L’étrangère Gallery in Shoreditch always puts on interesting shows, and Joanna Rajkowska’s Painkillers is no exception. On entering the exhibition space, we’re confronted with an entirely monochrome room: black flooring, white walls, black metal pedestals – and white artworks. The minimalist curation is attractive, yet somewhat confusing at first sight: in the middle of the room, we see a blanket lying on the floor. It looks real, yet it isn’t an actual blanket – it’s a hard-shell cast of one, surrounded by a number of other objects you wouldn’t normally expect to see in a gallery: guns, munitions, a pair of latex gloves, a rocket, and a strangely beautiful minimalist sculpture – which turns out to be the model of a nuclear weapon core. The effect’s stylish, clinical, and threatening, all at the same time. It’s difficult to make sense of the objects: in the gallery space, we perceive them as artworks, but they’re also medical equipment and weaponry, and their white plastic texture makes them look a bit like unpainted toys…
But don’t be fooled by this visual simplicity. Rajkowska’s works are a statement about ‘a set of disturbing and historically-obscured (mis)uses of scientific knowledge and power,’ and with the extensive literature provided, we learn about her thoroughly researched concept. The descriptions are highly detailed, like ‘Model of Israeli Nuclear Weapon Core as Photographed by Mordechai Vanunu is 1985.’ Every type of fire-weapon and munition is described, and we’re provided with a history of what, where and by whom these weapons were used. Wandering in between the blanket, the small rocket, the guns and ammunition with this kind of knowledge, the gallery becomes a different space. Even the simple blanket is, in fact, the cast of one infected with smallpox. No matter how harmless the objects may seem, they’re modelled on potentially fatal weapons, making the exhibition decidedly more uncomfortable than at first sight.
The links between war and scientific knowledge lie in the sculptures’ production itself: they’re cast from resin and (unspecified) powdered analgesics, Rajkowska thus mimicking the intricate relationship between healing and warfare in her own production process. Her rationale’s supported in a second brochure, which includes texts about pain by Alice Butler, Virginia Woolf and the artist herself. Reading these explanations underlines just how well thought through Rajkowska’s work is, how much sheer conceptual thought has gone into the exhibition. Yet we need to make our own effort to understand why these objects are displayed the way they are, that Painkillers isn’t just an aesthetically pleasing collection of strange things in a room. As such, the brochures are more than just a nice addition to what’s on display: they’re a vital part of the show itself.
If we read them attentively, we’ll find the first room provides a host of intriguing thoughts about war and medicine, and their relation to pain in human life. The second room balances out the first by showing a ‘mobile chakra crystal’ from a native tribe in Brazil. It’s the only object in the room, cast in concrete and placed on a wooden palette. By contrasting the unholy trinity of the infected blanket, rockets and ammunition with this spiritual piece, Rajkowska provides another approach to healing, this time in its native form. Modern and alternative ways of thinking about pain and salvation are seen from a critical angle, implied through the juxtaposition of those two rooms.
With the background material in the brochures, the objects on display – the nuclear core, the rocket, the neatly displayed munitions – aren’t only interesting to look at, but also provocative, a heated interaction between different fields of science. As such, Painkillers is as an exhibition both exciting and philosophically engaged– so long as we do our bit and are prepared to engage ourselves.
Joanne Rajkowska’s Painkillers is at the l’étrangère Gallery Gallery Shoreditch until 25th October.