The artistic practice of Polina Kanis is structured by an analytical interest in the social diagnosis and reception of non-political forms of authority and subordination. The artist notices the invisible aggression of the social fabric as such, its immanence to power. In her videos Kanis explores social distortions and phobias, and reconstructs them cleansed of random noise, in refined form. The reality beyond what is visible arises in our imagination as a disturbing and unmistakeable, although invisible, presence.
In the video Celebration we see men in uniform dancing in a detached manner and in silence. The strangeness of this ritual is apparent from the opening frames and teeters between recognition of the known—an indication that we only see what we know—and an understanding of the rituals, which safeguard our social foundations, as a fundamental deception, an absurdity, which has no meaningful basis other than uncritically inherited tradition. But what if this deception is integral to the very nature of our desire? What if this deception is not commanded by the external orders of government or tradition, but only by the ineradicable dominance of absurdity inside ourselves?
In the video Pool we watch a metaphorical reenactment of an unseen event that resembles death. People enter a shallow swimming pool and disappear. Nothing happens, but it seems to us that some mistake or malfunction intrudes into ordinary life, so that the commonplace becomes excess. The boundary of the water separates the visible from what is happening. The boundaries of the frame control our attention in accordance with the logic of a dream, which is indistinguishable from reality. A hermetic situation breaks into the reality of our experience and exposes the ordinary in its dreamlike ambiguity.
The space where our perception is manipulated is more like a bunker than a water park—it has more to do with places organized by the logic of isolation and sleep terrors than of communication and consumption. This video is about hermetic sealing—the hermetic sealing of meaning, space and of the subject alienated from himself and the community of other such subjects. It is the shimmering visual experience of a terrifying dream where the only thing that happens is an unseen disaster.
The social status of any limit experience, including insanity and death, becomes a fact of external reality and is reflected in collective actions. Polina Kanis dramatizes their ambiguous evidence.
As a frame and counterpoint for the videos, the exhibition combines ideal landscape constructions with models of devices created for the production of ideal bodies.
The notion of correcting the non-ideal—the notion of orthopedics—originates in Enlightenment philosophy at the same time as a keen interest in deformities. The organic metaphors of the philosophy of Bacon and Rousseau combine a mythology of nature with the omnipotence of reason, they exhume the myth of Galatea, and this myth becomes the matrix of a world view for the new era, which asserts the ability of the mind to improve nature, to transform an illiterate peasant into a gentleman, a monster into a person, to breathe life into stone, etc. In practical terms, this philosophy led not only to collections of natural monstrosities in Kunstkammers and the discovery of genius in the dark mass of the common people—such figures as Lomonosov or the serf actress Praskovya Zhemchugova,—but also to various practices of control over the body, from the castration of boys to keep their high voices for opera, to the branding of convicts, isolation of the insane, and the requirement that girls should study embroidery.
The device for correction of the body is foremost among the disciplinary practices enacted by government—practices of submission, suppression and control. The 19th century discovers non-aristocratic bodies and the technique of photography, and their combination produces a conflict with the canon of the aristocratic portrait. This conflict is addressed by means of correcting devices, which became a fixture of many studios and ateliers.
The idea of improving life by means of a reasoned project is transmitted via the 19th century to the 20th by means of ideology, which was the invention of the 19th century. For the masses, ideology becomes a substitute for reason. The social violence of the 19th century loses any connection with truth in the 20th century, and becomes invisible and painless in the 21st century, while all the time remaining the same violence—an inherited product of history, visual strategies and existential policy. This is the greater thing, that modern man identifies himself with, reproducing the invisible order of power and subordination.
There is a clear connection, in terms of plasticity, between the objects made by Polina Kanis—models of 19th century orthopedic devices—and the sculptures of the British artist, Anthony Caro (much appreciated by Clement Greenberg) who intentionally distanced himself from social interpretations, refusing to view his work through historical determinations and insisting that his task as a sculptor was to generate meanings from pieces of steel. The aesthetic autonomy of his sculpture is the same product of Enlightenment ideology as the orthopedic devices of the 19th century, a point brought out by the responsiveness of Polina Kanis to unobvious conceptual resonances. In the 1980s Caro’s sculpture was the last bastion of modernism, upholding its values through what Michael Fried called the "openness" of the material and its “lowness”, that is, by means of what underlay its bonds with gesture and the human body. Social orthopedics do the same.
The objects and photographs are the keys to reading the videos. How is the mechanism of social orthopedics realized? The question is always one of power and lack of freedom. For as long as we act in the sphere of ambitions and desires—our own and those of others—we become agents and victims of these forces. Politics are based on a strategy of managing desires and interests. The ideal world is a world without desires, invulnerable to politics, to the action of forces. So it seems, but things cannot be that way—we are glued together by emotional intelligence, we exist as a society only because, for various reasons, we want to be together. This is the plane in which Polina Kanis’ photography has to be read. Her landscapes may remind us of Scandinavian feminist photography, which tells of the alienation and aggression of the world.
The perfection of the landscape is determined by someone else's desire, reason produces constructions for a purpose—for correction, for orthopedics. The ideal landscape contains an orthopedics of culture and their construction of an ideal reality betrays the fundamental trauma of the real.