Joanna Piotrowska & Formafantasma, Sub Rosa

Friday Dispatch – 4 November 2022

Joanna Piotrowska & Formafantasma, Sub Rosa
Phillida Reid, Tottenham Court Road


8 October – 16 December 2022


‘When the artist Joanna Piotrowska was accused of being a spy, she focused her lens on roses’ was the headline of an article in Frieze magazine in 2018. Indeed, the story of Sub Rosa, a collaborative site-specific project by Polish photographer Joanna Piotrowska and design duo Formafantasma began to unfold in 2015.


Back then, Piotrowska travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There, the artist was accused of spying and subjected to interrogations by the local military police. When she was released, she was told to continue taking photographs. Disturbed by the experience of the interrogations and aware that subsequently she was closely observed, the artist who is well-known for examining the power structures encoded within space, decided to ‘censor herself ‘and focus her attention on what seemed to be the only ‘safe’ or ‘neutral’ subject in a place of military conflict: roses everywhere on the streets of Agdam, Armenia, the city where the interrogation and accusations had taken place.


Despite this traumatic event, Piotrowska up until today, continued to photograph roses she encounters across different locations and contexts as a subject in her work.


For Sub Rosa, she invited the design duo Formafantasma to collaborate on translating her complex experience from 2015 into art objects that explore power dynamics as well as notions of fragility and violence. Formafantasma, founded in 2009, is a research-based design studio based in Amsterdam, investigating the ecological, historical, political, and social forces shaping the discipline of design today. The starting point for the collaborative project was her memory of the architecture of the interrogation room in Nagorno-Karabakh with its ambiguous, characterless, and oppressive ambience.


In Phillida Reid’s new gallery space, black and white prints of fragile and delicate roses are simultaneously supported and held down by stainless steel structures, which almost forcefully seem to lock them in place. They are pierced by bolts and pinned against the wall – almost like suspects violently caught by the police.


‘A turning point was when we looked into how interrogation rooms are designed,’ explain Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin of Formafantasma, who undertook extended research on incarceration architecture. In the exhibition they recontextualised the materials commonly used in these settings, notably stainless steel, using it in the exhibition as, what the designers describe as ‘anti frame’ framing devices for Piotrowska’s comparatively delicate silver gelatine prints of roses.


As a result of the presentation, Piotrowska’s flowers feel imprisoned. The silver steel structures seem to violate the images by piercing obstructing or holding them captive. Overall, the collaboration between Piotrowska and Formafantasma powerfully brings to life the deprivation of privacy and self-censorship Piotrowska experienced in Nagorno-Karabakh.


For me, the photographs, formal elements, and materials employed by the artist and designers make evident how often objects, materials, and the architectural elements used in law enforcement at border control, play a dominant part in creating violence. Sub Rosa transforms Piotrowska’s and Formafantasma’s ethereal and refined sculptural objects – inspired by interrogation-room architecture – into subtle but provocative and powerful objects of resistance, undermining existing hierarchies and power structures.


Christine Takengny
Senior Curator


10 – 16 Grape Street, WC2H 8DY
Opening Times: Tuesday – Saturday, 11 – 6pm
Exhibition open until 16 December 2022