Canan Senol addresses in her work the question of structures in society and their effects on the individual life. State, politics and religion are the three pillars of every society. Suspended in between these pillars is a close meshed net of laws, rites and customs which tightly encloses – and conditions – the private sphere. Thus individuals become the malleable toys of society. They perceive their rights and duties as coercion; they see themselves robbed of freedom and look for it instead in the realms of what is secret or imaginary where they can exercise power and practice violence unpunished.
In her recent work made and shown at Schloss Balmoral in Germany (2003), Canan Senol has deployed the toys of her daughter Nisa. With Nisa's Barbie dolls she has staged, photographed and filmed sequences of events which tell stories of such hidden acts of violence. Significantly, the catalogue is entitled Once Upon a Time..., thus hoisting the representations from the anecdotal onto the level of narration and suggesting universal applicability: the toys reflect the mechanics of society.
In her work Tales for Grown-Ups, for instance, Senol scrutinises the smallest cell of society, the family. The life of a “dream couple” starts out romantically. Their first encounter is soon followed by a grand wedding party and passionate erotic nights, underpinned by the desire to have children. But the monotony of everyday life ruptures the idyll. Within the seclusion of the family home develop a variety of forms of violence: the husband beats his wife, she takes it out on her own children.
Comic-strip thought bubbles revealing the most intimate thoughts of the partners paint a tell-tale picture of the divergence between reality and expectation for the spectator. The idyll becomes a nightmare, and it is hardly surprising that the wife dreams of taking the life of her manhandling macho in order to escape the unjust role game. And yet, her sexual fantasies show that her desires are identical to those of her husband, only she dreams of two men while he dreams of women. With this, Senol makes an important statement: in saying that there is no difference between male and female needs, she establishes an equilibrium between the genders. Both partners are trying to escape from the all too cramped conditions of everyday life. On account of the different roles allocated to them they merely develop different strategies to fulfil their need for freedom. In the petty-bourgeois society represented here, a woman cannot vent her frustration in any way other than in her imagination, or by taking her anger out on her children. Yet, despite the mainly subordinate position a woman occupies in society, she emanates strength and decisiveness: whether she acts aggressively towards her children or imagines murdering her husband, she appears as an emotionally troubled, furious person who, even when affected greatly by events, will act consciously and purposefully. It is the intensity of her rebellion, not her role as a victim, which ensures her the sympathy amongst spectators.
Woman’s social role is a central theme in Senol’s work. With Fountain, for example, she paraphrases Duchamp and inverts his statement. A lifeless ceramic bowl (which becomes a fountain only through its male spurt) is juxtaposed by Senol with a pair of plump, generously lactating breasts. The heavy breasts, hanging down like two udders, indicate woman’s ambivalent double role as fertility goddess and mother, weighed down by the heavy burden of bringing up children.
How brute and without nuances appears the male protagonist in Action Man by contrast. As a father, he abuses his own little daughter, observed by his little son who imitates his father’s violence and finally becomes a perpetrator himself. Senol expresses the improvidence of the action by directing the camera onto the impassive faces and by showing close-up shots of the joints. She thereby underlines the mechanical element of the sequence of events as well as the thoughtlessness of the deed which is carelessly copied by the son in the manner of repeating a tasteless joke. The irresponsibility with which the crime is passed on from one generation to the next is shocking. With the title Not Seen, Not Heard, Don't Know the artist comments decidedly on this complacency, accusing not only the protagonists of it but also the neighbours who endure – or actually quietly enjoy – even the greatest crimes next door. It is not the facts alone which shock us so, but the double moral standards which ignore all facts.
Sexual abuse is only one form of violence represented in Senol’s work; she also looks into the issues of persecution, torture and mass murder. Her work here and there is dedicated to the innumerable victims of political and religious fanaticism, wars and revolutions. Wrapped in plastic bags, naked Barbie dolls lie next to each other, dreadfully alone and abandoned. The unsettling factor here is not the cruelty of the representation – which after all is only hinted at – but the absolute indifference of the collective consciousness in the face of evident cruelties. Senol’s work appeals to society to rediscover the shock of mechanized horror, even if under the influence of a flood of TV images it has long since forgotten how to feel personally affected.
Translation from German: Christina Thomson
When Canon Senol's work was shown at Bad Ems, attempts were made to censor the exhibition and the case placed before the public prosecutor. The charge was not upheld. The exhibition nevertheless provoked a major public debate and was the subject of much controversy.