In Conversation: Resident Artist Birthe Piontek
Birthe Piontek’s Burrard Arts Foundation Residency, and the resulting exhibition, represented exciting ventures for the artist in scale, material, and form. In this interview, we spoke with Piontek about her artist residency at BAF’s Vancouver studio, progressing to object-based work while remaining engaged with photography, her fascinations with cloth and the body, and more.
How would you describe your experience in the BAF Residency Program?BP
I had a wonderful experience. It was everything I hoped for, and even exceeded my expectations in terms of the amount of work I was able to make, the kind of work I was able to make, and the way I could expand my practice. I was able to tackle so many different forms and materials, explored my interest in sculpture and installation, and produced new photographic works. I worked a lot with materials I had wanted to explore, like nylon, foam and epoxy resin, but also made a lot of work that isn’t even in the show, such as soft sculptures using latex, ropes, fabrics, and more. It was a really productive and rich time which will inform my practice and future projects.
Obviously this show was a departure for you in some ways, so I’m really interested in how this body of work grew out of work you’ve done before.BP
When I applied for the Residency, I made it clear I was interested in working in sculpture in more of an abstract way. In the sculptural work I did before, for Miss Solitude, I had already tapped into that interest in working with objects and installations. The departure, I think, is in how these works got a lot more loose; in terms of the materials I worked with, the amount of abstraction, and in terms of not really showing an object as we know it, but instead a new form that refers back to familiar ones, like the skin or body, in a much more ambiguous way than anything I had done before.
The overarching theme is that I’m interested in the expression of our emotional, internal worlds that we all share as humans and sometimes don’t know how to express. I’ve always done this in my photographic works, whether by taking portraits, or still life images of objects. Over time, I’ve allowed myself to go in directions where a photographic image wouldn’t be the end result, while still working on the same thoughts, on how we express the complexities of our identities and unconscious minds. In this way, I think this work is just another way of tapping into those same, bigger themes.
I also want to talk about the materials that were new to you in these works. Things like textile and epoxy resin are not necessarily easy materials to work with. As a photographer, what was it like adapting to that?BP
It wasn’t as challenging as I thought. In my practice, I had already begun working in this more tangible way, with things that will actually exist in the space. The biggest challenge for sure was the foam mattresses, figuring out out how to bend them into shape, how to make them stay in the right shape. I didn’t quite know how much epoxy I would need to make them as firm and as rigid as possible. Another challenge was the contradiction between how firm and durable the epoxy is, but then also experiencing its fragility – if you drop it, if you put weight on it, it’s still very easy to destroy the sculptures. I think that was the biggest challenge and learning curve, to understand not only how the epoxy behaves but how the objects themselves behave, once they are epoxied.
I also want to talk about the Rainer Maria Rilke poem that accompanies the show. Why did you choose this poem specifically, and what kind of role does literature and writing play in your process?BP
I’m very much inspired by literature, specifically poems and poetry, as I see a certain connection to my work: trying to express an emotion without pinning it down. Essays and academic writing have their place in my research but are kind of detached from the emotional experience that I am interested in creating. This is why poetry or more poetic ways of using words are really inspiring to me.
I discovered Rilke’s book called Letters to a Young Poet early in my life and it has since become one of my favourites. It’s a correspondence between him and a young writer who started seeking advice from him on how to start out. I bring it up with students a lot, because it’s not only about writing, it’s about finding your way in the world and dealing with the big things in life – love, and failure, the quest for belonging and finding your voice.
When revisiting his poetry I encountered the poem “I am too alone in the world”, which really sums up what I was trying to say in this current work and what I feel as an artist. There’s this line “I don’t want to stay folded anywhere, because where I am folded, there I am a lie”, which perfectly expresses what I’m trying to do when I’m making work. It’s this feeling of… unfolding. I don’t want to hold anything back: I want to spill it all out for people to see and experience, and maybe trigger their need or feeling to also unfold, a desire to be true with each other, and which is so hard in our daily lives and the construct that we live in. Also, I think, emotions are not always valued and we don’t generally have time to listen to other peoples experiences.This is where the poem really taps in for me – to that overall experience of holding another person or yourself in this full picture of who you are and how you want to relate to the world.
Going back to the materiality of the show, the objects and photographs are all on a very large scale, they’re sort of body-sized – had you worked on a scale like that before?BP
For the photographs it was new. I had two large pieces that I had included in shows before, but they weren’t my own pictures in the sense that I took them, they were found images that I scanned, enlarged, and printed on vinyl, which made them feel a little more disposable.
Up to this point most of my photographic works were shot on medium format and my prints were on the smaller side, as I like the kind of intimacy that comes with a smaller scale. The photographs in “I want to be with those who know secret things” were shot on a large format camera, which enabled me to enlarge the prints to a much bigger size and play with the scale.
When you shoot large format you get an incredible amount of detail in your negative – something that I really wanted to showcase. The images depict folded fabric and cloth, materials that really want to be shown in a bigger size as it’s all about the folds and the creases in the material. The shapes of the fabric refer to the body, thus it was really important to me that they are almost life size.
Working with the scale of the sculptures was a bit more challenging. Once I knew what size I was looking for, I had to figure out how the shapes would stand up. I had many failures, many times things collapsed and broke.
Can you speak a bit to your choice to use cloth in so many of the works?BP
Cloth is such a beautiful material because you can shape it, bend it, and twist it in so many ways. It can become something other than cloth. What kind of happens with fabric in general, is we put it on our bodies and all of a sudden it becomes us. This material takes on a different life and a different identity. I was really interested in that idea and in that reference to the body: How even though these are not clothing items – they could still refer to the body and “become” a body. Certain fabrics are more charged than others, i.e. latex or nylons, have a really strong reference to skin and speak about a more intimate relationship to the body.
Tell us about your new book, Abendlied!BP
It’s interesting, because when I was making the work here, and people were coming in and looking at the sculptures, I would get this common question: are you done with photography, are you moving on to being a sculptor now? And the answer is no, I’m not done with photography, It is still very much the foundation of my practice. That’s why it’s an interesting time for the book to come out; a time when people are coming to the show and just thinking that this is what I’m doing now, making these more abstract sculptures. And meanwhile the book, which is something that I’ve worked on for the past seven years, is as straightforward of a photobook as can be. It’s shot on medium format, colour negative film, really photography in its essence. So that’s kind of my answer to people asking if I’m done with photography.
The body of work started a long time ago, before I even thought about sculpture in the way I am now, but the interest in sculpture and installation is very much evident in the the book – the way I explore objects as poetic stand-ins for an emotion, or reflecting back on a person, almost as a person themselves. The book is a personal project as it revolves around my family, and my childhood home in Germany. I moved from Germany to Canada fifteen years ago, and would of course go back and visit my family once or twice a year, and every time I went back there would be changes that were slowly happening. My sister had her first child, and pretty much at the same time my mom got diagnosed with dementia. So that made going back and leaving incredibly difficult. Every time I would go, I would see these immense changes that had taken place, with my nephew, and later my niece, growing up and changing really fast, and then the same thing happening with my mom, just in the other direction.
In the beginning, the photographs were an attempt for me to capture these moments and preserve them, even though the images were staged, rather than documentary. And then, over time, it became a documentation of this loss of my mom, and eventually of my childhood home as well. At first, I wasn’t even sure if I would share this project with the world, but once people started seeing it, they really related and found their own experiences of loss and grief within it. It’s something that is universal for everyone, so even though this was a personal experience it’s talking about a universal thing – our memories and connections to the people we love who have been with us our whole lives.
It’s out in April and will launch for the LA Art Book Fair. It will launch in Vancouver during Capture Photo Festival with a signing and a talk at Inform Interior on April 30th. Find the book online through publisher Gnomic.