Birthe Piontek is an exceptionally adroit visual artist, whose work visualizes the complexities of identity and memory. Her work has been exhibited internationally at many private and public collections, and appeared in renowned publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, Wired, and The New Yorker.
Through still life photography, installation, and assemblages, Birthe constantly explores the individual concoction of identity, relationships, and femininity.
Samar Sidhu: How does your experience of growing up in Germany, and then immigrating to Canada, inform the theme or technical aspect of your artwork?
Birthe Piontek: I can’t really say my German background is consciously informing my work. If anything it’s more an unconscious process–one that is hard to put the finger on and identify. Certain themes and topics in Germany differ from themes and topics that are relevant in Canada. I’m second generation post-war–but the ripple effects and the trauma of WW2 were and are still very much felt. I was 13 when the Wall fell. Both of these chapters in German history definitely have informed my upbringing and probably also my practice. Canada has its own dark chapters in history–one that I had to learn about and make it part of my life when I moved here.
The themes in my work are quite universal: memory, loss, our relationship to our bodies. I can’t identify a specific “German-ness” (whatever that means) in my work. If anything there might be a longing, a feeling that something is always missing, which might be relevant and informative to my practice. When I’m in Canada I miss certain aspects of Germany–and when I’m in Germany I miss Canada. The longing for a place where things feel complete and resolved might be one of the drivers for my work.
SS: Is there any artist(s) who has inspired your work and/or motivated you to practise art professionally?
BP: There have been many and they constantly change. The first photography exhibition I saw when I was 16 was the work of Lee Miller. I think this was the moment I decided to become a photographer. I purchased a book with the early work of Annie Leibovitz. These two women definitely were a motivation and inspiration when I was in my teens.
In university I discovered “staged photography”: Jeff Wall, Anna Gaskell, and filmmakers David Lynch and Tim Burton. The strange, surreal, and uncanny became (and still is) a big interest in my work. Over the last years the focus in my work and my inspiration has shifted a bit from “straight” photography to sculpture and installation. Louise Bourgeois, Ana Mendieta, Kiki Smith, Nick Cave (the visual artist, not the singer–although I like him too), and so many more. In the day and age of Instagram I feel I am discovering new artists and inspiring work on a daily basis.
SS: In present times, how do you view the distortion in representation of identity and reality over social media, especially Instagram, and how do you think it affects individuation?
BP: There are certain aspects that I definitely enjoy when it comes to social media and Instagram (as mentioned above). It can be a creative outlet and tool to connect. There might be people who are able to find a voice or reach an audience on these platforms, but overall they create a lot of anxiety and pressure. Therefore, I think it has a problematic element to it in regards to individuation and the representation of identity, especially in the younger generation. When you’re a teenager, you’re already comparing yourself constantly and are very unsure where you belong and fit in. This anxiety gets amplified by social media as you’re constantly comparing yourself with others. The result of this is usually the feeling of being a failure in regards to looks, achievements, life.
Individuation is a dialogue between the self and the other and the world that surrounds us. If you are constantly bombarded by images, standards, and expectations from the outside world–how do you find out who you are? This is especially problematic, as the images and representations on IG are distorted and have nothing to do with reality. So in the end it is a bit of a toxic cycle that feeds into more distortion and depression.
SS: Much of your work accentuates feminine identity. How have the females in your personal life, particularly your mother and grandmother, influenced the feminine subjectivity in your work?
BP: Both my mom and grandmother lived in traditional patriarchal constructs. They both stopped working when they became mothers and stayed at home. While I completely support and understand if a woman makes this decision, the problem for them was that a void appeared when the children left the house and they both didn’t seem to be able to fill it. Sometimes one could pick up on the idea of the “unlived life,” even though I don’t think they really regretted the decisions they made. At the time, it was what women were supposed to do and how they were supposed to live. They just never thought of breaking the norms. They were both very dependant on their husbands, financially and emotionally. It strikes me that both ended up suffering from Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, something that made them even more dependant and vulnerable.
In many ways I feel the ripple effects of these roles both women took on and maybe this is where my fascination with the archival press image from the 50’s and 60’s comes from. I can see my mother and my grandmother in many of these images–or at least variations of them. Not only in regards to beauty and fashion standards, but also the constraints in regards to the performance of prescribed gender roles and their representation in our society.
SS: What do you have to say about the current landscape of artistic practice in Vancouver? Is there anything you wish to change or add?
BP: Vancouver has so many great artists and such a diversity in practices and visual languages. It’s sad that there are not more opportunities and places for people to show the work but also, even more importantly, to make the work. This has all to do with the affordability of housing and studio/gallery space. So many artists are struggling to make work simply because they don’t have the space to do so. This is why funded studio residencies like the one the Burrard Arts Foundation offers are so crucial. I wish there would be more opportunities like this.
SS: Are you currently working on a piece? If so, can you share some details with us?
BP: I am about to launch my book Abendlied which is a long-term photographic project about my childhood home, my family, and my mother’s battle with dementia. The Vancouver launch will be at Inform Interiors on April 30th as part of Capture Photo Festival. I just installed a public art piece at Broadway City Hall Station which is also part of Capture. These images belong to a new series called “Lacuna” which is ongoing work that revolves around the relationship between our bodies and photographic images. The series is another iteration of my interest in vintage and found press photographs, the idea of an image as an object, and brings together photography with installation and sculpture.