FROWST has the feel of a slim library volume: elegant, discrete, leather-bound and enigmatic. One might mistake its aesthetic for a luxury daybook, since its minimal exterior design suggests a certain stylish neutrality. But that neutrality is belied by the ornate serif type of the title, and in this subtle act of dissonance something of the work’s deliberate contradictions is cleverly prefigured in the design of the book. Upon opening the slender monograph, faux wood panel-styled endpapers rendered in deep black evoke the dated feel of a psychoanalyst’s waiting room, or a swinger’s nightclub – reinforcing a polarity between sobriety and perversion. These amount to early forewarnings of an unresolved tension, which sits at the heart of the complexities of the pictures the book contains.
Our radically modern sense of human identity has flowed from the clinical study of sexuality and gender, and of their formation and related disorders. But the epochal insights of Freudian theory are inseparable from the effects of his private proclivities, and thus that which is most clinically objective is already tied up with unspoken inner drives. The photographs in FROWST delight in slipping between these fluid lines, presenting themselves as both aesthetically bland and deeply sexualised studies in the imprecise limits of power and gender identity, developed within the crucible of family life. These photographs engage the vulnerability and sensuality of the body as an embryonic mish-mash of antithetical forces, modelling it (and thus the self) as a nascent formation traversed by differing pressures of control, desire and affection.
The flatness, theatricality and submissiveness of Piotrowska’s photographs owe a debt to the gestural tactics of Family Constellation Therapy. Thus the pictures take on the anodyne look of observational studies, and their subjects perform orderly exercises designed to exorcise internalised family tradition. In this theory, the pliable body of the subject can rupture its psychic bonds of constraint, and disentangle itself from familial disorders unconsciously replicated on an intergenerational scale. This performative logic accounts for the oscillation in the photographed subjects between absorption and hesitant collaboration, as some portraits appear like candid excerpts from a collegial family life, while others resemble stilted re-enactments of an incestuous history.
Portraits of brothers embracing or lazing in undress, or portraits of fathers grasping daughters and mothers clutching sons invoke the tension of self-determination within the family unit. Moreover they stage self-determination as something tied to one’s sexual differencing within a unit comprising an unequal distribution of power. Nude flesh is contrasted with intimations of anxiety, subjugation counterpointed by an uncertain drive for control or submission; intimacy is rehearsed or managed with a certain rigidity, so that the microcosmic nuances of family dynamics can be rewritten in bold through the theatricality of gesture.
The objective of Family Constellation Therapy is to arrive at a confrontation with the power of the past as a reality in the unfolding of the present. Thus the orchestrated postures are designed to elicit and externalise things previously left implicit, or else powerfully suppressed. This theory has the virtue of affirming, in an awkward but incontrovertible way, something Judith Butler observes in her thinking on the relationship between the body, the self and power: “power is involved in the very making of who we are,” and thus “the subject is not only produced by power but objects to and encounters the way in which it is produced by power.”
The force of Piotrowska’s photographs derives from their insistent framing of the explosive interstices between flesh, sex, self and psychology – a framing that visualises the elusive fissure which divides and constitutes a relation of body to self, and of subject to society. More than this, her photographs evoke the vulnerability that is inseparable from the human desire for recognition, which is the basis of any stable sense of identity.
The pointed choreography of control in these images, which is frequently centred on the action of the hands within the frame, establishes the constitutive influence of authority in the formation of an independent self. As the degree of collusion or subjugation between subjects varies from one image to the next, the question arises as to whether one might broach the violence of authority figured in these pictures, without unintentionally and inescapably replicating it. Do these photographs frame familial traits of repression, approbation and authoritarianism as innate, foundational and essentially unalterable? Are we doomed to a repetition of history, or can such confrontations as these break the spell of our troubled past?
In FROWST I do not doubt the veracity of these questions, nor the eloquence of their articulated form, but rather the provenance of their critique and the substance of their complaint. The compelling and awkward intensity of the images flows from their theatrical disjuncture with conventional forms of familial intimacy, but as they eschew autobiography for a performative strain of therapy, the photographs transform emotion into an unaffiliated abstraction. In this the portraits frame a pathology without a patient, and the vigour of their fiction immunises us from the troubling psychology they articulately engage. Even as each elegant arrangement of figure, self and sex unveils the determining power of the gaze, the effects of their fiction free us from the darkest implications of the contradictions they engage, and this renders their concerns more theoretical than visceral.
A line above the book’s colophon confirms, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.” Thus the pictures’ subjects function as performers rather than people, and their collaborative enactments do not require the suspension of our disbelief. One could legitimately argue that fiction does not limit the symbolic vigour of these images, and in the work of Cindy Sherman or Nikki S. Lee we might look to effective instances of a comparable photographic allegory. However it seems to me that the matter turns on the distinction between a general and a personal concern. FROWST is staged in the private, interior space of the family, and any accession by these images to the precincts of our own histories will likely succeed on the basis of reciprocity. Without it, we are liberated from the fullest implications of any instinctual identification, and this in turn engenders distance within the intimacy of each portrait. That said, these photographs are memorable, specific and yet finally evasive, and in their richness they more than warrant attentive contemplation.