Destined to Be Happy is a new site-specific installation by Russian artist Irina Korina that deliberately forgoes a specific narrative or reading in favour of a host of dynamic and evolving associations. Entering the gallery through a side alley, the viewer moves through a dark tunnel which then opens out into a kind of maze, framed by curved corrugated steel panels and burnt out trees. Silver confetti is scattered across the wooden floor of the space while industrial plastic, occasionally bowed under by pockets of water, frames the ceiling. The walls are also draped in plastic, giving the space the strange aura of a construction site, perhaps a half finished retail space. The most visually striking element of the exhibition is the six large figures assembled atop the protruding legs of mannequin dummies, identified in the exhibition text as The Globe, The Tear Drop, The Fire, The Heart, The Rainbow and The Meteorite. A soundscape composed by Sergey Kasich adds an ominously shifting sonic palette to the installation, where elements slowly merge into one another, thereby blurring the line between fragments of identifiable found sound and digital abstractions.
You could be forgiven for reading that and already feeling slightly bemused. Beyond the immediate experience of the installation itself, there is little in the way of a guide or direction. The text which accompanies the work is slightly removed from the show itself, situated on a wall outside of the maze construction near the front desk of the gallery. This effectively means the viewer is forced to encounter the show cold (assuming they have not done their research online before entering), sparking their own interpretive initiative and disrupting their sense of orientation. Indeed, this open approach to the construction of narrative and meaning is one of the things which makes Korina’s work her so provocative, and ultimately rewarding. The viewer is first and foremost adrift in a strange forest of signs, and must take a reading according to their own tools of cognitive navigation and imagination before any other paths are opened up to them.
The six figures, identified as ‘mascot-like characters’ provide perhaps the strongest challenge and greatest multiplicity in this regard. All of them feature a cartoon-like face, evoking memories of everything from childhood entertainment to corporate logos. Their shapes revel in idealistic imagery (a heart, a rainbow, even a wizened old man’s face on a globe) while the legs poking out beneath them make them look like bodies, victims perhaps of whatever phenomenon is responsible for the burnt out tree branches and pooled water puddles above. It’s an incongruous combination, the smiling faces running counter to what feels like a space exuding foreboding tension and possibly trauma. Kasich’s soundtrack is instrumental in heightening the anxiety of the installation, and it’s perhaps this juxtaposition which really helps draw out what feels significant about the way the work is constructed.
Each component of the exhibition, from the arrangement and design of the space itself to the specific nuances of the mascot figures demonstrates a formalism which owes a great deal to Korina’s previous studies and work with set design. The characters are crafted from materials like upholstery foam, wire, glue and fabrics; physical and tactile elements which presently feel like old-fashioned materials in a post-digital age. There is also a fragility and ephemerality to these methods that mirrors the fractured and unstable psychological tone of the space as a whole. It’s a timely nod to notions of precariousness with none of the soap box politics or handwringing which so often accompanies these discussions. As one colleague put it during our visit, to see something which deals with these topics without lamenting the artist’s position within that precarious state feels uniquely refreshing.
The fact that these notions can come out of not only the work itself but also the finer technical points of its assembly adds another layer to the openness with which the artist has presented the work, and correspondingly the diversity of responses it might elicit. The blackened trees can evoke the black forests of Russia’s landscape as much as it can discussions of climate change and biodiversity. The mascots speak to elemental environmental concepts such as earth, air and fire, as much as they do marketing theory and branding. While all of these meanings are simultaneously in flux, at the very moment the viewer encounters them they are suspended in these in-between states, a comment on how we are always perpetually becoming, transitioning, evolving, and ultimately decaying. Destined to Be Happy as a title feels sardonic as much as it does questioning, and the smiling faces peering up from the ground where they lie otherwise lifeless feels unsettling and laced with existential angst. The title itself is a reference to Sergey Miroshnichenko’s documentary of the same name, a kind of Russian iteration of the famous Up series made in the United Kingdom which follows a group of people born in the former Soviet Union as they progress through life. It touches on notions of entitlement, expectation, and the promise of a particular kind of social trajectory which is increasingly coming under heavy scrutiny.
The installation’s cornerstones are the ubiquitous conversations of the times we live in, and as the show opened in the final month of 2016, it’s difficult not see it as a commentary on what was for many a strange and terrifying year. With that said the exhibition is an exploration and presentation of research that goes beyond the current space in which we live in to something much deeper and more intrinsic to the experience of being human. Ultimately it’s this depth of interrogation which makes Korina’s work here so compelling to consider.
By Will Gresson