I recently visited an exhibition of the work of Sanna Kannisto and bought the recently published book about her work. The work of this young Finnish artist is fascinating. It questions how, in order to understand and describe, science has to simplify and can never hope to capture the true complexity of life.
The body of work that Sanna has accumulated reproduces the methods of field scientists. She takes items – birds, plants, other animals – out of where they normally live and uses a makeshift field studio to photograph them. Her photographs are designed to emphasize the fact that these creatures have been isolated, their existence simplified, so that we can observe and study them – and attempt to understand something about them.
In Sanna’s images, the artificiality of the setting in which these animals and plants are “studied” is striking. It serves to highlight the artificiality that we construct when studying nature. Even as science pretends that it is transmitting some form of reality, these images highlight that science, like all else we do, is a human-constructed, cultural framework that simply represents one way of seeing the world.
Simple additions like a ruler or some other human method of observation and measurement serve to highlight the objectification of these creatures as objects of scientific study.
The images avoid, in many cases, any attempt to be aesthetically pleasing – they are supposed to be “scientific” examinations not romantic imagery. Many of the images are then simply labeled with the scientific names of the animal or plant that is photographed – a statement that seems to stamp the supposed scientific authority of “truth” and “knowledge” on to the image. It is as though, in clearly labeling a natural object with a scientific name, someone is saying, with the force of an authority that cannot be challenged, “this is what this is – we understand it and know everything about it”.
Images of her field studio further highlight the artifice of the method of “study”.
Contrasting these images of simplified (and maybe simplistic) artifice, are some images (below) that attempt to show the impenetrable complexity of the tropical rain forest. The messy, confusing, incomprehensible nature of the “immense disorder” of whole forest is juxtaposed with the clinical, artificial simplification of the individual studied objects.
Steve Baker in his essay introducing the monograph of Kannisto’s work summarizes the project as being intended “..to represent – and, simultaneously, to acknowledge the impossibility of representing in any conventional manner – the baffling complexity of the tropical rainforest”.
It is clear from this work, that it is not only science which has to simplify in an attempt to comprehend. We end up much more drawn to clean simplicity of the images of the isolated bird or plant than the chaotic image of the unadulterated forest. Imagery – and all the arts – also simplify in an attempt to allow us to comprehend. The complexity of nature that is all around us is impossible for us humans to understand. We need to chop it up, simplify it and create limited, artificial models and languages of description in an attempt to gain some sort of comprehension. We create limited, though useful, ways of seeing. The danger comes when the scientist, the artist, the economist, the anthropologist, the historian or anyone else starts to believe that his particular way of seeing represents the unassailable “truth”. Sanna Kannisto’s work gives the lie to any such self-delusion.