Aneta Grzeszykowska at Raster, Warsaw

Phoebe Blatton explores power through Aneta Grzeszykowska's transformative take on motherhood

By Phoebe Blatton

Mama #45, 2018, pigment ink on cotton paper, 36 × 50 cm. Courtesy the artist and Raster, Warsaw

Aneta Grzeszykowska’s Mama presents 25 photographs of her eight-year-old daughter, Franciszka, interacting with a realistic silicone model, cast from the waist up, of the artist’s body. Shot during 2018 in locations ranging from domestic interiors to rural landscapes, the scenes are variously macabre and tender: a particularly unnerving image is of Franciszka grinning with relish as she tapes back the lips of her ‘mama’ to expose dentures that are reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s gruesome mouths. Grzeszykowska was inspired to shoot the series when her daughter discovered the model wrapped up in her mother’s studio (it having been used in a previous project, Model, 2017) and began to play with it. That she is the child of artists who work with the body, and has grown up with such odd things ‘about the house’, might explain why she does not read them as memento mori. This is suggested by a photograph taken in a typically bourgeois living room, in which Franciszka props her ‘mama’ on a piano stool flanked by a potted succulent and monographs including one on Francesca Woodman, also the daughter of artists. Nevertheless, Franciszka’s apparent ease with this uncanny ‘mama’ seems shocking.

Other photographs lean more predictably into horror, suggesting a postapocalyptic scenario in which the child roams feral in the countryside, bathing her synthetic mother in an abandoned summerhouse before carting her down to the river and taking her out on a dinghy comically branded with the name Relax–21. But what we are actually witnessing, given that the ‘real’ Grzeszykowska is present with her camera at these encounters, is a transformative kind of play between mother and child. Just as expectant mothers were once handed a doll with which they could practise motherhood, the doll in this case aids an exercise in the role-reversal that most of us will experience. The risk (and valuable play carries a degree of risk) is that the mother figure is exposed as replaceable. That the child can enjoy a relationship with the stand-in destabilises the sanctity of mother- hood and shifts the dynamic of power towards the child. This speaks to Poland’s repressive abortion laws, in which a woman’s body is principally valued as a receptacle for new life, and adds a sinister dimension to these images of a daughter approaching puberty.

Despite frequently using her body to explore what she calls a ‘theory of nonexistence’ (notably in an untitled series of Photoshopped portraits of ‘nonexistent’ people from 2005–06), Grzeszykowska is ambivalent about describing her art as feminist. This chimes with an obviously influential figure, Cindy Sherman, whose Untitled Film Stills (1977–80) Grzeszykowska referenced for her suite of the same title, made in Poland in 2006. Sherman looms over Mama, with the suggestion of narrative, nostalgic monochromes and saturated colours, the lens’ ability to both distance and make intimate.

It is in this space that the very real issues of the day collide. On the afternoon of my visit, I read Jacek Dehnel’s account of the recent Pride parade in Białystok and the simultaneous ‘family picnic’, organised by the local authorities, at which LGBTQ+ people were not welcome. The latter surely contributed to the homophobic violence that erupted at the former, most acutely drawn in Dehnel’s description of ‘a woman with a toddler, aged about two or three, both of whose tiny hands she was posing to show the middle finger... while she chanted: “Fuck-off-fag-gots!”’ Viewing Mama, I couldn’t help but think of the woman’s manipulation of the child, the coercion of the innocent by that holiest of Polish symbols, the mother, as she also struggles with a ‘theory of nonexistence’: her own precarious sense of self twisted into hatred of a vulnerable ‘enemy’. Grzeszykowska plays with similar tensions between mother and child, but in doing so, subverts dread into something brave and questioning.

Aneta Grzeszykowska: Mama, Raster, Warsaw, 25 May – 14 September 2019   

From the October 2019 issue of ArtReview