This exhibition begins with the assumption that imagining the social world as a body enables us to reimagine the connections between the body and society. In the aftermath of the ongoing epidemiological, political and economic crisis, we have experienced dramatic changes in every aspect of our lives, which in turn have operated in a capillary fashion throughout the “social body” . With the continuing effects of the crisis unfolding, we now witness first-hand the unequal power dynamics and hierarchies which operate across the social body, creating patterns of pain and difficulties which will be felt long after the end of the health pandemic. At the same time, perhaps we now have an opportunity to reforge our relationship with our body and the social body we belong to.
In her ongoing artistic practice, Olesja Katšanovskaja-Münd has focused on micro-scenes from everyday life through which these power relations are negotiated, oftentimes employing a feminist lens of analysing personal relations, identities, and gendered dynamics in the home, and in everyday rituals that govern women’s sovereignty and their bodies. She unpacks the “politics of everyday life” to widen the scope of how people may understand and try to change seemingly immutable social divisions.
For her first solo exhibition at the Tallinn City Gallery located at the center of social life in the capital, she will expand on her previous work by imagining society as a living, breathing, desiring body, activated through collective performance, which could be potentially transformative on the current consciousness of stagnation and confinement. Social systems currently hold significant influence over our bodies, be it in terms of opportunities in life determined by nationality and geography, access to medical care and affordable shelter, or one’s treatment by law enforcement amid unrest. This observation renders the social body central to answering questions of movement and stagnation.
In this exhibition, Olesja asks, “How to move on when moving is impossible?” At the beginning of the crisis, the government injunction to be separate from one another felt strange and uncomfortable. Several months later, the strangeness has passed. We have grown accustomed to multiple body realities: the body alone, bodies at a safe distance, disobedient bodies of students socializing, bodies in queues at grocery shops, bodies on the computer screen, bodies of essential workers being celebrated, bodies of protesters on the streets, bodies of those who have died. We face a future lacking touch and gaze, with continued periods of isolation and uncertainty.
A societal trauma such as this also gives people opportunities to experience things together, rather than suffer alone, as long as we don’t bury what we have experienced and continue to share. For some, the screen is a jail, and the home is not a safe space. Isolation can ravage all of us as we miss the interactions, intimate or casual, that fortify our sense of our value, place in society, work, and the world. Although the lockdown has been considerably shorter in this context than in other areas, we continue to live with the anxiety, fear of the Other, and sense of geographical isolation. During the preparatory period for this exhibition, Olesja and I have engaged in an ongoing conversation on how art can provide a unique means of understanding trauma and promote individual and collective healing.
These observations have become manifest through Olesja’s performative sculpture installations. She reveals the traces left inside by past and present relationships, interactions, and roles while inviting the audience to determine oneself in the social body. How is the dematerialisation of the body and its confinement affecting us, and how will it continue to affect us? In putting together this exhibition, we were faced with the challenge of working across borders when Alexei Rezenkov, one of Olesja’s artistic collaborators, was denied passage into Estonia from St. Petersburg to work with her on the installation. Their exchanges continued online, accepting previous designs’ impossibility and constructing the project within a new reality.
Bodies have always been bound and marked by socio-political rules. Olesja also considers these traces from a feminist perspective, centering the female body and women’s experiences at the heart of these questions. An audio installation that can be heard throughout the space features Olesja’s voice, together with those of her collaborators, Alexei and Karolin Poska. Together, they analyse an interior dialogue and express sounds resulting from their bodies’ impulse towards the discussion. The audio installation is in conversation with the sculptures, creating a visual algorithm of confinement and limits that we face as part of a social body. Can we find ways to develop ourselves, to adapt to them, or reject them altogether and to grow from these experiences? While these limitations are personal statements from the protagonists, they reflect gendered societal norms, beliefs, and politics that demand our submission and determine our agency.
What traces will we leave behind? Through an interactive installation at the exhibition’s conclusion, Olesja invites the visitors to see the marks of the opening performance conceptualized in collaboration with Karolin and Alexei. Guided by these traces, the visitor is encouraged to cross the threshold between the exhibition space and the artwork and leave their own imprints. We consider these traces that accumulate over the exhibition’s run as sites of encounter with other rhythms and exchanges between bodies that agree to find ways of inhabiting a new period and acting in alliance while acknowledging shared difficulties.
Quoting the philosopher Hannah Arendt, feminist thinker Judith Butler observed that: “For Arendt, the body is not primarily located in space, but with others, brings about a new space. And the space that is created is precisely between those who act together.” As the pandemic continues to grip our society, we struggle over the fundamental ways in which we could survive as bodies supported in our world.
At this critical junction, this exhibition invites the viewer to collectively interrogate current prevailing assumptions about how social, political, and economic systems distribute power, and how we can re-imagine ourselves in relation to others within a divided society. We will need all the help we can get in reshaping our relationship to our own and each other’s bodies, to find a way to rebuild bonds of attachment and care. Feminst scholars have long argued that the body is both socially constructed and politically inscribed, shaped by practices of containment and control. The body politic and the politics of the bodies that make up our world must be reconfigured, and we need to start thinking about that now, as our bodies are increasingly subjected to not only isolation, but elevated and sustained scrutiny.
 Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Shendan. New York: Random House, 1995.
 Fraser, Nancy. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse, and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
 Butler, Judith. “Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street,” in Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2015.
 Brown, Nadia and Sarah Allen Gershon. “Body politics,” in Politics, Groups, and Identities, 5:1, 2017.