Photo50 2024

Grafting: The Land and the Artist

Exhibition review by Fergus Heron

In 2024 London Art Fair’s annual Photo50 exhibition was guest curated by Revolv Collective. Titled Grafting: The Land and the Artist, it showcased mainly emerging artists, with the commonalities across the range of presented works circling around ideas of situation, proximity and entanglement with land. The work featured slow and meticulous processes in its making, and, as a result, invited close, detailed and sustained attention, writes Fergus Heron.

Fergus Heron | Exhibition review | 24 Jan 2024

In Landscape and Western Art (1999), Malcolm Andrews speculated ‘as a phase in the cultural life of the west, landscape may already be over’. Andrews drew upon insights by geographer Denis Cosgrove that ‘landscapes can be deceptive’, and John Berger’s well-cited passage that ‘sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with the inhabitants, are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer geographical but also biographical and personal’. Recent literature exploring how artists make sense of place, including work by Susan Owens and Alexandra Harris, build upon such thought, focussing on the ways in which contemporary artists work with renewed attention to their immediate localities, in many cases concentrating on how their own, and their communities’, lived experiences of place involve co-dependent human and non-human natures.

It is with this sense of place that London Art Fair’s Photo50, guest curated by the photography organisation Revolv Collective, presented Grafting: The Land and the Artist. Featuring mainly emerging artists, the commonalities across the range of selected works were those of situation, proximity and entanglement with land. Most of the work featured slow and meticulous processes in its making, and, as a result, invited close, detailed and sustained attention.

The curatorial approach taken focussed upon the detail, fragment and perhaps, above all, the matter of land. These considerations were situated in close dialogue with the materials of photography, primarily in its analogue forms, as well as materials and processes at the edges of, and that exceeded, the medium. The collection of works was drawn from a range of independent projects made in numerous ways from artist residencies to academic research. All projects approached land as the actual matter and form of places lived and worked. Here, there was limited, if any, sense of landscape, that is, the kind of picture made according to art historical conventions of the picturesque or sublime that frame views of land at a distance for remote contemplation. Where landscape was present, it was as reference or critique.

Amongst standout works was Eugénie Shinkle’s Ideal City (Somebody Else’s Landscape). This work was constructed from individual 35mm colour contact prints hand sewn into a large-scale piece presented upon a freestanding frame. Corresponding through its colours with paintings by JMW Turner, the conjunctions of early industrialisation, the awe-inspiring forces of the natural world and the emergence of photography were in dialogue. Other works referred to the early years of photographic exploration within which plants featured heavily as subjects; Marie Smith’s Extraction: In Conversation with Anna Atkins comprised cyanotypes inspired by this key figure that depict leaves and plants from the Horniman Museum in London using herb-based developers to process the images, bringing photographic subjects and processes into close relation. Amongst works produced collaboratively was Seed Pod by Joshua Bilton. This project brought together stories of school children involved in a series of workshops imagining themselves transforming into plants, trees, water, birds and seeds in response to water ways forming part of their immediate environment.

Collected in a box, the stories and poems accompanied delicate sculptural earthstone seeds and Polaroids used to record performances and workshops. Laid out on a modest trestle table in the exhibition space in rows, grids, columns and a circle, the Polaroids showed children’s hands inscribed on the print rebate with their names, and the seed pieces in connection formed poignant commentary on notions of community, hope and possibility. Rowan Lear’s A Sudden Branching featured silver gelatin prints showing fragments of land surfaces and forms mounted on the underside of wooden shelves. The shelves, painted bright green and fixed to the wall, on their topsides supported ceramic stems made from grafting together two types of clay. To see this work fully demanded movement of the body in ways that alluded to natural processes and defamiliarised conventions of looking and display. With great subtlety, and at first apparent simplicity, this work engaged multiple complex ideas about human relations with the natural world. Jackson Whitefield’s highly refined mixed media monochrome works placed land art and landscape in dialogue.

Hannah Fletcher and Alice Cazenave’s collaborative project (is)land featured a collection of 16 beautiful direct positive prints exposed in waste film canister pinhole cameras, developed with plant-based chemicals and fixed using salt evaporated from the Baltic Sea. Without enlargement, and with the imagery featuring landscape views and surface markings from their process with near equal emphasis, photographic technology was situated within, and inseparable from, the world it shows. The placement of the series next to another of Fletcher’s works, a sculpture constructed upon principles for silver reclamation from exhausted photographic fixer, created dramatic contrasts in scale and materials. In relation, these works situated photographs generated from the land, and offered comment upon the environmental consequences of photography’s materials and techniques, demonstrating how reworking the actual development process of photography towards different futures can be possible.

Within the fair, Photo50 was difficult to find. Once located, the work was installed along a set of display walls, effectively forming a linear sequence from left to right. There was limited space in which to give each piece of work the kind of concentration it deserved. Extra peripheral activity was all too apparent with many distractions. Nonetheless, once adjusted to the location, the strength of the collected works, the variety of approaches and their qualities emerged. Much of the work was complex and detailed, often small in scale, or made up of many smaller constituent parts, which helped activate ways of looking that alternated between, and in the best examples effectively balanced, critical engagement with the key underpinning curatorial issues and the kind of reverie that images of the natural world at their most powerful can stimulate. As a collection of work, the show made visible the shared agencies and interdependencies of human and non-human natures through photographic images; those with and from the natural world. Visible too were the aesthetic qualities of photographic materials that in many different ways touch the natural world. ♦

Grafting: The Land and the Artist ran at Photo50 at London Art Fair from 22 – 26 January 2024.

Fergus Heron is Course Leader for MA Photography, leads the Photography Research Group and is a Research Supervisor in the School of Art and Media at the University of Brighton. He studied at the Royal College of Art, London, and the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. Exhibitions featuring his work have taken place internationally at venues including: Tate Britain, London; Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, Exeter; Royal West of England Academy, Bristol; Museum for Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark; and K3 Project Space, Zurich, Switzerland. His work is included in the anthology Emerging Landscapes (Routledge, 2014). He selected Photography Culture: Photography and Landscape (The Photographer’s Gallery, London, 2018), edited Visible Economies (Photoworks, 2012) and is a contributor to A Companion to Photography (Blackwell, 2020).


1-Eugénie Shinkle, Ideal City (Somebody Else’s Landscape), 1998. Image courtesy of the artist.

2-Eugénie Shinkle, Ideal City (Somebody Else’s Landscape), 1998. Image courtesy of the artist.

3-Hannah Fletcher, Alice Cazenave, (is)land, 2022. Image courtesy of the artists.

4-Jackson Whitefield, Imprint I, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

5-Marie Smith, Extraction: In Conversation with Anna Atkins, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

6-Edd Carr, Yorkshire Dirt 1, 2022, 3min16.

7-Tamsin Green, cliff, 2021.

8-Victoria Ahrens, Purpurea, 2023.

Mark McKnight

Heaven is a Prison

Book review by Eugénie Shinkle

Eugénie Shinkle considers the ways Mark McKnight turns the distance of pornographic and landscape photography back on itself, grounding the gaze in the fleshy material of the body.

Earth and sky – and in between them, a horizon, suggested but not seen. The first two photographs in Mark McKnight’s Heaven is a Prison, published by Loose Joints, sketch out a landscape in elemental form, drawing the gaze skyward and then down again, to the ragged outline of a fallen tree against a backdrop of distant hills. In the third photograph, two figures occupy the middle distance, their bodies locked in an embrace, their skin smooth against the parched vegetation. The camera moves closer, glancing towards this intimate scene and looking away again in a steady rhythm that feels choreographed – the slow circling of a voyeur creeping through the grass. Set against the expanse of the surrounding landscape, the pair of figures seem almost incidental.

Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that these two male bodies, engaged in a raw act of lovemaking, are the subject of this work. As the camera draws nearer, the viewer is transformed from voyeur to participant, close enough to make out sweat and spit, hair and marks on the skin. But the faces of the two men are partially obscured, and their anonymity only serves to strengthen the intensity of the encounter. Is primal too strong a word? Maybe not. There’s something monumental about these two bodies, a vitality that they share with the landscape itself.

In the accompanying essay, poet and critic Garth Greenwell describes the landscape in McKnight’s photographs as a metaphor or an index of time passing, a backdrop for what is essentially a human drama. It is all of these things, but it’s also much more. The landscape is an insistent presence in Heaven is a Prison. Shots of clouds and rolling hills punctuate the story again and again: they are more than tangential, more than just a setting for the minor transgression of al fresco sex. In Western culture, a landscape view – not the ground, rock or water itself, but the pictorial order we impose upon it – is a manifestation of power. When we look out over a landscape, we do so, implicitly, from a place of safety: here, the place where I stand, is always set out in relation to the over there of the horizon. This distance privileges the rational eye and gives a known form to the shapelessness of unaltered nature.

It’s in his images of landscape that McKnight’s much-vaunted debt to photographic Modernism is most clearly felt: Frederick Sommer, Minor White, Ansel Adams – each put their own distinct spin on the Modernist archetype, and each has left a trace on McKnight’s practice. For Adams especially, the landscape was a theatrical space on which to stage the heroic expression of the self. Through his views – their classical structure bound to the Western landscape tradition – the rational gaze dominates space. McKnight’s landscapes hint at this ideal form, except for the fact that the horizon – the eye’s guarantee of detachment – is nearly always absent. For the viewer, this refusal of distance plays out as a kind of vulnerability: I can’t see, I can’t know, I can’t find myself.

Along with this loss of perspective comes an invitation – or perhaps an imperative – to surrender to sensation. There’s no shyness in McKnight’s depiction of sex, and the forthrightness of his photographs requires the viewer to navigate a powerful series of affects. There are moments of real tenderness in Heaven is a Prison, but there’s also hard fucking, chains and piss play – not glimpsed from a distance, but often, confrontationally close. The viscous stream of saliva running from one man’s mouth into his partner’s is exciting and disgusting in equal measure. It’s visceral stuff, and the exact nature of the sensations that we experience – shock, arousal, joy – is less important than the fact that they are so clearly summoned.

As viewers, we do not observe McKnight’s photographs from a place of safety. Instead, they meet the eye with acts so fiercely intimate that we are left with a stark choice: to be drawn in, or to look away. And if the earth, sky and empty pages interleaved with the more explicit scenes hint at a reprieve, what they really offer is a different kind of seduction – a slow, deliberate rhythm that lends these acts the solemnity of ritual. Looking through Heaven is a Prison is like witnessing an act of communion: earth, flesh and sky, merging into one another.

It’s telling that McKnight lists Sommer and White amongst his most significant influences. Both utilised elements of landscape in their work, but abandoned its spatial conventions in favour of something less secure, less easily knowable. Sommer’s Arizona Landscapes have no foreground or middle distance or horizon – nothing against which the viewing subject can measure themselves. For White, the abstract forms of water, clouds and other natural elements were ways of evoking a state of resonance or unity with the cosmos that surpassed rational knowledge. Both can be understood as invitations to unmake the self. McKnight’s work shares this sense of transport, this euphoric dissolution of boundaries – between one body and another, between the body and the landscape, between the look and its object.

Heaven is a Prison is a book about lust, desire and sadomasochistic sex, but it would be a mistake to label these photographs pornographic, just as it would be a mistake to label this a book of landscape photographs. As genres, pornography and landscape are crude articulations of a power that relies on distance – the privilege of a bodiless eye. McKnight’s photographs turn this distance back on itself, grounding the gaze in the fleshy material of the body. And if his work challenges archetypal images of queer bodies, it also touches on themes that are more ecumenical and potentially utopian: the idea that distance can coexist with closeness; that pain can be an avenue to pleasure and deeper intimacy; and that transcendence is a horizon that may only be approached by leaving a place of safety.♦

All images courtesy of the artist and Loose Joints © Mark McKnight

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer and writer living in East London. She is co-editor (with Callum Beaney) of the photography platform C4 Journal. 

Michael Ashkin

Were it not for

Book review by Eugénie Shinkle

In the desert, the traces of human presence are visible on the ground for a long time. Alongside the remains of earlier inhabitants are other, more recent legacies –– accidental landscapes of exhausted ground, tracked and paved over, sown with garbage, shattered and heaped up. Created by obscure acts of violence, places such as these seem to exist below the horizon of sense, their dialect both familiar and unreadable.

Between 2014 and 2017, Michael Ashkin made a series of visits to the American West, covering a vast circle with the Mojave Desert at its centre – Phoenix, Las Vegas, Lake Mead, Death Valley, the Imperial Valley, Lake Havasu, the Salton Sea, Palm Springs, Edwards Air Force Base, California City, the San Diego suburbs, and the US/Mexico border near Calexico. These are the scaled-up, hubristic landscapes of manifest destiny, built on the back of monumental successes and equally epic failures, potent embodiments of the sense of possibility that defines what it means to be American. But Ashkin saw these places differently, as anxious expressions of a society in which “violence is regularly enacted in the most mundane moments and places according to rules and intersections of forces that are not always apparent”.

Were it not for published by FW: Books is a dark book. It documents shallow histories, disposable geologies of plastic and cardboard and used-up commodities. It is an elegy for a landscape shaped by cumulative minor desecrations, inevitable outcomes of the violence that inheres in casual acts of consumption: “how we decide to use and value objects, how we exploit them, own, possess and dispense with them, how we tell their history, interact with them unthinkingly and often quite cheerfully, and how we ultimately describe them and think about them within the limits of our language.” For Ashkin, these anonymous spaces, and the debris that is spread over them, are the nuclei around which the existential dread of a nation is crystallised.

Ashkin’s photographs are neither easy nor beautiful. Displayed in a roughly chronological order, they consist mostly of exterior shots of unnamed places: vacant lots, empty ground, roadsides. Their form and subject matter are repetitive: rubbled foregrounds, fences and barriers, blank walls, dumped trash, blocked horizons, the characterless oblongs of low-rise architecture. Occasionally, we glimpse an empty office set behind dusty plate glass; they have the air of places where some kind of force is administered. Sometimes, between one frame and the next, the camera shifts slightly, moving in closer, revealing things that were obscured by other things, but providing no new information. The unease in Ashkin’s pictures has a blunt, simmering quality that courses slowly through the body like an infection.

It would be tempting to describe Ashkin’s photographs as landscapes if everything about them didn’t resist this definition. They are neither natural nor scenic; they contain neither a hint of promise nor a shred of redemption. What’s most remarkable about these images is their almost total vacuity: overfilled with visual information but somehow devoid of content. Ashkin shoots in landscape format but crops his images to portrait – itself a kind of violence, a repeated violation of the order of landscape and the perspectival logic of the photographic frame. Every picture is haunted by this missing information – ghosts of what the camera saw, the phantom limbs of rational space.

Running through the images are 680 lines of anaphoric verse. Some are stacked up in thick columns, others are randomly assigned as captions to individual images, a few sit alone on otherwise blank pages. Writing in the dark, during periods of insomnia, Ashkin composed the text in the lightless middle ground between wakefulness and sleep – a liminal space echoed in the text itself: “I imagined what could exist between the writing subject and what lay beyond the distant mountains.” Composed some years before the photographs were taken, the text has no direct relationship to them. Its logic is not that of the caption; instead, it follows the prosodic order of the incantation or psalm. It runs through the work like the drone of an invisible machine, measured and deeply evocative, a slow-flowing index of pasts and presents, events and states of being, familiar images and strange mutations. We like to imagine language as a scaffold for the image; a way of creating meaning when the photograph gives us none. But Ashkin’s words follow their own strange order: “In the end, the phrases amount to a list of how the status quo reinforces itself, how inertia is maintained.” Here, the repetitive sequence of the anaphora is the steady rhythm of nothing happening.

Were it not for takes as its subject the unfocused middle ground of history; places with no identifiable past or future and a drab, leaden present. Territories not unlike these were staked out in the 1970s by photographers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, early on in a process of recognition that jolted the idea of landscape out of the orbit of human living and into the deep, cold-blooded space of capital. The topographies of waste in Ashkin’s photographs are the end game of this process. And if the places that Baltz and Adams photographed were understood as abstractions – space deployed as a commodity by the machinery of advanced capitalism ­– the places that Ashkin photographs are abstractions made real.

‘When we pay attention to the world, I believe we have to admit that it is a fearful place down to its smallest details,’ remarks Ashkin. Were it not for is a catalogue of such details – a procession of negations and refusals that mirrors the working of capital itself. There is a certain satisfaction in unlocking the conceptual schema of the work – understanding it not simply as a document of disorder but a disordered document with transgression built into it: a refusal of rational space, of narrative time, of customary perception. Others encounter the work differently. Ashkin showed the book to a class of medium-security prisoners at Cayuga Correctional Center in New York State: “They were very interested in its logic. One prisoner (about to be deported back to Honduras) had migrated across the desert border and he said the book described the world as he understood it.” There’s not much in the way of conventional aesthetic pleasure to be had from Were it not for. What it offers instead is a blunt enactment of capital’s own corrupt devices – for some, an intellectual privilege, for others, a lived reality.

All images courtesy the artist and FW: Books. © Michael Ashkin

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer, writer, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. She writes for various publications such as Foam, Aperture, Fashion Theory, American Suburb X, and The Journal of Architecture. Recent work includes Fashion Photography: the Story in 180 Pictures (Aperture/Thames & Hudson 2017) and ‘Painting, Photography, Photographs: George Shaw’s Landscapes’, in George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field (Yale University Press 2018).

Andy Sewell

Known and Strange Things Pass

Essay by Eugénie Shinkle

Photography is a literal medium. The idea that it might be capable of picturing the unrepresentable implies a kind of paradox. Surely a medium that’s grounded in the correspondence between light and objects can only deal in visible things? Andy Sewell’s latest body of work, Known and Strange Things Pass, suggests that photography can do more than this.

The ostensible subject of Known and Strange Things Pass is the transatlantic communications cables linking the UK and North America. But the cables are only one thread in a web of analogy that explores what it means to be in the world at the present moment. Known and Strange Things Pass is about the deep and complex entanglement of technology with contemporary life. It’s about the immediacy of touch and the commonplace miracle of action at a distance; the porosity of the boundaries that hold things apart, and the fragility of the bonds that lock them together. It’s about a reality in which everyday existence is shored up by an immense, labyrinthine instrument devised by us, but grown into something that we no longer fully understand.

In The Order of Things (1966), Michel Foucault wrote of the mesh of resemblances by which the world made itself known to the pre-Enlightenment imagination. Knowledge was organised according to systems of likeness prepared by nature itself, and revealed in the proximity of one thing to another, in affinities and analogies, in similarities and antipathies between various beings. The world was an enormous text: held together by signs and known by reading the marks on its surface.

Today, the world is held together not by signs, but by slender threads of molten silica. Our lives are ordered by a vast flow of data. More than 2.5 quintillion bytes of information are created and shared every day – an unimaginable, uncountable quantity, almost all of which moves around the world through fibre optic cables running along the ocean floor. These cables make landfall in unremarkable places. They’re housed in mundane materials – concrete and metal, rubber and bitumen. Their form gives no hint of their function. There’s an ocean of incommensurability between what they are, physically, and what they represent. In Western culture, this gap between understanding and sense presentation is known as the sublime.

The photograph-as-document is a blunt instrument against this kind of complexity. Sewell understands this, and he doesn’t attempt to picture it in an image, or organise it into narrative form. Instead, Known and Strange Things Pass uses the photograph as an enigmatic and partial way of approaching the unrepresentable. The edit moves back and forth with the rhythmic push/pull of the ocean’s tides, by way of parallels and correspondences, layering and repetition and barely perceptible differences. The same magic that Foucault perceived in the pre-Enlightenment imagination is at work here too, not just in what Sewell’s photographs show – hands poised in mid-gesture, bodies immersed in the waves, cables and switches and data centres, fragile sea creatures, computer screens – but in the logic that holds them together. It’s recursive and concentric, marrying rationality and metaphor, suggesting analogies and connections without locking them down. Known and Strange Things Pass looks at the world in a way that would have appealed to Foucault, as a ‘marvellous confrontation of resemblances across space and time’.

Space and time are the raw materials of the infinite. They’re also subject to the whims of history. So when Sewell sets the elemental forms of the shoreline alongside the greyscale of control rooms and mainframe computers, he also hints at the transformation of the classical sublime into a different kind of infinity. Kant insisted that the sublime couldn’t be contained within any sensuous form, but historically, that hasn’t stopped us from linking it to the visible spectacle of mountains, skies and oceans as emblems of forces vastly more powerful than us. The digital sublime is more pervasive and more clandestine. We live with it every day, submerged in an infinite that can’t be seen. It’s not really graspable or available to experience the way that oceans or mountains or skies are. It loses its lustre when it’s grounded in everyday objects such as mobile phones or computers. And yet it’s these same objects – ubiquitous and necessary – that have become part of us and that hold our reality together.

It’s said that photography can only show the surface of things. But Known and Strange Things Pass suggests that the photograph can also grasp something of the common substance that runs beneath this surface. This, in essence, is the argument that Kaja Silverman makes in The Miracle of Analogy (2014). Photography, she writes, is more than an index or a trace: it’s a vehicle for revealing ‘the authorless and untranscendable similarities that structure Being, … and that give everything the same ontological weight’. Rather than holding us apart from the visible world, photography is a testament to the depth of our entanglement with it.

As the ocean meets the shore it exists, for a moment, in an unsettled form, a liquid mass leavened with air and transformed into foam. Known and Strange Things Pass is a meditation on the complex ecstasy bound up with this fluidity, this passage from one state to another. In a maquette for the forthcoming book, Sewell has included a quote by philosopher Timothy Morton: our reality, Morton claims, is caught up in nonhuman entities ‘incomparably more vast and powerful than we are.’ Sewell draws a more nuanced distinction between the human and the machine. Just as the rational mind can’t be uncoupled from the sensing body, technology can’t be set apart from human nature. We are indispensable cogs in this vast and powerful machine, and it, in turn, is part of what makes us human. It is as necessary to our makeup as the most basic elements from which life originally emerged, part of the primordial soup from which we all arose.

All images courtesy of the artist and Robert Morat Galerie, Berlin. © Andy Sewell

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer, writer, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. She writes for various publications such as Foam, Aperture, Fashion Theory, American Suburb X, and The Journal of Architecture. Recent work includes Fashion Photography: the Story in 180 Pictures (Aperture/Thames & Hudson 2017) and ‘Painting, Photography, Photographs: George Shaw’s Landscapes’, in George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field (Yale University Press 2018).

Joanna Piotrowska

All Our False Devices

Exhibition review by Eugénie Shinkle

I spent most of the 1980s scared out of my wits. Environmental pollution, stranger danger, the chance that we might be wrong about the sun, and that it might burn through its supply of hydrogen and flicker out not in five billion years, but tomorrow or the next day… it was a scary decade, but the spectre that I lost the most sleep over was nuclear war.

In May of 1980, the British government released a booklet entitled Protect and Survive as part of a civil defence series on living through a nuclear attack and its aftermath. The first image in the pamphlet was terrifying – a three-colour graphic of a mushroom cloud boiling skyward, the result of an explosion so cataclysmic that it wasn’t clear you would actually want to survive it. Standing firm in the face of this prospect, Protect and Survive instructed citizens to build a fallout room in their home, complete with a thick-walled ‘inner refuge’ cobbled together out of whatever household items they had to hand – doors, furniture, clothing, books, bags of earth or sand.

Luckily for humanity, the need to build a fallout room or an inner refuge never arose, but such ad hoc shelters stood little chance of weathering a nuclear explosion, and even if they had, the body was still likely to succumb anyway – there’s not much that sofa cushions and stacks of books can do to prevent a slow death by radiation poisoning. But Protect and Survive wasn’t actually about protection or survival. It was an antidote to pervasive feelings of helplessness and fear – a way of keeping hope alive in the face of what were probably insurmountable odds. Building a fallout room and an inner refuge was a demonstration of agency – a way of giving people the sense that they could do something.

Joanna Piotrowska’s All Our False Devices, currently on display as part of Art Now at Tate Britain, explores the subtle balance between agency and vulnerability. Her work is often said to deal with gesture, but the ­installation at the Tate Britain – a selection of framed black-and-white photographs and three 16mm film loops – asks us to think about the term beyond its obvious associations with body language and nonverbal communication. A gesture can also be understood as a testimony, and the various gestures that comprise All Our False Devices testify, in different ways, to the nuanced character of human frailty.

Between 2016 and 2018, Piotrowska invited subjects living in four cities (London, Warsaw, Rio de Janiero and Lisbon) to build shelters in their homes. Like the inner refuge, these shelters are weird eviscerations, thrown together out of things displaced and dragged out of cupboards: blankets and chairs, books and sofa cushions, along with unlikely items like rocks and lumps of rubble, musical instruments, empty picture frames and random pieces of metal. Some are imaginative and even inviting: a cosy fort made of a patio umbrella and patterned throws, a wigwam topped with a wreath. Others feel like outward manifestations of inner pain: in one image a woman lies curled in foetal position in a hallway, sheltered by an unsettlingly clinical assemblage of metal racks and white sheets. In another, Piotrowska’s subject lies prone on a mattress, buried under layers of bedding with only her head showing. All of these arrangements are unstable and temporary, but their fragility is beside the point, because their purpose is symbolic. They are expressions of identity – of a childlike impulse to create, and a more grown-up will to survive. Less carefully planned than the domestic interiors of which they’re a part, these enclaves represent something primal – a basic animal instinct to shield the self from unnamed threats.

Some of the most pervasive of these threats are invisible – psychological violations directed not at the body, but at our sense of self. The complex, gendered nature of such threats is the subtext of two of Piotrowska’s films, which feature young women working through a series of odd gestures and poses, adapted from instructions in self-defense manuals. The films are projected small and low on the wall, the images nearly hidden by the machinery of the projector. You have to come close to see what’s going on, leaning in to observe what look like slow rituals that the women have yet to properly master. Alternately stable and wobbly, Piotrowska’s subjects rehearse the same movements over and over, their performances wavering between futility and triumph.

Another film features a pair of hands, shot from the wrist down, one exploring the other, feeling its way along the uneven contours of the wrist and forearm. Intimate and strangely hypnotic, it’s a body’s tactile reflection on its own being, and a meditation on the enigmatic nature of touch. The reversibility of touch was something that preoccupied philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty throughout his career: ‘When my right hand comes into contact with the left hand palpating something,’ he wrote, ‘its activity easily reverses into the passivity of an organ being touched by the other hand. At the crossroads of touching and being touched, my sensible body manifests itself both as a tactile agent and a patient … ‘. For Merleau-Ponty, our relation to the world begins with the body, and as such, it is always, simultaneously, resolute and yielding.

Vulnerability, in other words, is an essential part of being human rather than a failing; being itself – human or otherwise – involves a fluid state of compromise between strength and surrender. Vulnerability is something intimate and political, overwhelming but also somehow comforting. Protect and Survive encouraged the building of shelters as a way of renouncing this. Installed in a high-ceilinged, imposing room that’s been wall-to-walled with thick blue carpet like a soft cyan sky dropped groundward, All Our False Devices encourages us to occupy this ambiguous state for a moment and to embrace it as something fundamental.

All images courtesy of the artist, Southard Reid, London, Madragoa, Lisbon, and David Radziszewski, Warsaw. © Joanna Piotrowska

Installation views of Art Now: Joanna Piotrowska: All Our False Devices at Tate Britain, March 8th – June 9th, 2019. Photo: Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer, writer, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. She writes for various publications such as Foam, Aperture, Fashion Theory, American Suburb X, and The Journal of Architecture. Recent work includes Fashion Photography: the Story in 180 Pictures (Aperture/Thames & Hudson 2017) and ‘Painting, Photography, Photographs: George Shaw’s Landscapes’, in George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field (Yale University Press 2018).