Joanna Rajkowska’s exhibition, ‘Painkillers’, at l’étrangère deals in the troubling central theme of pain. Her sculptural objects, the majority of which are here formed from polyurethane resin and painkillers crushed to a powdered form, refer to the ways that human relationships are founded on exchanges and abuses of power.
There is a mute quality to Rajkowska’s sculptures despite the repeating motifs of guns and hand-grenades. These weapons are transformed, recast into ‘neutral’, near ghost-like forms of opaque white. The polyurethane resin places them at a remove from the original metal, while the powdered painkillers offer another layer of political material. The exhibition is almost meditative, though it overtly responds to violence and the politicisation of the body and of health. Each object stands as its own archive of issues connected to modern warfare, medicine, self-preservation and the psychology of pain.
Explicit socio-political tensions are at play within ‘Painkillers’, particularly in Rajkowska’s re-appropriation of military weapons. Rajkowska’s guns, hand-grenades and more ambiguous cast objects rest on elegant black structures. The works refer to biological and medical manufactures in military contexts. Specific case studies allow the highly-charged sculptures to more deeply probe the complex and politicised interplay of power and knowledge within both the military and within medicine. The spectator is invited to contemplate these troubling subjects, but within a highly clean, almost sterile environment, as a passive observer.
The room at the back of the exhibition holds a rather different sculptural form. A small wooden pallet supports a large amethyst geode formation. Here the viewer is requested to consider an different material form and set of ideas. Originally installed in a community context in Birmingham, the amethyst’s spiritual, healing properties are drawn out, standing in stark contrast to the sinister weaponry of the first room. A much more fragile piece, its title ‘Soon Everything Will Change’ (2014), offers a highly optimistic perspective. It is an invitation into a future state of being where things will improve. The piece, with its overtones of new-age healing, is grounded in a much more liberal political consciousness, a rejection of violence that offers the hope of an alternative future.
The exhibition title, ‘Painkillers’, directly references the innate human desire to flee from pain, to cure it and to suppress it. All this while paying little heed to the pain of others. It is for this reason, this linguistic signification, that the works in ‘Painkillers’ transcend their material forms as metaphors for human behaviours on a global scale. The works point toward something inherent in us all, something which we choose to not make public: the pain that we conceal within ourselves which, at some point, must break free.