Of skin and hair, of bone, and dust
by Jason Koxvold, from Janus, by Birthe Piontek
See Janus comes, Germanicus, the herald of a lucky year to thee, and in my song takes precedence. Two-headed Janus, opener of the softly gliding year, thou who alone of the celestials dost behold thy back, O come propitious to the chiefs whose toil ensures peace to the fruitful earth, peace to the sea. And come propitious to thy senators and to the people of Quirinus, and by thy nod unbar the temples white. A happy morning dawns.1
It is impossible for me to approach Birthe Piontek’s new work, Janus, without acknowledging my understanding of Birthe and the trajectory upon which she finds herself. Her previous book, Abendlied (Evening Song)2, described an attempt to make sense of her mother’s deteriorating mental condition. Seemingly tender and mischievous in equal parts, Abendlied makes Piontek’s family life into a production for the stage, a puckish allegory for the slow creep of dementia: the characters in the book exchange faces and roles, using the family’s archival photographs, or by assuming others’ wardrobes, and wigs; semi-opaque curtains obscure and reveal emotions and memories interchangeably. Piontek casts three generations of family members in these fluid roles in a way that is deeply personal, an almost uncomfortable glimpse into entropy — the weight of which is lightened by a warmth that spills over from the generosity of those involved.
So I write this in the midsummer of 2021, as we continue to experience the rippling effects of what may yet transpire to be the end of our long global pandemic, or perhaps just the beginning. Living in Vancouver, thousands of miles away from her family, Piontek had begun to work on Janus before the emergence of COVID-19. Using one particular corner of her studio, she embarked upon a series of photographic experiments — this time placing herself in the role of the protagonist, with a supporting cast of various fruits, vegetables, and other organic matter. The work floats in a quantum state between still life and self-portraiture, and we would do well to consider the inherently performative artifice of each genre, as Marianne Boruch’s whimsical epigram reminds us:
Someone arranged them in 1620.
Someone found the rare lemon and paid
a lot and neighbored it next
to the plain pear, the plain
apple of the lost garden, the glass
of wine, set down mid-sip—
don’t drink it, someone said, it’s for
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Of course one of them
exaggerated the pain in his shoulder.
Not the older, the younger man.
No good reason
to cry out like that. But this
Piontek writes, “Like the ancient Roman god, Janus – the god of beginnings, transitions, and endings – we always try to look into the future while being informed by our past. Thus the current moment in which change is happening usually slips by unnoticed.” But it seems that this new work was more self-reflexive, a way of navigating some form of pain, an attempt to find kinship with objects which could not return the gesture — each one dying, or already dead. To my eye, every photograph represents in some regard a failed experiment, an attempt to become that which someone else desires, or perhaps hoping that the objects could become some amalgamation of what Piontek herself was seeking. Thus began a series of increasingly awkward, physically uncomfortable attempts to become something else, and as COVID accelerated its spread and our worlds became progressively smaller, Janus took on solid form. Being physically confined by lockdown measures, the project continued to germinate and flourish until it occupied Piontek’s full attention; soon, the project would come to include photographs of objects masquerading as fruit; vegetables and flowers engaged in precarious balancing acts.
Each image is ripe with symbolism. A watermelon, cleft in two, offers up sweet, saturated nectar, delicious in tragedy. The artist’s legs, smoothed over by sheer hosiery, teeter over a pair of perfect eggs. Later, amidst a field of broken eggs, a tulip sprouts improbably from a tower of shells, or a bright green shoot emerges from a ginger root in Piontek’s hand, like a sixth finger brought to life. Moments such as these evoke the 2018 Alex Garland film Annihilation, in which human DNA is impossibly altered and recombined with that of different species. These genetic follies are presented in the film as beautiful and terrifying – leaning more towards the latter – but in Piontek’s hands they feel inquisitive, optimistic against all odds, even. Even when she places her arm into service to mimic a length of long-dead driftwood, despite its obvious connotation with inexorable decay, the image retains a sense of curiosity in the photographer. This curiosity is at the core of what Piontek refers to as playful investigation; in her words, “I don’t think that grief and change have to be expressed in dark, muted colours.”
Piontek’s search for tenderness, humour, perhaps absolution in moments that would otherwise conjure painful memories is reminiscent of the poetry of Dean Young, imbued with a synaesthetic quality that defies easy categorization; simultaneously one thing and another, crackling with love and the possibility of its absence:
to still have a body in this rainbow-gored,
crickety world and how ridiculous to be given one
in the first place, to be an object
like an orchid is an object, or a stone,
so bruisable and plummeting, arms
waving from the evening-ignited lake,
heading singing in the furnace feral and sweet,
tears that make the face grotesque,
tears that make it pure.4
Both Young and Piontek seem to find great pleasure in this ongoing elision of disparate ideas. In one image, a peach, wrinkled and well past its prime, holds up a mirror so that another peach may regard itself. It is impossible to discern whether this support is intended as an act of love, or cruelty, or both — or whether the mirrored peach is engaging in narcissism, self-loathing, or simply trying to commune with its present reality. As you might sense, it is not easy to write about ideas such as these without sounding foolish; to engage in the personification of a piece of fruit requires both the viewer and the artist to suspend disbelief and embark upon a shared journey, a willingness to embrace the absurdity of our condition. If we can do that, it’s possible that we might see our own lives and truths in the images.
These images are resolutely contemporary, despite whatever kinship they may share with the Dutch Masters, lit from a single, large source in Piontek’s studio. The same light pours, day after day, through the window; from the captions and associated metadata in the files, we learn that many of the images were made at almost the same time every day. Routine and repetition in her studio practice differentiates Janus from some of Piontek’s previous projects, made out in the world, photographed on film. Here, a digital life unfolds, repeating experiments day after day, deeply human despite our increasingly rapid march towards the singularity.5
In this regard, Janus exists in the continuum of abstract self-portraiture that began in the surrealist movement and later that of post-minimalism, through artists like Dora Maar and Alina Szapocznikow, and which finds new expression in the work of Paul Mpagi Sepuya and Polly Penrose. While Maar used photocollage and other techniques to manipulate and remake her images, for example to reimagine her likeness as sculpture, Piontek’s work is photographic in the stricter sense of the word, adjusted in post-production only to correct colour and tone; her dialectic relies upon representing herself sculpturally by making images in-camera: setting the self-timer and physically manipulating her body into often seemingly impossible positions, or those which suggest disembodiment. While Janus shares similar territory with the work of Polly Penrose, who juxtaposes her figure with manufactured objects and materials like balloons and paper, or Jackie Nickerson, wrapping her subjects in layers of rubber or fabric — by aligning herself with natural objects in a meditation on the notion of impermanence, Piontek achieves an altogether different effect. Naked in every image, her face obscured by a shadow, or a limb, or by the composition of the photograph, she breaks down and rebuilds the language of classical sculpture. Rather than trying to preserve in eternity a representation of perfection as a meditation on the Platonic Ideal of the human form, her work addresses inexorable change as a constant, in one instance alluding directly to the statue of Venus de Milo, arms folded behind her so as to disappear completely, a wilted cabbage leaf draped over her shoulder. Placing her body in awkward poses becomes a hallmark of Janus, in a deliberate challenge to conventional modes of representing the female form.
This is not to suggest that the work has no sexual aspect; rather, it embraces entropy as an inextricable component of attraction, even as contemporary culture increasingly attempts to deny aging altogether. As Alina Szapocznikow wrote in 1972, “My gesture is addressed to the human body, ‘that complete erogenous zone,’ to its most vague and ephemeral sensations. I want to exalt the ephemeral in the folds of our body in the traces of our passage.”6 In this way, by addressing imperfection and change as it pertains to self, Piontek wrests back her likeness from the male gaze, subverting commonly-held assumptions of what photography should be, and who it should be for.
Is this to say that Janus is an inherently feminist work? Not specifically. Much like that of Louise Bourgeois, who worked similarly in the world of eccentric abstraction, Piontek’s work is fluid in this regard. Rather, she focuses on the rediscovery of the human form: in her words, “an invitation for a reinvention of body and identity.” The resulting works appear to occupy a peculiar liminal space, in which we experience the objectification of the artist, presented as a faceless actor, and the personification of her props.
In Grapes, we find perhaps the most overtly sensual representation of Piontek, seen here as a vessel for a fruit that holds deep historical symbolism for fertility and salvation; but equally, the perils of lust. The grapes are presented for the viewer’s taking, resting on Piontek’s exposed throat, her skin reflective with a slight sheen of moisture as she arches her back. The theme of risk recurs often in the work, seen perhaps as the price of yearning for connection. In Mini Hyacinths, a green tendril extends to meet its counterpart, balancing precariously on the edge of a table; Icarus-like, as if risking its own annihilation to entertain this new, wary romantic interest — even as its original partner sags, forgotten, in the same vase.
The artist appears to consciously reject attempts to extend a natural life span: Apples, encased in a block of ice, become mushy and inedible, the solid water beginning to melt around them. This is a theme that Piontek has explored before, expressed in the form of two fish, each bisected by ice, in Lying Still (2010-2016)7. In both images we can find the spirit of Janus, the process of slow change arrested forever by Piontek’s shutter; only the camera can stop time. But even these pixels, made up of patterns of bits and bytes, will eventually decay; even the ink on these pages will fade, and the paper of Piontek’s archival prints will crack.
As I write this, the days are beginning to shorten; my own children are playing outside in the crystalline arcs of the sprinkler. A live recording of Nina Simone plays in the background — her own Abendlied, in a way: an evocative elegy for everything we hold dear.
Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?8
The final image in the book, Hyacinth, the eponymous flower leans perilously out from the edge of a table, its wilting petals resting tenderly on Piontek’s shoulder, as if comforting the artist. But she looks away in rejection, her face hidden as always. Too late, perhaps? Too perilous? Or, maybe, a final acknowledgment that an object can never be that which it is not.