Joanna Piotrowska’s 5128
Joanna Piotrowska noted how the spark appeared; later - much later - the spark was to become a long-term project. The spark, that is, the memory of an image: the contours of a house that no longer exists, punctuated by roses grown wild, framed by emptiness. For now, only this and nothing more: an overgrown bush spotted during a trip to the countryside. What had been built for shelter, built to last, a house, disappeared without a trace, as if a bomb had gone off, the kind of bomb that vaporizes people and animals in seconds, and leaves no trace. What was intended as decoration, as a fleeting fioritura of no importance to the house’s primary function, is now the sole remaining trace. We are entering here into the realm of apparent contradictions, of paradoxes presented in photographic form. Roses instead of a house - as if the moss were to outlive the rock it overgrew. In the eyes of the photographer, in my eyes, a revaluation of the concept of intransience has taken place; but she is not yet aware of this. She concludes her trip and returns home.
When I look at finished works (or at least those that have achieved a certain stage of completion), knowledge of the spark, of the point of departure, seems unnecessary. Yet I follow its trail nevertheless, because it is always more interesting to follow the artist - if only a few steps, if only to see whether the artist isn’t taking a wrong turn (after all, artists aren’t infallible).
Two years ago, Piotrowska, accompanied by her aunt, drove to the village of Bartoszowina, in order to visit the former home of her great-grandparents. Upon arriving, they found that the house no longer existed, that it had been stripped to the last board. And so here we have a moment of privacy unveiled, an intimate moment, the little history of a certain family; a history inaccessible from outside, intended only for the initiated.
Ultimately, she chose another part of Poland, the Bieszczady looking there for this kind of places. She took the title “5128” for her project, or - as she puts it - the total number of houses that existed in the Bieszczady before commencement of the “Vistula” relocation action. Here, then, is the outline, the general direction that Piotrowska followed. From an intimate sign, an overgrown rosebush encircling a cube of space (which had once been a family home, and in front of which Piotrowska’s great-grandparents had once posed - smiling and eternally happy, like all those posing in front of their houses). Yet she ended with a count of houses, multiplicity poured into an arid singularity, number; she ended with a reference to history proper, textbook history.
The sentimental journey, the private rite of the forefathers that the artist performed, dedicated as it was to individual beings, leads to a generalization from which one doesn’t dare derive the fate of a single individual. There are no more people. The houses are gutted, burned. Only plant life remains, and it blossoms in spite of the catastrophe.
The pictures comprising “5128” depict - it would seem - the untamed natural environment of the Bieszczady, lacking - apparently - human presence. But if we look at these photographs a bit more carefully, we plainly see that they depict blossoming fruit trees. What might seem at first glance to have arisen from untamed nature is in reality an overgrown orchard. Stones, boards, panes of glass and settlers have disappeared. Only the orchards remain, and these look after themselves.
Piotrowska meticulously hunts down echoes of beings, tracks covered over. She refutes the one-zero interpretation: it was - it isn’t. She portrays far-off reflections of existence, the elliptical presence of humans in places where (it would seem) they have never been. (How quickly nature reclaims abandoned settlements, how unceremoniously it reduces them to rubble). From an intimate impulse (this is why knowledge of the circumstances of creation was important) a cycle was created on what transcends the individual.
Once, in a different country, I happened to visit another landscape that had changed beyond recognition. The people spoke a different language than I recalled, (because the border had been moved, and was now part of a different country). And there, where a forest had once stood, yawned a void. The hills had disappeared, because they had been used to make highway gravel. The paths were overgrown, and new ones had appeared. Of the house, the goal of that pilgrimage, there remained only a single stone and a shrub - now nothing more than an ordinary bush amid the burdocks, nondescript, covered with dust, although it had been carried there from afar at the turn of the previous century and cherished through the years.
“5128” depicts this same story, and all those like it. Joanna Piotrowksa explores and passes on this story with delicacy and feeling.
Visby, 3 September 2010