SIMEN JOHAN
Simen Johan's Kingdom, The Beautiful Perfection of Unfulfilled Symbolism
Little, David E., Director and Chief Curator, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

"[Until the Kingdom Comes] refers less to the kingdoms of the bible and natural world, and more to the human fantasy that one day, in some way, life will come to a blissful resolution. The answers to who we are and what we're doing in this world, will come to light and validate our existence. In a reality where understanding is never total, I depict 'living' as an emotion-driven experience, engulfed in uncertainty, desire and illusion." --Simen Johan

Simen Johan's arresting photographs of animals from the artist's series, Until The Kingdom Comes, remind us that we have come a long way since George Eastman's famous advertisement from 1888, "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest." Unlike aspiring turn-of-the century amateur photographs, who meticulously crafted their prints and gave birth to a movement advocating for photography as art, Kodak customers were akin to today's IPhone enthusiasts. They sought to document their quotidian activities with little care for the technical and aesthetic details that produce an image. Eastman's primary customers didn't build darkrooms in basements or join photography clubs. They simply shipped off their film to the Kodak factory in Rochester, NY, and waited for their pictures to return to share with friends and future generations. In short, Kodak gave birth to a passive form of photographic production and consumption. (This type of photography is even more present today given sophisticated image-making technologies that make production virtually invisible.) But a technically engaged form of photography has always existed on a parallel track in photographic history. Johan's photographs underscore the importance of the creative act in photography, not as an act in itself, but as a means towards a conceptual and narrative goal. No longer the product of an anonymous "we" (as in "we do the rest"), his creative act is a deliberate and painstaking one that requires many subtle decisions and adjustments. This act marries the artist's technical acumen with conceptual intention and depth. The serine and perfected surfaces of the five photographs on view in the Bethel galleries reveal the artist's amazing skill and sorcery to produce images. Their process of creation appears deceptively easy, camouflaging the hours dedicated to taking, selecting, splicing, crafting, and generating the images. They are a tour-de-force in Photoshop and its possibilities. But they are so pure, alluring and beautiful, that they signal just the opposite of the expected. Their perfection is too perfect to be "real."

The so-called truth behind Johan's photographs is that they are an amalgam of hundreds of photographs. The photographer produces high-resolution images by pressing the button in locations far and wide, from the San Diego Zoo to Africa. Like a film director, he makes the final cut and blends the images into a seamless whole. The final picture becomes a single geographic point, unifying a matrix of world locations. When considering this process, it's hard not to think of 18th century aesthetic philosopher, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who advocated for art drawn from the best parts of nature. For Reynolds "A mere copier of nature can never produce any thing great, can never raise and enlarge the conceptions, or warm the heart of the spectator." (Reynolds, of course, could never have imagined a time when an artist, thanks to modern travel, could witness moments and places of nature across the globe in a single lifetime.)

Johan certainly warmed spectator's hearts when he started the series, Until the Kingdom Comes, in 2005. And he continues to do so today. The five works featured in this exhibition range from that first year through 2011 (Johan continues to add to the series, including a 2015 photograph of a Zebra that is in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) The animals inhabiting Simen's series express a range of sensations from playfulness to austere dignity. Centrally framed and isolated at middle distance in most compositions, they often appear too small for the scene, which only adds to their monumentality and presence. Untitled #137, for example, features a central lamb that occupies the foreground and nearly three-quarters of the composition. Its position is both awkward and correct at the same time. No doubt, Johan proves in his command of image making, that he could create "correct" proportions. His approach is reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite paintings where perspectival imperfections signal to viewers that symbolism is imbedded in the figures populating a scene. How are we to read Untitled #137 then? As a spiritual work of art? It is hard to say because the visual sign systems that informed interpretive readings of the past (the Bible and Shakespeare, for example) are no longer shared one among contemporary viewers.

Little dramatic tension exists in other images on view, with the exception of two moose that battle one another in Untitled #133. But even this battle appears rather tame, as each participant is caught in a frozen movement, as though they are stuffed animals in a diorama. (Johan has been know to use taxidermy in some of his works) The only other twosome on view, features two pink flamingoes (Untitled #163) set in an antiseptic environment that belies their intimacy; they playfully entwine like two familiar lovers embracing. In the narrative of the active and passive photographer, we cannot forget that once upon a time cutting and combining photographic images was act of radical political modernity. Dadaist Hannah Hoch, John Heartfield, Raoul Hausmann and a host of Russian avant-garde artists cut, decontextualized, and rearranged mechanically- reproduced images to provoke new meanings. The other important attribute ascribed to photomontage is that it somehow opened up the possibility for viewers to achieve a sense of distancing. This distance separated the act of seeing from the familiar cultural and interpretive apparatus that informed the meaning of images; in short, photomontage offered the promise of new meanings, often in contradiction to those ascribed--to use a phrase of the time--by bourgeois culture. The visible pasting-together of multiple images is a key attribute of photomontage. The technique called out the construction of images on its surfaces. It proclaimed the power of images as illusions. As I have suggested earlier, however, the distancing in Simen's images is a result of their seamless, not variegated surfaces. Simen's pictures draw us into the scenes with the popular allure of animals, whose power as subjects are increased with scale and detailed surfaces. But once viewers recognize the impossibility of what they thought might have been a promise, they are left with subjects whose meanings are uncertain. What is present is the perfection of unfulfilled symbols. Until the Kingdom Comes is a place that never arrives.


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Interview: Simen Johan
Rexer, Lyle. Photograph, July 2016

The expressive limits of photography were breached decisively with the invention of Photoshop, and one of the first and best artists invading the new territory was Simen Johan. Norwegian born, Johan used the tools to express dark fantasies about childhood and, more recently, to construct symbolic narratives about the natural world. The growing subtlety of his images has gone hand in hand with a turn to sculpture that is at once humorous and deeply disquieting. Johan's unique world can be entered at Yossi Milo gallery (through August 10) and at Scandinavia House in New York in the group exhibition Another North: Landscape Reimagined (through August 6, 2016).

Lyle Rexer: I know it's a little boring, but I want to ask you about technique. In our Instagram age, there is a common assumption that artists don't need to shoot anything, just appropriate and go to work. But your raw material is imagery you shoot.

Simen Johan: That has always been the case. I draw on an archive of material I have photographed, in and out of the studio. I used to shoot film exclusively, but that was challenging because the scans were so expensive. More recently the images I have been making are so intricate, requiring thousands of bits and pieces, that it would be physically impossible to do them without shooting digitally.

LR: When I was in your studio, we took a look at the evolution of an image of zebras that is included in the Yossi Milo exhibition. The number of iterations was mind-boggling, and the choices you had to make were overwhelming. Digital technology has given artists a lot of freedom but even more responsibility because there are so many decisions.

SJ: It's one of the reasons that I make comparatively few images: it just takes a long time. I had this idea of the light and shadow of a forest interacting with the zebras' stripes. If I had known how much work the image was going to be, I never would have done it. I shoot most of my animals in zoos, and I can't control what they do, no matter how many images I take. So I can't plan, and I can never be sure what I will be able to use, even if I have an idea.

LR: You once told me about seeing an abandoned building when you were driving and thinking it would be great for something and then never using the photos. Does that happen often?

SJ: Sometimes you get what you didn't intend. I went up to Alaska to shoot musk oxen for an idea I had. I shot hundreds of pictures of the oxen, but when I went through them all, none was right. But I did use the mountains in the background! Thinking about what you said, I sometimes feel that I have too much freedom but not enough.

LR: Your imagery has evolved from archetypal images of childhood to tableaus of animals, whose relationships seem anthropomorphic. Does this reflect your environmentalism?

SJ: People can't get environmental ideas out of their heads, but that's not what I'm after. And if I can explain what the work is about, then I have failed. In fact, I'm not really interested in nature or animals that way. I want my pictures to be believable but I don't care how the natural world really works. What I am trying to capture is this sense I have about pure being. The only thing permanent in the world is pure being, something that never changes. And there is a being in each animal. In the new show, however, there are images that move away from animals altogether, toward atmosphere and light.

LR: Finally, tell me about the sculptures. They are mysterious, totemic, uncanny, funny presences in the midst of these complicated illusions that hang on the wall.

SJ: I want an immersive experience for viewers, but for me it's a break from the computer, and it's more physical, a process of addition and subtraction. The sculptures clarify what I do in the photographs, and I want people to see them first, to get a sense of the primal. That will move them away from any idea of National Geographic.


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Picturing an Imaginary Animal Kingdom
Leen, Sarah. National Geographic, March 11, 2015

I first saw Simen Johan's work at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City a couple of years ago.

I was totally struck not only by the beauty of the imagery but also by how much it expresses, in a very personal way, ideas about habitat, climate change, critical species, and man's impact on nature.

These are ideas that are very important to us at National Geographic. We report these issues in a documentary, photojournalistic style, while Simen expresses these concerns in a conceptually artistic way that is deeply emotional. It appeals more to the heart than the head. His work presents questions and challenges us, as creatures that are all sharing the same planet, to look at nature from a fresh and provocative perspective. I find this moving and stimulating in an entirely different, but just as powerful, way as our more realistic approach.

Every year in January we have our annual National Geographic Photography Seminar. It is a gathering for photographers, professionals in the photo industry, and National Geographic staff to celebrate and be inspired by great photography and visual storytelling. We invite select photographers to come and present their work to us. We look for work that is fresh, challenging, even unpredictable. I invited Simen to show his project "Until the Kingdom Comes" because it does exactly that.

Proof invited Simen to say a few words about his work.

PROOF: Your work shares some of the same subjects as traditional nature photography and might even be mistaken for it, but your conceptual approach is very different. Are you influenced by that kind of work?

SIMEN JOHAN: Some of my work emulates traditional nature photography, and there's some intended irony in that. But there's also sincerity, because I really do enjoy making beautiful images of nature. Beauty alone, though, doesn't echo my experience of the world, which is more complex and multilayered, so in my versions of "nature photography" I also incorporate darker qualities.

PROOF: How does your process free you from the constraints of straight nature photography?

SIMEN: A few of my images actually are straight photographs, but because I'm more interested in what the world feels like rather than looks like, it's rare that I see something that I want to simply photograph and not change at all. When constructing or manipulating images, I'm still limited by whatever raw material I'm able to capture on film, but I have more creative freedom to be imaginative.

PROOF: What are you trying to say that you couldn't say in a straight photograph?

SIMEN: Nothing, really. I mean, I'm not a conventional photographer, the way a poet or a novelist is not a journalist, or a dramatic filmmaker is not a documentarian. The world as it appears is not enough of what I want to say. I like to create more than I like to observe.

PROOF: Is there a message in your project "Until the Kingdom Comes"? What themes are you playing with?

SIMEN: I work intuitively, and anything I might say about this work is afterthought. I do like to capture the world the way it appears when you look at things deeply and realize that things and situations are not what they appear. The familiar becomes unfamiliar and the boundaries between what's real and unreal, or what's beautiful and what's threatening, begin to blur. The work is multilayered and open-ended, with biblical as well as political references scattered throughout, but ultimately it's a visceral response that I'm after.

PROOF: What was your work like when you were first starting out as an artist? How has it changed?

SIMEN: I originally studied film, but financial constraints pushed me into photography. Before there was Photoshop, I was staging and collaging images and doing darkroom experimentation with chemicals and such. My technical abilities have evolved, the subject matter has changed from self-portraiture to children to nature, but the core essence of the work has pretty much stayed the same.

PROOF: Do you ever worry that someone who isn't familiar with your work might mistake it for reality? Has that happened before?

SIMEN: It happens, and I like when it does, because it affirms how deceptive perception is. Reality is an illusion. Meaning is pliable. That being said, I hope there's an experience to be had beyond the relevance of whether my work is real or not.

PROOF: What do you hope your work makes people think or feel?

SIMEN: I hope they'll think less and feel more.


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SIMEN JOHAN
If the Supply of Lambs Hold Out: Simen Johan's Until the Kingdom Comes

Thompson, Lex: Lavalette, December 23, 2014

Coinciding with his 2013 exhibition of the same name, a book was released of Simen Johan's work, Until the Kingdom Comes. The 12.5x15.5" book contains twenty-eight photographs spread over sixty-four pages. The pages are unbound. Even on a table, this results in a bit of slippage when paging through the book. Photos are often split across a spread and must be regularly realigned. The book is always falling apart, much as many of the environments depicted inside seem to be disassembling. This conceptual hook sets a bit weakly in the face of material realities. The paper is a smooth matte surface of 100% recycled post-consumer waste material. This material sourcing is a counterweight to the environmental desolation that permeates many of the images. The cover photograph, Untitled #171, depicts over sixty small Yellow-headed Blackbirds populating, and even nesting in, a burnt black landscape with sludge covered ground -- little avian bits of color and life in the face of devastation. The matte surface of the paper dulls the blacks and the depth of the images a bit more than one might hope. Given that the cover of the book bears no distinction from the interior pages, other than being the outermost sheet, it feels redundant to see this image a second time inside. While the material attributes of the book leave some things to be desired, the work itself and the sequenced compilation of it into this loose folio present the viewer with dramatic images containing rich and complex thought.

In the 2011 press release for Johan's Until the Kingdom Comes exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery, Johan states that the work, while having Biblical allusions, "refers less to religious or natural kingdoms and more to the human fantasy that one day, in some way, life will come to a blissful resolution. …In a reality where understanding is not finite and in all probability never will be, I depict 'living' as an emotion-fueled experience, engulfed in uncertainty, desire and illusion."

It is a curious move to invoke a particular bit of language and thereby the concepts that come with it, and then try to distance oneself from it. In this case, the point of such an act, presumably to guide the viewer away from limiting the pieces to religious commentary, does not keep the title from bringing the richness of the eschatology he references to bear on his photographs. And, it certainly does not diminish the way in which they carry meaning.

The project's title derives from a portion of what is commonly known as The Lord's Prayer, where Jesus prays "Thy kingdom, come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven." This bit of the prayer refers to an expectation and desire for a future condition that returns the earth to something akin to what was lost in the expulsion from the Garden of Eden -- a state of peaceful bliss and coexistence between god, humanity, and nature. Johan brings the Eden narrative to mind with his photo of a tangle of python silhouettes writhing around a branch, devouring innocent mice and striking out at flitting doves, suggesting both the narrative instigator of the troubles of humanity, as well as the struggles that continue to plague their resolution.

Biblical and theological relationships iterate from this in a tangle of history and interpretation that lies beyond the scope of this writing. However, one other text bears heavily upon what is seen in Johan's photographs. Generally, interpreted to be speaking of an idyllic future, the verse, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together," comes from the prophet Isaiah. It is commonly elided into the phrase "the lion shall lie down with the lamb." Given Johan's subjects in the photographs, which include both wolf and lamb, though not in the same photo, the resonance of this text is pitched.

The rich literary and visual history of these themes and metaphors progresses through the centuries. An incarnation of these ideas along the path to Johan's photographs is P.T. Barnum's exhibition The Happy Family, one of Barnum's most popular and profitable attractions. According to an often quoted anecdote, it originally consisted of a cage holding a lion, a tiger, a panther -- and a baby lamb. When questioned about the future of The Happy Family, Barnum quipped, "The display will become a permanent feature, if the supply of lambs holds out."

The glory of the much-lauded original exhibit had deteriorated by the time Mark Twain paid it a visit:
A poor, spiritless old bear -- sixteen monkeys -- half a dozen sorrowful raccoons -- two mangy puppies -- two unhappy rabbits -- and two meek Tom cats, that have had half the hair snatched out of them by the monkeys, compose the Happy Family -- and certainly it was the most subjugated-looking party I ever saw. The entire Happy Family is bossed and bullied by a monkey that any one of the victims could whip, only that they lack the courage to try it. He grabs a Tom by the nape of the neck and bounces him on the ground, he cuffs the rabbits and the coons, and snatches his own tribe from end to end of the cage by the tail. When the dinner-tub is brought in, he gets boldly into it and the other members of the family sit patiently around till his hunger is satisfied or steal a morsel and get bored heels over head for it. The world is full of families as happy as that. The boss monkey has even proceeded so far as to nip the tail short off of one of his brethren, and now half the pleasures of the poor devil's life are denied him, because he hain't got anything to hang by. It almost moves one to tears to see that bob-tailed monkey work his stump and try to grab a beam with it that is a yard away. And when his stump naturally misses fire and he falls, none but the heartless can laugh. Why cannot he become a philosopher? Why cannot he console himself with the reflection that tails are but a delusion and a vanity at best?

While, it is this later state of The Happy Family that echoes the faltering and unrealized eschatology of the sloughy creatures that proliferate Until the Kingdom Comes, not all of Johan's animals appear to wait in defeat. Some instead, suggest the veneer of plenty and peace that comes from Barnum's duplicitous lamb replenishment strategy. A number of Cotton Headed Tamarins and tiny snails greedily devour an overabundance of pomegranates in paradisiacal proportions. But, lest this kind of communal fruit eating make the wrong suggestion about the dietary proclivities of Johan's beasts, in another photo, a White-crested Hornbill rests guardedly on a broken branch, with the hindquarters of a frog dangling from its beak.

Johan's lamb is faring better than Barnum's renewable sheep. The photo of the lamb is as peaceful as one might expect. The grassy field recedes to a misty horizon, with tree braches vignetting the top corners of the photo. Under the shade of the tree, the lamb appears to have just risen from rest to a sitting position. It looks tranquilly at the camera. The wolves, however, bear a more direct kinship to the version of the peaceable kingdom that Twain saw in Barnum's exhibit. One sits; others prowl behind. Their fur is matted and their bodies gaunt. They appear unable to move effectively, bogged down by their unnaturally sea-swamp habitat. These wolves are desperate for a lamb.

The animals in the photographs are totemic, representing something beyond themselves. While often photographed in species isolation, they do not read as specimens. Whether engaged in combat or encased in ice, the beasts are integrally connected to their environments, though they remain monumental within them. They are as sculptural as the physical objects that often accompany the photos in exhibition. They embody the spiritual state of both expectation and defeat, the cracks in the hope for the future that run through human desire.

The anthropomorphized nature of the animals in the photos easily transfers the emotional condition of the image from the animal kingdom to human psychology. Johan's flamingos have a quality of animated entanglement reminiscent of the flamingo croquet mallets of Disney's Alice in Wonderland. A lemur reclines in a tree branch, a bit of a dandy. It has picked a hibiscus and draws it to its nose, savoring the aroma. Two snowy owls sit on a park table in the fog, one cranes his neck in a hoot that becomes a jolly chuckle. A jungle of red monkeys stare cautiously at the viewer. One, sitting towards the back, screeches at the intrusion -- Twain's boss-monkey asserting his power.

The title, Until the Kingdom Comes, and its liturgical origins fundamentally engage the idea of waiting -- expectant waiting. The nature of what one does during this period of waiting is at the heart of religious and universal human experience. Johan's totemic creatures mark this time in telling ways.

What does waiting represent in relation to (false) expectations and the realities that these icons inhabit? The multiplicity of animal responses to this seem to differentiate themselves along the lines of potential human response. The orangutan is settled on a bedding of burlap sack on the forest floor among the roots of a large tree. Gravity weighs heavily on his jowly face, as he looks sadly into the distance. The light reflecting in his eyes suggests expectation, awaiting the movement of the sun that is breaking through the canopy. An albino deer moves confidently through the snow-covered forest, its abnormal pigmentation expands its freedoms and sense of security. The bison lies in a barren waste-filled landscape, having accepted a defeat that has seemed inevitable to it in the past. It has taken the dust of the land upon itself and become a monochromatic unity under the dark skies of the approaching storm. Similarly, the rhinoceros appears to have given up, dropping into the yellow sand that dusts its own body, with no intention of ever rising again.

Interspersed with the fauna images in Johan's book are a number of other types of photographs. In the position of what would be the book's endsheets, are printed simulations of marbled paper. The swirls of color set the palette for the book while being prescient of the polluted liquid surfaces in the book. The first photograph is the entrance to a cave, where white light radiates out from the threshold, suggesting conventional passage into something transcendent. The next photograph maintains the unearthly presence, a tree deep in the fog. The first animal to appear is a similarly shrouded beast, what appears to be a hippopotamus, swimming deep below the surface, only its rump illuminated by the light from above. Then the giraffes reach their necks high into the clouds above, but this is where things begin to turn. The soggy ground is less than inviting and the mist around their heads looks as much like smog as like clouds. Any doubt about the atmosphere that is developing in this image are then removed by the subsequent photo, where two albino elk, antlers locked around a tree, lay on the ground in defeat, fully encased in a cocoon of ice. Johan pulls us back and forth between these two ideals through the sequence of the book. A palm tree serves as a symbol of paradise, but it appears without ground, roots exposed, washed up on the edge of a rocky shore. A mountainscape is covered in a dense mysterious fog that becomes magical as the light passing prismatically through the droplets of moisture creates a rainbow filter over the gloom.

The amalgamation of sentiments, creatures and environments suggests the kind of universal harmonious union that is referenced by the title, but in the places where these elements are most readily apparent, Johan disintegrates The Happy Family. Parakeets flutter around in agitation as a moose inflicts yet another wound about its own kind. This building of potential for something transcendently concordant to be torn asunder by its own unsustainability is at the heart of Johan's assessment of our existence. The book concludes with two foxes, huddled together in the snow. Their snouts matted with blood, tears freezing down their faces. Despite moments of hope and inklings toward something different, these creatures can barely hold it together. While the same thing could be said about the binding of the book, the photographs inside are insightful and incisive. They leave one fearful that the philosopher monkey is correct and our tails/tales might be "a delusion and a vanity at best."

Simen Johan