The dominant attribute of the abstract sculptures and photographs in I want to be with those who know secret things is tautness. The forms created by Birthe Piontek during the BAF Residency Program were made using familiar found objects that appear to enclose, hold, strangle or cover another form, but to a point were the hidden object is somewhat revealed by this effort to conceal. In this new exhibition, these forms are physically present within the gallery space, and also exposed through large-format photographs that echo the imposing scale of the textile and mixed media works.
The foam sculptures suggest jaundiced, rubenesque bodily forms; each fold and crevice could be a hiding place, like an oyster concealing a pearl. Foam, in this instance, appears hard and cumbersome, repressing the innate softness and lightness of the material.
In Piontek’s nylon and sand works, there is an evocative mix of materials and aesthetic juxtaposition. Treated with epoxy resin, ordinarily fragile black nylon is rendered rigid. Fuchsia pink sand seeps out of the nylon forms, spreading over the floor as if from a broken hourglass. The sand reveals the fragility of the nylon, a traditionally feminine material.
The use of often-gendered material forms a common thread through the works in I want to be with those who know secret things. Pearlescent beads, delicate peach chiffon, latex and nude-toned stockings are among the materials that Piontek has arranged to unsettling effect, folding, draping and hanging them in a manner reminiscent of ambiguous body parts. The finished shapes create an anxious tension as the viewer attempts to situate them within the intimately recognizable shapes already recognizable as part of the human form.
In some of the new photographic works included, cloth becomes a vehicle for character and emotion. Through different methods of draping, folding, and twisting, the fabric renders each scene taut with dramatic energy. Piontek’s skill is evident in how she imbues these inert materials with an almost narrative irony; the tension of appearing that something is just about to be revealed,
I want to be with those who know secret things represents the extension of an exciting development in Piontek’s practice. Since 2016, the artist has been experimenting with bringing the themes explored in her photography into the physical world. The BAF Residency Program provided an opportunity for Piontek to work at an unprecedented scale and size with these material forms.
The following poem by Rainier Maria Rilke was selected by the artist as a point of reference for the show. In Piontek’s words, the poem “expresses the longing and emotional depth that I experience when making my work – and that I am hoping can be found in my work as well. He refers to something secretive and shrewd – something that I see in my images and sculptures, too. At the same time he expresses his desire ‘to unfold’… as an artist, I unfold things that are hidden or locked in our unconscious minds, that want to get out – to unfold. ”
I am too alone in the world, and yet not alone enough
to make every moment holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with my will,
as it goes toward action;
and in those quiet, sometimes hardly moving times,
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.
I want to be a mirror for your whole body,
and I never want to be blind, or to be too old
to hold up your heavy and swaying picture.
I want to unfold.
I don’t want to stay folded anywhere,
because where I am folded, there I am a lie.
and I want my grasp of things to be
true before you. I want to describe myself
like a painting that I looked at
closely for a long time,
like a saying that I finally understood,
like the pitcher I use every day,
like the face of my mother,
like a ship
that carried me
through the wildest storm of all.
- Rainer Maria Rilke
Birthe Piontek was born and raised in Germany, and moved to Canada in 2005 after receiving her MFA from the University of Essen in Communication Design and Photography. Her work has been exhibited internationally, in both solo and group shows, and is featured in many private and public collections such as the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the Museum of Applied Arts in Gera, Germany. Birthe’s project The Idea of North won the Critical Mass Book Award 2009, and was published as a monograph in 2011. Her most recent work, Abendlied, received the Edward Burtynsky Grant and will be published in 2019. Her photographs have appeared in a number of international publications like The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, Wired and The New Yorker among others. Birthe teaches in the Audain Faculty of Art at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver and is a member of the Piece of Cake Project.