old girl sprayed with tear gas, or a fourteen-year-old girl accused of leading the demonstration. We saw them standing in the front, wearing masks and holding banners. Training in harm avoidance and the ability to protect one’s own fragile body have become more useful now than ever.

Piotrowska’s exhibition was titled “Frowst”—a rather obscure Briticism meaning a stale, stuffy atmosphere. That’s not what one would have imagined emanating from the artist’s crisp, monumentally scaled gelatin silver prints and four related film projections, and yet paradoxically the visual clarity and precision of her imagery did give rise to a distinct sense of claustrophobia. Indeed, as I continued to look I began feeling breathless, trapped, perhaps like one of the domesticated animals for which the objects depicted in another group of photographs had been designed. Here we saw hands holding various devices used to control, tame, or stimulate animals—for instance, an exercise toy for mice or tongs for grabbing them.

The intensity of the images, with their tangled bodies, averted gazes, and constellations of interpersonal tensions and secrets, could feel draining. Resting for a moment, one might have noticed two photographs hung high above eye level, juxtaposed in a corner. They were among the earliest works in the show, based on the methodology of “family constellations” devised by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. In one of these images, Untitled, 2014, a hand is splayed over a woman’s face, fingers poking at her closed eyelids, whereas in the other, Untitled, 2015, a hand grabs a woman’s shoulders. Is it an attack or a plea for help? This ambiguity was reflected in the show’s closed-in, overheated atmosphere, which eventually came to seem less claustrophobic and even comforting. The exhibition ended with a 2017 project for which the artist asked friends in London, Rio de Janeiro, and Warsaw to build and document hiding places in their homes. This past year, our homes have had to serve as makeshift shelters. There, we’ve been seeking (and sometimes finding) serenity, closeness, relations with loved ones and with ourselves. Even with its silence interrupted periodically by the racket of a 16-mm projector, the exhibition felt something like the kind of indoor den many of us built in childhood with blankets and pillows to hide in.