Rubén Polanco. Figurative incursions into the empire of the deception

Ruben 102

Pequeña mesita de noche. 1996-2002, wood, rusty iron, books and resin, 60 x 40 x 30 cm (det)

The present entry reproduces an English translation of my first extensive approach to the work of the Spanish artist Rubén Polanco (Reinosa, Cantabria, 1965), which was published, as well as its Spanish original version,  in the catalogue of the exhibition Rubén Polanco. De tu memoria y mi memoria, held at the Centro de las Artes de Getafe, Madrid, in 2004.

Rubén Polanco. Figurative incursions into the empire of the deception

Rubén Polanco invites us to reflect on the spaces we inhabit. His sculptures recall our city, our car, our neighbourhood, our bedroom. Distorting them. Polanco evokes a displacement with regards to the way in which we habitually affirm ourselves in these spaces. That is, he provokes a change, a difference. He makes them extraordinary. His strategy impels us even terrifies us into seeing that in these spaces, created by man as his habitat, nothing is more absent than man himself. In Polanco’s scenes, which seem to duplicate the world, there are no people. There is no one where we are; therefore, we are no longer there; we have ceased to exist.  Eliot affirms that “…human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” [1]. The drama Polanco introduces transforms us into gods or machines. We are removed in any case.

The work of Rubén Polanco constitutes a contribution to the imagery which contains both fiction and reality. Affirming through simulation the most consuming questions within contemporary art: sterile hyper-production, the persistent obsolescence of consumption, and the virtual nature of knowledge. Thus, Polanco coincides with other artists in the use of models and the duplicity of recreating the real world in miniature. Artists such as Alexandra Ranner, the apocalyptic social and ecological sarcasm of Baltazar Torres, the photographic simulations of James Casebere, Thomas Demand or Javier Vallhonrat, whose work is a virtuoso use of illumination and photography to convince us of the reality of architectural models. There is an excess of reality where nothing is hidden. Where memory and ruin and that which no longer is are exhibited, showing the difference between what was longed for and what was. In this sense, the production of Ruben Polanco contains a calamitous sentiment close to the Baroque, theatre within theatre, where man is a puppet of the Fates. This gives art a will and an argument (as explicit in Canto VIII of Homer’s Odyssey [2]), or an apocalyptic sense, as in the thought of Jean Baudrillard, favourite thinker of Ruben Polanco, in which we are witnessing a scene of social death, a state of simulation which could recall Plato but in catastrophically different sense [3]. Briefly, Plato considers our quotidian space, something we habitually call “reality”, as merely appearance, that is, an actuality contingent on the Idea (an intangible model which dwells in a transcendent sphere, imitated and recreated in real things issuing from it). To illustrate this thesis, Plato offers the example of a bed. Carpenters create a bed, says Plato, as a desirable object with a clear utility: it favours the rest of the citizen. However, the bed painted by painters, or sculpted by sculptors is a representation, an imitation of this appearance (a real bed) and not an ideal model. Imitative representation in art, from the Greek “mimesis”, seems degrading to Plato. He denounces the artifice of painters or sculptors in holding up models of models, shadows of mere shadows. The exacerbation of the degenerate. As he states in The Sophist (235 A and B), the imitation can be derived from the characteristics of the Idea-Model (as the carpenters do in his example) or from the appearance of this idea in the world (that of the artists, in our sense of the word). The first imitation is genuine, a copy, the second is a perversion, a false and deceitful imitation, for magicians and illusionists: frauds who wish to make us believe in lies [4]. Baudrillard’s questioning of reality is different. It can be synthesised in the idea that the imitation is not based on a model but finally on nothing or that it is impossible to know the origin of this profusion of appearances. In effect, for Baudrillard, the world cannot plausibly live with its reproduction, that is, cannot be translated into any other thing, and the strategies to represent the world become mere simulations. Within the realm of symbolic catastrophe, the only form of transmission is through pure information: capital. Everything becomes an image without reference to a final subject, a deployment of significant games that are irreducible to an essence. We are no longer faced with the pleasure of plural and unlimited interpretations, as Roland Barthes postulated before the traditional thesis of a single and taxative interpretation foreseen by the author. We find ourselves within a mythical nightmare, ungovernable and alienating, as if our space was a single scenario: a Ship of Fools.


Error conversation. 1994, resin, steel and light, 250 x 120 x 100 cm (det)

In 1997, Rubén Polanco wrote the story entitled Hammerland. It is a fiction set in a place of the same name inhabited by beings whose bodies constitute the canon of human anatomy, with classic proportions and heads in the shape of hammers (an explicit image invoking the mechanisation of the human within the vision of progress and the nightmare fantasies of science fiction in which our humanity has almost entirely disappeared in order to adopt the functions of machines). Hammerland is inhabited, not by humans, but by their creatures, the Hammermen possess a ciphered memory which leads them to adopt some human characteristics in the way of our manias or reflective acts: something beyond our control and which we have ceased to be conscious of. For example, the useless use of a light bulb. The sun becomes a catastrophe. The first of the three laws which govern Hammerland, the name or the currency, even the defining mandate, is: “If the Earth is ruined, we will create a copy”. An axiom which is the equivalent to saying that the origin is found not in the Darkness, nor in Chaos, nor in the Word but in the End. In the End lies the Beginning (of our world) but it is incapable of supporting its own obsolescence, ruin condemns it to its own duplication. Thus, there is no real talk of life, because the population consists entirely of copies, in duplications that imitate the superficiality of its model, not its essence. There is no creation, because there is no chance, no accident, but only reproduction (not in the sexual sense but in terms of technique and technology). The work of each Hammerman is to contribute to the repetition. In the labour of these creatures (which the author calls “subject-object”) there is no creative impulse. In Hammerland there is no life, only the fulfilment of a curse.

BAJA callejon de la comoda de las Ilusiones

La cómoda de las ilusiones. 2003, furneture, models, light and cinema proyector, 175 x 125v x 85 cm

The same occurs in the work of Rubén Polanco. Attention is fixed on the creations of man, reduced in dimension and condensed into its obsolescence. Nothing is used; it is abandoned; it decays. The ruins outlive us. Even the streetlights continue burning. But we don’t know who will recognise our defeat. The strategy of Ruben Polanco is to lead us to reflect on nihilism. A blind decadence. As if in a fatal doubling over or folding, heterogamous spaces combine: real furniture is replaced by a miniaturised copy. The intimate, the public the real, the copy, all co-exist in a magnification of the tragedy. It is a teratology: a scene of monstrosity where the excess of reality becomes unsustainable and threatens madness. It is an everyday catastrophe but the horror is present is present in other works and emerges from its own thematic structure. One of Polanco’s latest projects consists of a wooden tank which is increasingly reproduced at an excessive scale with the shape and configuration of a miniature tank, a toy, until the recreation acquires a sufficiently menacing size, can be imagined as a coffin for children, with the turret moving mechanically. Within the tank, with a tinny metallic sound, can be heard the love song “La Vie en Rose” popularised by Edith Piaf. On one of the walls of the room where the tank is exhibited there are photographs which show the movement of the turret. Images that duplicate the object and are an additional turn of the screw in terms of the spectacle and entertainment, the domestication of our consciousness until what is properly terrifying becomes merely banal. The profusion of horrifying images in the news, the press and publications and even in advertising contributes to reduce the effect of the horror and we are anaesthetised by the everyday presence of suffering. The resulting whole of the work is not puerile, which occurs in many contemporary practises, crowded with toys and teddy bears, but an implicit demonstration of the domestication of violence and deception. A child is educated in terror and is deceived by the affirmation that everything (as in the song) is marvellously natural. This work offers, as with the rest of Rubén Polanco’s work, a demonstration of our alienation.

la vitrina det 4

La vitrina de la noche de San Juan. 1997-20003, metal, wood, 125 x 82 x 44 cm (det)

Some of his sculptures refer to an action, such as miniature chairs on fire within a cabinet of his La vitrina de la noche de San Juan (1997-20003, metal, wood, 125 x 82 x 44 cm). The cabinet is also, through the assembly of a model of a building in the back of the furniture, an everyday scene. In the same way, a mattress, a chest of drawers or a table, become parking lots for cars which appear as coffins. They are covered with a patina of rust as if they too had been abandoned centuries ago. Ruben Polanco takes the tribulation into the home. The scenes of action are generally constructed with bedroom furniture, filling the most intimate spaces with decline and decay. Out of nothing he shows his favourite reading: those leading to technical or mechanical subjects [5].

BAJA la vitrina de la no...general

La vitrina de la noche de San Juan. 1997-20003, metal, wood, 125 x 82 x 44 cm

From a formal point of view, the sculpture of Rubén Polanco incarnated in the production of found objects which are later manipulated or the practice of assembly and carpentry: a practice which not postulated in the assembly of heterogeneous materials with a strictly formal objective as occurs with cubism, a pioneering movement of assembly, but as an excellent technique of conceptual action.  The tables, chairs, dressers, chests, cabinets, side tables he uses, are manipulated to make them the scene of action for everyday life, from which man has vanished. These real objects are combined with others, found or created, in order to offer a miniaturised vision: the miniaturised architecture of models presented within a cabinet or catastrophically smashed against a dresser, covered with miniature cars made from polyester resins and given a patina of oxidation to homogenise their appearance and give a temporal aspect to the desolation; this long-term abandonment is the manifestation of human extinction. In the combination of real objects and other to scale, such as the architectural models or small cars produces a disconcerting and distancing effect. Explicitly it is theatre within theatre: a fiction (or scene) within an illusion (the work) [6]. If the image of desolation gives a peremptory and calamitous image proper to baroque, the appeal to conscience to break the illusion created by the artist showing the actual process of desolation itself, seems to be excited by a strategy most commonly associated to the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. The strategy of distancing (Verfremdung), illuminating the fictitious and transporting nature of traditional theatre, attempts furtively to touch the consciousness of the spectator. It therefore consists of a didactic process.

pequeña mesita de noche intalación

Pequeña mesita de noche. 1996-2002, wood, rusty iron, books and resin, 60 x 40 x 30 cm

Rubén Polanco uses commonplace locations to create a caesura within our habitual chain of thought or the certainties we never question. If the combination of real and miniature objects is dialectical, the confusion of temporal dimensions of his works serve to offer subversive propositions most found in the genre of science fiction. A sculpture executed in aluminium in 1999, close to an ironic visual poem and festivity of the Dadaists combines the sophistication of a high-heeled shoe with the rustic and traditional woodworking of southern rural populations. One of his next projects will lead him to create, briefly, an optical illusion using polyurethane paint on galvanised metal the naked surface of the Roman ruins of Juliobriga, near his childhood home and a source of avid wonder in his youth. It is beautiful to investigate the smallest traces and indications of abandoned and destroyed locations, with a deep respect for ancient places such as Roman ruins and fallen churches which lie just a few metres from home.

The first of the individual exhibitions of Rubén Polanco introduces us to the mechanisms of artifice, illusion and deception (as well as ruinous destiny), in times when these may still be festively unmasked. We can once again recall Eliot, for whom “… We are only undeceived / Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm” [7]. The truth on which art insists always seems to be a tragic point of departure. It is not merely to publicise or make a spectacle of the catastrophe we have impassively witnessed for too long.


[1] Verses 42 and 43 of «Burnt Norton», first of the Four Quartets, London, 1944.

[2] Alcino urges Ulysses to confess his affair, aware that “It was the will of the gods who urged on so many / the ruin to bring to men of the future”; HOMER: Odyssey, VIII, 579-580. Translation in Spanish by José Manuel Pabón. Madrid, Gredos, 2000, p. 129.

[3] The calamity which may be called “dislocation”, crucial to the work, as we will see, of Rubén Polanco, is related to (and the concomitants will be even formal on occasion) the work of Juan Muñoz, whom Polanco assisted during the final ten years of his life.

[4] Reason why Socrates says to Glaucon “the arts are all undignified” (Republic, VII, 522b).

[5] A personal confession abounds in this sense. Ruben Polanco affirms that the images of full parking lots are a scale image of what he sees from his window when he looks out in the evening.

[6] In other works, the formal configuration reflects the belief that everything is part of the same current of energy. This attempts to confuse the greater with the lesser, the vast with the minute. This occurs in the works consisting of communicating spheres joined through thin cylindrical links that refer both to atomic diagrams as the representations of the constellations. In the same way, in a recent series of work in gouache and pastels on digital printing paper, titled El tiempo de las estrellas, in which the two colours, black and white, are closely contrasted and evoke both the biological cells observed beneath a microscope as well as the cosmos. In any case, the image of energy and sex for its unmistakable formal resonance in terms of colour, fluidity and the powerful emanation, with semen, of the generative fluid.

[7] Verses 87 and 88 of «East Coker», second of the Four Quartets.


Acerca de juliocesarabadvidal

Julio César Abad Vidal es Premio Extraordinario de Doctorado en Filosofía y Letras por la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, es Doctor en Filosofía (Área de Estética y Teoría de las Artes), Licenciado en Historia del Arte y Licenciado en Estudios de Asia Oriental, asimismo por la UAM. Desde su primera publicación, en 2000 y, en sus proyectos como docente y comisario, se ha dedicado a la reflexión sobre la cultura contemporánea con tanta pasión como espíritu crítico. Crédito de la imagen: retrato realizado por Daniela Guglielmetti (colectivo Dibujo a Domicilio); más información en

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