At the centre of Shoreditch gallery l’Étrangère, set up by Polish-born, London-based art historian Joanna Gemes in 2014, sits a large egg. With its pastel light-brown colour spread out over its plaster shell like a patina, the egg is perfectly formed, as all eggs are, and the size of a small infant. A group of women has gathered for an evening in support of the charity Women for Women International.
“Touch it”, says one of the other guests. A few of us stand around the egg, our hands on its ‘shell’. I am immediately soothed by a regular, tapping sound inside, a strange sensation like a heartbeat. Rajkowska calls this acoustic sculpture ‘Hatchling’, and we learn that she was inspired by seeing a bird egg crack: the anticipation and the energy going on inside the egg, and then something breaking out, like a new beginning. Rajkowska wanted to recreate that feeling in an object.
You may have seen the large-scale replica of a blackbird’s egg by Rajkowska that is currently exhibited in Regent’s Park for Frieze Sculpture. This Hatchling is inspired by the egg of the common blackbird, one of Britain’s most common birds and one whose song is arguably the most beautiful and best-loved of any bird. Made from pigmented acrylic plaster, the bluish colour is given by powdered stone mixed with the plaster; and like the smaller Hatchling in the gallery, its surface is hand-painted by the artist. There is a similar sound of the labour of hatching birds: their heartbeat, the pecking of the shell and their first vocal attempts, recorded by Rajkowska on a microphone.
It was important to Rajkowski that the egg exceeded the size of a human being, became somehow larger than us. Also important was that the audience can touch the sculpture, and put their ear on it to listen to its beat. On the standard “Do not touch or climb” subscript at Regent’s Park, ‘not’ and ‘or climb’ are wittingly crossed out.
Some further reading informs me that the blackbird is a Europhile – British blackbirds are joined in winter by large numbers of migrants from Europe, mainly Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Russia, and Germany. “How many people at this table were born in the UK?” asks Joanna Gemes. Two or three women raise their hand (not Gemes herself, not me). In fact, the name of the gallery l’Étrangère refers to Gemes’ identity as a foreigner, as well as to the Camusian notion of displacement within one’s own country. On the eve of Brexit, these are daunting thoughts.
The strong connection between humans and animals is further explored in sculptures that incorporate masks, human hair, fur. A sculpture in a luminous deep blue reminds me of Yves-Klein blue (a colour I will from now on refer to as Joanna Rajkowska blue). At first sight, it looks like the animal heads that traditionally adorn hunters’ lodges, albeit an animal with strikingly elongated horns. But this animal has been seamlessly transformed into something more human, but also more sinister; small animal bones and stones stand for eyes and a mouth. Gradually the horns start to take on a human form, too, rising up into the air like arms in prayer.
Masks are a recurrent theme for Rajkowska: a mask is something that we humans often hide behind to avoid showing our true face, a man-made object that animals do not have. At the same time, masks have a strong association with ritual, that expression of togetherness and bonding that humans share with animals (albeit in a much more cultured and developed way for humans). It is this constant push and pull between the animal world and the human world, and between vulnerability and strength that shines through in all of Rajkowska’s work.
There is a series of drawings in which Rajkowska uses the shape of the egg as the shape of our planet. These Egg-Earths contain buildings and factories and trees and animals, but worryingly there are many more buildings than nature. If our world could be a bit more like the egg, Rajkowska seems to say, a bit more open and nurturing and soft, mankind would be better for it. It is in these drawings that Rajkowska most actively and most critically takes a stance. The show’s ominous title, ‘The Failure of Mankind’, seems to suggest that the metaphorical egg is the one that cannot crack. We need to make sure that the built world doesn’t break through and destroys and damages the natural world.
As much as a wake-up call, The Hatchling and other works in the exhibition seem to be a proposition. An invitation to openness and looking at our world from a different, more gentle angle. Both Joannas told us that the works are about the power of empathy: the ability to feel and understand other species, on whom we are dependent, and to understand and listen to others. This is why Gemes’ thought of Rajkowska’s art when she came across Women for Women International earlier this year and spoke to its Executive Director, Brita Fernandez Schmidt. As Gemes said, “to help women from countries struck by war, rape, and abuse, the most important thing we can bring to them is empathy. Empathy is often painful, so we avoid it. Instead, Rajkowska’s art and Women for Women International embrace it.”
This was a night for women. But I do hope men go and see this show, too and are not scared away by its title. Feminism is about taking an open, inclusive stance, not replacing one dominant power with another. In my head, I am replacing the ‘Failure’ in the title with ‘Hope’’ and the ‘mankind’ with ‘humankind’. Leaving the gallery after the beautiful dinner, surrounded by challenging art and inspirational women, greeted by the soft London night, I thought of new beginnings.
Joanna Rajkowska, The Failure of Mankind, l’Étrangère, London until 31st October 2019
The Hatchling, part of Frieze Sculpture, Regent’s Park until 6th October 2019
Photographs courtesy of l’Étrangère