Offering a window into his deepest, darkest imaginings, New York based artist Simen Johan’s surreal images envisage reality as an eerily beautiful dream. Indigo Clarke
“This world is made up of polar opposites. Few things, if any, are as they initially appear. Perceptions change. What we find pretty one day, we can consider ugly the next,” multi-disciplinary artist Simen Johan asserts. “Our perceptions are all we have to judge with and ironically, we have no way of knowing to what extent our conscious reality is true. By combining opposites, I’m trying to symbolically create a more complete reality.”
Meticulously assembling images of otherworldly landscapes, animals and hand-made sculptures, Johan’s digital compositions bridge fear and fantasy. His works, caught somewhere between a daydream and nightmare, depict a metaphorical world where dead foxes cry, llama's sport poodle-do's and religion is no more than myth. Like coded narratives awaiting translation, Johan’s images more than hint at something lurking beneath, yet he is content with suggestion and metaphor – he's not one to offer, or expect, answers to life's uncertainties.
"I'm celebrating the unknowability of it all," the refreshingly candid Johan considers. "If we had all the answers, life would stop. There'd be nothing for us to explore, dream or learn about. I'm excited to be part of a complex universe – Heaven, the way religion imagines it, would be complete hell." Preoccupied with the use of fantasy to compensate for what we are unable to objectively explain, Johan's work challenges religious belief-systems. "Religion is the prime example of how we create myths to alleviate fear," Johan explains.
"Interestingly, our fabricated answers are always spectacular. If we see a blinking light in the sky, we immediately think UFO. We don't consider boring possibilities - we believe the most spectacular possibility."
While for some, the doors of perception are better left shut, for Johan the altering of reality proved epiphanic, and a catalyst for a new personal philosophy. In the pursuit of knowledge and "spectacular possibilities", you never know where a bad trip can take you. "In my early 20s I tried acid and had the most frightening experience of my life," Johan recalls. "I was taken behind the scenes of life and showed with complete clarity that my daily perceptions were only illusions. At around the same time," he continues, "I had a
snowboarding accident and was unconscious - waking up in hospital. I realised I could have been dead, and had the frightening insight that it would have been fine, that I wouldn't have cared – because being dead, I wouldn't actually be able to care. I saw that we construct meaning by necessity, and allow fantasy to shape our experience of reality."
His ongoing series, "Until the Kingdom Comes" (2006), featuring whimsical portraits of animals as metaphors for humans, continues his query into faith and fantasy. To create these works, Johan visits zoos, as well as the occasional farm and museum, to photograph animals; and while there is a common misconception that he shoots taxidermy, few of his works actually feature preserved specimens. On one occasion, though, when a road-kill fox crossed his path, he cleaned it up and administered hair-gel to create the illusion of tears. The romantic image of a pair of foxes huddled together crying
displays Johan's trademark collision of extreme opposites, "it's a sweet and amorous moment," he notes, "but the foxes are poised to kill at any moment."
The poodle-cut llama hailing from upstate New York starring in one of the 'Kingdom' images, received its uncharacteristic do after Johan convinced its owner to let him shave it (subsequently entered by the proud owner into a competition). "The llama piece references the way we do things to feel unique," Johan explains. "It could be by getting a crazy haircut or buying designer clothing – setting oneself apart through superficial means." The wolf sculpture in a further image is a symbol of fear, transformed into absurd beauty – the manner in which Johan believes we are trained to deal with all our fears. "We pursue what we desire and escape what we fear," he says. "We look for truth, but if the truth we find is undesirable, we cover it up with desirable lies. Perhaps these works are all a symbol of our attempts to conquer and alter nature to befit our fancies."
While his elaborate work is heavily based in photography, it also involves the creation of sculptures and digital compositing – a fairly unique and integrated practice. His desire from a young age to "make and create things" could not be satisfied by photography alone, so Johan started out, "cutting and pasting my images into collages, forming something new and mine." Born in Norway, and growing up in southern Sweden, Johan relocated to New York at 19 to study at the School of Visual Arts. Currently based in New York but travelling incessantly across the world, 34 year-old Johan this year alone photographed in Costa Rica, Scotland, Virginia, upstate New York, Chicago and California. The creation of his detailed sculptures, sold and exhibited along with his images, has been a natural progression of his multi-disciplinary practice.
For the foreseeable future, Simen Johan's existential reflections will be shaping the atmospheric "Until the Kingdom Comes" series – work that has proven a happy challenge. "It's difficult photographing animals because I need them super sharp," Johan explains. "My life would be a lot easier if I could afford animal trainers – but then I'd be less compelled to photograph animals… there's something enticing about doing something that's very difficult. For now I'm making more sculptures and images based on, and within, nature – the natural world is really fascinating to me and something I'll continue working with for a long time."