In April 2020, Polish artist Katarzyna Perlak spent two days listening to stories of heartbreak. Between 5pm and 1am, anyone could call her and pour their heart out. “It was an amazing experience: quite intense but very moving. People shared very touching stories with me about how they experience intimacy during the pandemic,” the artist says.
The dedicated heartbreak line was part of a project commissioned by Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York, and One Archive from LA for their programme Remote Intimacies. For Perlak, the performance, along with her film The Broken Hearts Hotel, have become a study of long distance queer relationships and their dissolution.
The video work was filmed at the Queen’s Hotel in Eastbourne, which at the time had been closed for a few months. Amid the slightly surreal settings of a deserted seaside hotel, we meet elaborately costumed figures musing on love. The texts they read come from bell hooks’ All About Love, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, and letters from Kay Turner’s anthology Between Us: A Legacy of Lesbian Love Letters.
“I feel like the topics of love and heartbreak are very universal, but there is still an Eastern European and queer perspectives in the work. I speak a lot, and even though I use a voice modifier karaoke microphone, you can definitely hear an Eastern European accent in this very English space, which creates a sense of juxtaposition.”
Katarzyna Perlak has been based in London for 16 years, but originally comes from a small coal mining town in Poland. Much of her work explores Polish folk culture as a way to express queer identity, challenging the idea that traditional Polish culture and queerness are mutually exclusive. Crafts form a large part of Perlak’s research, and figures dressed in traditional Polish costumes are prevalent both in her video work and collages. On the table in her studio, there is a pile of vintage handkerchiefs that the artist has embroidered by hand with proverbs and political slogans. One has the red lightning emblem of Poland’s pro-choice women’s marches embroidered in red beads over delicate white fabric. The project, Bated Breaths, which is set to be exhibited at the Jerwood as part of Survey II, explores what Perlak describes as Tender Crafts methodology, and crafts from a migrant, feminist, and queer perspectives.
The questions of belonging and national identity are complex for any immigrant artist — and even more so if they’re queer. While love may be a universal topic, queer love is only allowed a very segregated existence in much of the world.
In 2017, Perlak filmed the performance piece Happily Ever After, a fictional lesbian wedding taking place in Wrocław. “We had two performers dressed as brides who were walking around Wrocław town, and I was taking photographs of them. It was kind of a pretend wedding photoshoot. Sometimes you see newlyweds going around town having their photographs taken. So I was thinking of how usually heteronormative sexuality is being performed in those public spaces and wanted to recreate this with two women,” Perlak remembers. During the performance, the brides were wearing dresses Perlak had sewn together from fragments of different wedding outfits, complete with veils and masks. The “wedding” procession was followed by a celebratory dinner and a party at BWA Studio Gallery which lasted until 5am.
A version of the same work appeared at Detroit Art Week in 2019. “To show this work in Detroit, I turned a hotel room into a honeymoon suite and made a video that combined the documentation of the performance in Wrocław with footage from Pride in Poland and all the anti-pride attacks. I pulled together the utopian attempt of a queer wedding and this dystopian kind of reality.”
Through Perlak’s work, queer Polish love is able to exist in different contexts and geographies, a pledge for LGBTQ+ love’s universal visibility and value. Ultimately, that means looking at its complex nature: the mistakes, longing, and impending heartbreak. As it winds its way from a wedding against all the odds to a deserted seaside hotel and a lonely voice on a phone line, the story of love which her work narrates is both queer and universally human.
“I’ve always been interested in hotel rooms because it’s a mixture of public space and intimacy. You can have really personal experiences there, but they’re still transit places which don’t belong to anyone. I love them because I’m interested in the idea of temporary utopias,” Perlak says. “To me, romantic relationships are also an attempt [to create] a utopian idea which doesn’t always work.”