Jarek Piotrowski: Soft Machine

This review of Jarek Piotrowski’s Soft Machine at Galerie8 was published in Art Monthly issue 354 March 2012

Jarek Piotrowski installation view

Like John Cage, William Burroughs’s generative methodologies for creating work have become a pervasive, enduring and, some might say, over-referenced influence on contemporary artists. But while following Cage leads to chance, silence, orientalism and a gallery with not much in it, artists influenced by Burroughs’s mix of shamanism, sci-fi and the deliriously erotic, often produces strikingly unpredictable and profuse results. Tapping into this fount of transgressive energies, Polish-born Canadian artist Jarek Piotrowski has drawn inspiration, and an exhibition title, from Burroughs’s experimental novel The Soft Machine.

Originally published in 1961, the novel was the first work in Burroughs’s ‘Nova Trilogy’, a series of three books produced using the famous cut-up technique. A productive way to interpret the book, and a route Piotrowski no doubt considers, is to see action in The Soft Machine as a general metaphor for the physiological condition of heroin addiction. A key feature of this approach is to recognise that Burroughs sees junk addiction as ‘a cellular equation’, or metabolic disease, and the addict as an unfortunate vessel for a kind of internal biological warfare. So the book’s primary concern with bodily invasion is intrinsically linked to heroin ingestion and what Burroughs describes, in his 1953 novel Junkie, as the addict’s ‘continual state of shrinking and growing [at a cellular level] in his daily cycle of shot need’.

In Piotrowski’s ‘Soft Machine’ the influence of Burroughs’s non-linear, body-in-crisis narrative is explicit in his newly produced, customised panels of PVC matting. Hung across the walls and suspended in the centre of Galerie8’s main space, the surface of each panel has been hand-cut and punctured so that the remaining negative spaces form elaborate dystopic images. In the main, Piotrowski depicts a central figure orbited by militaristic iconography, and ornate mantilla-like patterning, capturing moments of direct or implied conflict. In one large panel a pair of hooded children stand back to back at the centre of concentric circles – as if targeted – underneath an arch marked on either side by two skull and crossbone motifs; in another, a flayed torso hovers within an elaborate heraldic display, surrounded by four hypodermic needles. They are impressively made works, created with a contradictory mix of compulsive energy and delicate, almost baroque, handiwork.

Underneath three smaller wall-based panels lay remnants of Piotrowski’s cutting process. Here, their presence seems to state, is evidence of impulsive abandon, of a certain labour intensity. However, that the spreading of PVC detritus is not repeated underneath all panels suggests two things: that remnants are strategically placed and that they fulfil a strictly ornamental purpose. This second instance of organising chaos – the first being his transformation of Burroughs’s anarchistic energy into a sober and figurative application of craft – reveals Piotrowski to be an artist propelled and scuppered by contradictory forces. The conundrum is this: why concoct such a sedulous artisanal method – the painstaking process of neatly cutting through PVC  – to channel Burroughs’s patchwork method and The Soft Machine’s jarring, helter-skelter narrative? Over and above the reference to Burroughs’s novel, Piotrowski’s works aspire to a greater biopolitical significance, but the strategies utilised foreground his undeniable skill as a craftsman and illustrator, placing what he makes in a decidedly decorative field. At their best the panels succeed in depicting a kind of ecstatic moment of comic-book psychodrama; at their worst, they resemble the heavy-handed political commentaries of street artists like Banksy, only without the gags.

The central fallacy at the core of ‘Soft Machine’, as stated in the gallery interpretation, is that it is to be regarded as an ‘immersive installation’. True enough, there is a lot of work and it had to be installed, but the characteristic affects associated with immersion – disembodiment, heightened proprioceptive awareness, and a physiological coalescence between artwork and spectator – are missing. ‘Soft Machine’ is, in fact, a collection of short series of works, produced since 2003, showcasing the breadth of Piotrowski’s skill, and the variety of his chosen subject matter as a painter and draughtsman.  There is ‘Gentle Collapse’, 2011, a series of watercolours, including a hypnotically soporific forest-scape that recalls Peter Doig’s Concrete Cabin, 1995-96; ‘Kosmos I-IV’, 2003, a series of surrealistic charcoal drawings depicting Kafkaesque, black-clad figures; and there is even a series of sketchbooks and pencil drawings from 2006-11 showcasing the artist’s knack for draughting soldiers.

That Piotrowski is an artist with a wealth of technical ability is abundantly clear, but as a strategy for his first solo show in the UK, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach has not served him well. A firm editorial hand would have reduced ‘Soft Machine’ to its most essential elements, namely the collection of PVC panels made as a direct, if problematic, response to Burroughs’s novel. This would have gone some way towards ensuring a clearly discernable line existed between the subject matter, the work and the artist’s intentionality. In ignoring these basic curatorial rudiments, works aside from the PVC cut-outs are cut adrift to float off into a contextless expanse. On the other hand, none of this would have mattered if the intention to tether the entire exhibition to Burroughs’s narrative was dropped. In this way works could exist on their own terms, even if those terms aren’t of the most socio-political pertinence.

It is exciting to see Galerie8’s support of young Eastern European artists, particularly when there is a welcome absence of geographical and political essentialism in the offing. However, in loosening the curatorial grip on Piotrowski’s ‘Soft Machine’, evidence of the artist’s multiple talents have swamped what might have been a powerfully succinct introduction with a conflicting number of diverging lines. Still, that is probably the way Burroughs would have wanted it.

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