Text written for the exhibition catalogue TVÄRS
Published in connection with the solo exhibition at Säffle water tower, 2021
Levels of life, strategies for survival or a snorkel for sanity?
What do we see, what can we comprehend – and how do we make sense of the everyday? You know, the very normal taken for granted objects and items that make and shape our ways of co-existence?
One option is to run after the big issues, the very important and difficult things, trying to gather as much as possible information of everything and anything and then seek to picture it as a whole. A path that is both burdensome and rather boring. And well, try as you might, as hard as you might, you’ll never get there.
The other option is to take another route – embodied with another perspective. This is to cherish and to pay attention to the small, the minuscule details, the anecdotes, the nuances of how our daily lives are structured: to the rhymes, rhythms and repetitions of the material world.
It is called the infra-ordinary, and it is followed, supported by the main idea of getting closer, staying close that is characterised as a sense of a reality. Right here, right now – in all its confrontations and collisions, but also caresses and compassions. It is about sensibility and sensuality.
These things, the matters that matter make our lives what they are and even could be, potentially, they can be tiny, they can be huge, they can be thin, they can be thick. Whatever they are, they are not that by themselves, in themselves, but in and through relationships – an intervention in time and space.
Interventions such as the moves and moments within the work of Michael Johansson. We do recognise the objects that are used, that we confront, we reckon to be able to figure out their functionality, but here, with the art work, we are offered more, much more. It is a reversal, an alteration of direction.It is an invitation to feel with, be with and allow these everyday materials to be surprising, to gain a new life – a higher ground.
At Säffle water tower, things do go high, and higher. Meters, so many meters that it's even confusing.Here, the things, the things that we are depending on and enchanted with, they take the form of a ladder. For sure, there are many other manifestations of materiality included, but in this case, it is foremost about dimensions and spatiality, it is about ladders.
Because you know ladders, don’t you? Or do you? Compact and light, condensed energy to be explored and expanded, making it possible for you to do things that take you high, and higher. You look up up up and then you come down again and start again.
You win, you generate a rare moment of an epiphany. Here, hear that sensual exhilaration, the amazing grace of a common as muck object, a ladder, in plural, that now gets noticed, becomes the star, the star that it always has been but which has not before been acknowledged.
Not for long, never more than for that sort of weird momentum, that notion which seems to escape us but it is all of a sudden among, with us, in the site and situation of seeing, feeling, being with something different, something out of the ordinary, becoming something else. There is a dialogue, things get diagonal and there is a distinguished dialect. No destruction, no delusion, just a wish, a desire to combine and connect the things that are in the everyday in a little bit different, in a little bit more exiting way.
It is the always individual take, always the special roots of the infra-ordinary that lead, if we allow us to go on and follow its promise, they lead us to the routes of the hesitating beauty of the everyday, the everyday.
Text written for the artist book Passing Stills
Published in collaboration with the Gothenburg Museum of Art, 2014
"It is as if he had made it a point of honor not to allow the traces of his everyday objects and accessories to get lost."
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Cups, caskets, cases, coolers, moving -, shipping-, and tool boxes, drawers, cupboards, cabinets, lockers, chairs, couches, tables, bed frames, mattresses, blankets, ladders, books, typewriters, radios, telephones, monitors, television sets, microwaves, radiators...
What sounds like a detailed inventory of 20th century domestic life interiors constitutes the exceptional material palette of Swedish artist Michael Johansson's remarkable creations. Here, seemingly random collections of ordinary objects, accessories, and artifacts of daily life are neatly assembled in harmoniously balanced installations and sculptures of monolithic diversity. Alienated from their original settings and functions, the constituent parts of his artistic compositions come together in perfect structure and organization to form a new and complex whole. These disparate and often derelict elements and bits Johannson finds in storage spaces and flea markets around whatever town he is working in, give rise to novel unity in his assemblages of accidental beauty. Found in the same environment and therefore necessarily associated with one another, they offer an almost archeological reading of their context in their patterned grouping. Recurring simultaneously at a particular time and place, these items can be read as plausible indicators for cultural identification. They become narrative traces of instant history.
"To live is to leave traces," wrote German literary critic, philosopher, and essayist Walter Benjamin appropriately in his account of the birth of domestic interior contained in his seminal yet provisional and unfinished Arcades Project. "The traces of its inhabitant are molded into the interior," he continues at a later point in the essay, further adding that in "the interior [the private individual] brings together remote locales and memories of the past. His living room is a box in the theater of the world." In line with Benjamin's trajectory, Johansson's uniquely framed and often box-like installations – mainly re-created from the material sphere of the domestic interior – appear to be downright literal implementations of Benjamin's aforementioned "living room is a box" concept. Not to mention that the majority of the appropriated elements in Johansson's work can be accurately summarized as simple storage compartments and receptacles – boxes of varying size and scale. Whilst Benjamin's box remains an abstract metaphor within one of the great texts of 20th century cultural criticism, Johansson's boxes emerge as concrete material manifestations of the idea. Upon closer inspection, Johansson's work dialectically activates Benjamin's room-as-a-box concept. The living-room-box is both the container of the world, an interiorization in the face of an exterior, and also as an exteriorization in view of an interior. In other words, Johansson's stand-alone and fill-in sculptures contain and expose simultaneously. They are exemplary proof of the possibility of thinking inside and outside the box at the same time.
To push the dialectic argument further, we are witnessing in Johansson's assemblages what could theoretically be described as a process of inverse estrangement in both senses of the term - as in Karl Marx's theory of alienation (Entfremdung), as well as Bertolt Brecht's performing arts concept (Verfremdungseffekt). The first describes, generally speaking, a separation of things that naturally belong together: the antagonism between things that are properly in harmony, or a social alienation of people from aspects of their human nature as a consequence of living in a society stratified into social classes. While the latter more commonly denotes an artistic and performative technique of intentional defamiliarization, which not only forces the audience to experience common things in an unfamiliar or strange ways, but as a result to enhance perception of the familiar and leads the audience, as Brecht notes, "to be a consciously critical observer." Johansson's compositions of completely detached everyday commodities into one harmonious system can indeed be understood in the sense of the first as subversive acts of inverse alienation in their successful resolution of prevailing antagonisms and separations between things. Within the meaning of the second, Johansson's accumulations of ordinary items and products into a piece of art furthermore distances them from their original context, in this way reanimating them in a second life of unfamiliar signification and function.
Leaving aside experimental attempts to intellectually trace Michael Johansson's work in a wider cultural frame of reference, his artistic inventory of the ordinary first and foremost imparts the sensation of spaces and things as they are perceived and not as they are known. His humble approach recalls that of French scholar Michel de Certeau, who in illustrates in his essay The Practice of Everyday Life how everyday life is a process of encroaching on the territory of the other, and how the rules and products that already exist in culture are often employed in unforeseeable ways. De Certeau and Johansson’s work can both be read as dedications to the ordinary, the common, the disseminated, the untold – the overlooked and the absent are where the work begins, and what make it necessary.
The Arcades Project (ed. Rolf Tiedemann)
Harvard University Press. 1999.
Brecht on Theater: The Development of an Aesthetic (ed. John Willets)
Simon & Schuster. 1994.
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Lawrence & Wishard. 1970.
Michel de Certeau
The Practice of Everyday Life
University of California Press. 1984.
Text written for the exhibition catalogue Familiar Abstractions
Published in connection with the solo exhibition at Vigeland-museet, Oslo (NO), 2011
Being an artist today is in many ways something other than what it was in the past. The number of arenas in which art and artists are visible has multiplied. Today, there are more galleries, exhibition spaces and museums than ever. Not least, the Inter- net has created a great number of spaces in which artists can work. Technical developments have also made it considerably easier for artists to produce work that can be widely disseminated. Artists who succeed in finding compatible forms of expressions have great opportunities.
In studying Michael Johansson’s work, a notable issue is how well his work functions in different contexts. His work is very flexible. The artistic method he has found functions just as well in monumental works in public spaces, in galleries, and – why not? – in office environments. I believe that Michael’s energy – he is very productive – is partly founded in his enthusiasm over having found a key that works in any lock. Few manage that. There may of course be a danger in this: that the very sense of having found the right approach leads to repetition and stagnation. However, it can also lead to infinite rooms that never end and in which there is an abundance of things to discover and try.
Michael Johansson was briefly my student while I was a Professor at the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art. He had a year left of his BFA when I started teaching at the Academy. I cannot recall having had all that many conversations with him during the year at the Academy. Nevertheless, in my recollection we quickly established a good rapport; perhaps because we were both Swedes, but primarily because I found Michael to be a sympathetic person. It is not at all uncommon for students at institutions of higher learning in the arts to see themselves as mature artists and occasionally even as stars. Michael did not belong in this category. What I recall of his work during that time were the installations he created in his studio at the Academy. I remember that he had a lot of things in his studio. It is possible that the ideas for how he was to later work as an artist emerged at the stage when he was to pack up his studio and move back to Sweden.
It happens very often that brilliant ideas are born of limitations or a dilemma; in Michael’s case, perhaps the question of how he was to pack up all the mate- rials that were in the studio. I do not know, but by studying Michael’s CV we can see that he travelled extensively even while at the Academy. Perhaps the years of travel and packing have accumulated in an experience bank, which at a special moment was just there to use. As I said, I do not know. But I do know a lot about limitations and dilemmas – just like most artists. It is also something that unites all creative work, whether it is art, research, or other activities where there is no given truth to work from.
Limitations can be access points. Matisse knew this. He was a lawyer and came late to painting. He was given a box of paints while convalescing from an illness. This was mostly to give him something to do. He got interested and signed up for a day school. The teaching was mostly about copying famous masterpieces from a museum. The pupils were mostly girls and boys whose parents worked at the museum. Matisse cursed his inability to copy as well as the others. Instead of despairing and giving up painting, he turned his painting and art practice towards something else. The rest is art history.
Like Matisse, Michael’s limitations have been the very foundation for the development of an artistic practice. It may have emerged from the dilemma of not know- ing where to put everything, or how best to move things. However, it may just as well be that his work is a conclusion of what he has seen and come across in the art world in the past 10-15 years. Stacking furniture and objects in a room is not unique in art. What Michael adds is a sort of perfection that resembles the art of engineering; a logistician would rejoice over his abilities.
Michael Johansson’s work is almost always viewed with a smile on the lips. I think this is about something that we all recognise: what to do with everything we buy and collect. It is the dilemma of our age. At least in the affluent parts of the world. Michael seems to have found the key to solving even that problem. It is simply about cramming it in in a smart, efficient and pretty way. I also think that the liberating smile comes from the wonderful sense of orderliness. Regardless of the life each and every one of us lives, most of us find some part of our life chaotic. Most of us have lives filled with stresses and demands.
Thus the work does not stop at the smile and the humour that is there in nearly all of Michael’s work, and which I return to later. The work also gets meaning from the questions about our lifestyle in a global context. Here, the work is filled with political reflections. This is where I find Michael Johansson’s artistic practice the most interest- ing. It is almost like the Trojan horse, which first appears to be a fun thing, and then later turns out to be filled with political power. It is impressive that he in addition succeeds in adapting the expression so that it works in the most diverse environments without needing to make any significant compromises.
Compact Living is one of the topics that relates to our global context. This may be one of the first associations people make when seeing Michael’s work of stacked and/or tightly crammed everyday objects. A Google hit for “Compact Living” gets 42,900,000 hits. In other words, it is a concept that is established in our society and conscious- ness. However, Michael avoids the trap of having his work stop at just this. The way he works with colour is one of the ways in which he achieves this. In other words, it is not just about organising and packing. It is also about aesthetics. The works are lifted into an art history context, which can partly be about the relationship of painting to reality. But they also work as sculptures without the responsibility of having to be anything else. Colour can have different functions in art. It can be a technical tool to create depth or temperature in a picture. Colour can also be symbolic, and can even be used to place something in a context. In Michael’s case, this is a painterly context.
There are many works of art that bounce between different meanings, but I want to argue that in this context, Michael Johansson’s work differs from many others’. A work by Michael Johansson can be seen as something natural, not in the sense that you immediately understand what it is about, but in the sense that it has always been there. One explanation can be that the work often consists of recognisable objects, but it is also because it is an aesthetic that is located near the contemporary. Lines can be drawn between some of Michael Johansson’s works and contemporary architecture, which often finds fodder in functional- ism. This returns us to the idea about orderliness, structures and plans.
Where architecture becomes bone-dry, Michael’s works become a breeze, a wink to various contemporary phenomena – yet without losing the seriousness that they also embody. Balancing on a line between serious- ness and fun is something many artists strive towards. Few succeed. Artists worthy of admiration are those who dare to risk their honour and glory by being banal and downright wretched, but who, like a magic trick, nevertheless do not fall in the end. Michael Johansson does not take this type of risk; I do not think this is because he does not dare to, but because his form of expression requires exactness and precision.
Those of us who are older recall the Cornflakes box from our childhood. There was a small model kit in them, in which the various parts that were to be fitted together were attached to a surrounding frame. In several works, Michael has copied this method, though at a significantly larger scale and to a very different purpose. This may be an electric mixer, a hair dryer or a large row boat . Distortions of scale are often humorous. This is also the case in these works, but even here there is a turn towards more existential questions.
Our age is characterised by continual choices. This has led to a feeling of everything being interchangable, down to the smallest part. Life seems to consist of joining a series of parts to a perfect harmonious whole. Yet many people are frustrated over having been given the wrong parts; that they were given a defective model in their box of Cornflakes. Perhaps that is true, even. It happens.
Like the sculptures created of tightly packed everyday objects, forming images of cubes or other geometrical forms, even these works offer the comfort of thinking that it is possible to organise our otherwise so chaotic lives. Even if that is just an illusion. However, these sculptures have a different form of lightness due to their construction. It is not about tightly cramming everyday objects. Instead, a number of parts are offered that, when put together, create a whole – a single object. Michael has presented these sculptures in both galleries and outdoor public spaces. Again, one is struck by how well they work, the different environments and conditions notwithstanding.
Much can be said about public art. In connection with the emergence of relational art in the 90s, the discussion about public art was both expanded and problematised. Not least, there was a focus on art’s function in society. The artists who work on relational art do not just aim to place the artwork somewhere or other. They also want to include and work with the people who in one way or another are associated with the space.
This is not actually all that different from the traditional views from earlier periods about public art, when artists were also in some ways forced to relate to the location and its actors. The difference is that in relational art, it is the collaboration with other actors and the process that is thereby created that is the work. This means that relational art rarely leaves an artefact behind, unless we by that also mean documentation such as film and photos. Relational art also often displays a willingness to integrate with people’s everyday lives.
Michael Johansson is not a relational artist, but one can certainly argue that everyday life is present in his art. He uses materials he finds at flea-markets and second hand shops. These are remnants of people’s everyday lives. Like in relational art, habits and patterns of behaviour form the basis for Michael’s art. From his starting with what our everyday lives produces and leaves behind, we can easily identify society in time and space in his art. Political dimensions can be found even here, should we want to see them.
In the summer of 2012, I curated a sculpture exhibition in the park that surrounds Värmland Museum in Karlstad, a mid-size city in central Sweden. Michael was one of five artists who were invited to participate. The budget for each artist was not particularly large, as indeed it rarely is when municipalities invest in art. Furthermore, exhibitions in parks are one of the most difficult areas to venture into as an artist. There are usually a great deal of parameters to relate to, not least a budget that is far too small. If the work is to remain in place for some time, as was the case in Karlstad, the artist must even relate to weather and wind conditions. Security is another problem. If the client is a municipality or something similar, there are even explicit or implicit wishes about the nature and purpose of the work.
After the artists had visited the park and gained a sense of the conditions, Michael was the first to submit a proposal. There was a table with attached benches in the park; the type of tables that are often seen in parks and at rest stops. Michael’s proposal used a bench like this as a starting point. He made a copy of it in the form of a model kit, or like the actual bench could have looked like when it was delivered and before it was put together. However, Michael’s bench was bright yellow. The bench sculpture was placed near the original bench.
As I worked at Värmland Museum during the exhibition, I had the opportunity to observe visitors in the park. What I saw happening around Michael’s work was that visi- tors stood, either alone or in small groups, and seemed to think about and discuss how the bench should be put together: which parts belonged where and the direction in which they should be joined together. Just as often, children played on the sculpture, which obviously worked just as well as a climbing structure as a work of art. In some cases, I saw people actually having a picnic on it, even though the “real” bench was unoccupied.
The sculpture had taken on multiple purposes. With such use, one would expect it to look battered after the exhibition was over. However, that was not at all the case. Despite the stresses and strains it had been put though, Michael’s work looked more or less like it did when it was put there. In contrast, some of the other art works in the park had been vandalised during the exhibition. It is possible that this was because, in contrast to Michael’s work, they were more fragile and easier to destroy. Possibly, they were also more provoking, in the sense that they were clearly linked to art. There are people who are provoked by such things. Michael’s bench was not as easy to define. In some ways, Michael’s work displayed a sense of authority. It seemed to play along with a sort of park culture, if such a thing exists. In a strange way it seemed to belong in the park from the moment it was put there.
There is a way in which Michael Johansson’s artistic practice can be placed within popular culture, in the sense that his work plays on the expressions of popular culture. But also in the sense that his work makes significant use of the artefacts of mass culture. Several of his smaller sculptures have also been produced in several editions and multiple colours. He does not appear to have a dogmatic relation- ship to the unique. Instead, he speaks of unique connections. His works are recognisable things that a presented in new ways. Based on such an attitude, even repetition and multiplication take on a different meaning.
Michael Johansson’s works embody wonderful traits. They are usually odd in their contexts. They stick out and force the visitor to react in some way and to relate to them. Despite this, they never provoke, but rather strive to become one with the context. This may seem paradoxical, which it is. That is what is so wonderful.
Text written for the exhibition catalogue Familiar Abstractions
Published in connection with the solo exhibition at Vigeland-museet, Oslo (NO), 2013
As beautiful as a chance meeting between a sewing machineand an umbrella on an operating table
(Comte de Lautréaumont)
This is about cubes and walls that are stringent and taut, fascinating both in form and colour, and which at times lean towards the surreal. The works are beautiful and not as randomly assembled as might appear at first glance. This is about sculptures that exist well within the boundaries of the expanded field of sculpture. Michael Johansson relates to this established tradition, yet the materials he makes use of are still considered new within this tradition. Despite this, his works are characterised more by evolution than by revolution. They are unique and distinctive, yet they speak a common language. They often appear as obstructions or interventions, and thereby establish certain conditions for the viewer’s movements. They are constructed out of near and dear everyday components and can be perceived as physical manifestations of creative expression.
Form and Colour
A consistent and distinctive feature of Johansson’s sculptural works is the clear structures they manifest. For the most part they have a clearly defined geometric form, either cubic or rectangular. When it comes to style his works display clear references to Conceptualism and American Minimalism, but Johansson’s works have a broader sphere of reference, both culturally and artistically. A monochrome colour scheme is another consistent feature of his works. They are most often held within nuances of white, green, red, brown or blue. This consistent approach provides the works with a well-defined form and visual calm. There are many ways of perceiving the rooms. Johansson has a tendency to both compress and fill space. A compression of space is found in the cubist shapes that consist of various inventory parts. A filling of space can be seen in cases where he actually fills an empty space in a building. He treats the various rooms in a way that allows the objects to express a sense of the different social spheres as well. He intervenes in the intimate sphere via contraction and he intervenes in the public sphere via expansion and filling in.
Monochrome and Multifaceted
Works by Johansson demonstrate a subtle connection between variation and stringency. The variations are found in the choice of material and design. He executes both concrete spatial objects and site-specific works in, on, or in relationship to buildings. The stringent quality lies among other things in the choice of material and colour scheme. By this I mean that he consistently makes use of found objects (l’objet trouvée or ready-mades), for example from the site where the exhibition is to be held. Further, we see the consistent colour scheme, which habitually remains within the monochrome realm.
Tetris (2007) is a freestanding work with a doorframe as its outer framework. The door itself is fixed in a stationery open position so that it forms a monochrome white, vertical plane. This creates a contrast to the polychrome contents of the door opening. We see various objects pressed into the frame: a suitcase, tool chests, a guest bed, matrasses, moving boxes, tennis rackets, hockey skates and a picnic basket, to name a few of the components. The objects comprise a kind of inventory over a human being’s life, or lifestyle, and are thus linked to both the private and the public space. The reverse side of the work shows the same objects in a chaotic arrangement. In this way a contrast in the work’s form and colour scheme arises. From the front we see tautness and solidity, while from the back and the sides, the same work reveals signs of a potential collapse.
1,5 m2 was executed in Stavanger in 2008 in a shop that was closed for business. The installation consists of various objects from the shop’s storage space, among them a moving trunk, transport pallets, vaulting horses, various planks, paintbrushes and cardboard tubes. These objects are pressed into a doorway of what appears to be the interior of a shop. The door is on the corner of the low, freestanding building and flanked by two large windows. Both windows are covered with brown paper from the inside. Documentation of the artwork reveals that the room is empty on the inside and that access to it was not permit- ted during the exhibition period.
One of the main works in the exhibition in the Vige- land Museum is Four Hundred Shades of Brown II from 2010. It is an enormous piece, 12 cubic metres in dimension, consisting of brown furniture; bureaus, tables, cabinets, radios – in other words, objects from the private sphere. It is the distinctive arrangement of the individual elements that makes the work. By taking them out of their familiar setting and depriving them of their original function, a sense of estrangement arises, with regard to them as well as us as viewers. We can see the same effect in Ghost from 2009, a cubic-shaped sculpture that measures 175 x 175 x 175 cm. It is composed among other things of a refrigerator, ironing board, sink, crib, kitchen clock, a chest of drawers, bookshelves, stools, coffee tables and a tumble dryer. Together the objects more or less make up the major components of a home.
These two afore-mentioned works, together with Tetris, illustrate a typical aspect of a majority of Johans- son’s projects, namely, the dichotomy expressed by the terms “Heimlich”/“Unheimlich”. It is difficult to describe the feeling when something near and dear (“Heimlich”) appears in a strange guise (“Unheimlich”). Whether or not the intention is deliberate on the part of the artist, it is confusing for us the viewers.
In addition to these three-dimensional objects and installations, we find works of a more subtle character entitled Some assembly required (some of them bear other titles, but the principle is the same). These works are characterised of by a frame, and inside of the frame we find individual parts, i.e. a building sett. In form they resemble scale model sets (though not at all in size, since Johansson works in a scale of 1:1) such as those manufactured by Airfix or Heller. For many they invoke a flood of memories. The prefabricated components of boats, automobiles, airplanes and motorcycles came attached to each other, and to the thick frame that held them together. A major aspect of the task involved detaching the parts and organising them before they were glued together. Johansson has developed this concept further to include lawnmowers, picnic tables, hairdryers or small recreational boats.
These works are associated with the aesthetics of the model building that occurs in boy’s rooms. At the same time they encompass a memory recall function, in the sense that – for some of us viewers – they invoke memories of a bygone and innocent times.
Intervention is a predominant element of art on the whole, but especially within the field of installation art. This medium, or strategy, can be seen as having both an inviting and involving character with regard to the viewer, in addition to being massive and at times brutal. An example of the latter can be seen in the works of Jessica Stockholder (b. 1959) for example. In Norway she mounted a large exhibition, or more accurately a massive installation in Kunstnernes Hus in 1997, called Slab of Skinned Water, Cubed Chicken & White Sauce. She occupied both skylight rooms and the space at the top of the monumental stairway of Kunstnernes Hus. Among the most conspicuous elements she used were Glava (fibreglass) insulation mats, Leca (clay aggregate) building blocks and balls of hay wrapped in plastic. Stockholder’s technique and interventions are more massive, and perhaps even more masculine, in form than Johansson’s, yet the kinship lies in making use of near and dear objects – we are referring to readymades – and then to build a construction that compels us to view everything in a new light. Both Stockholder and Johansson create what we can call a physical sequence, where the elements overlap. A transition from one thing, or one object, to another establishes meaning.
Both the installations – or interventions – and sculptures created by Johansson are associated with an established artistic tradition. Although small in dimension, 1,5 m2 is an interesting example of this. As is the case with another of his site-specific installations in the exhibition at the Vigeland museum, where he obstructs the passage between two of the rooms. In itself, one might consider this a modest gesture, but when viewed in connection with daily routines, it implies a relatively large interference in our daily patterns of circulating around the museum. We liter- ally encounter a cul-de-sac here. Both these works call to mind Marcel Duchamp’s installation Sixteen Miles of String, which was executed in connection with the exhibition “First Papers of Surrealism” in New York in 1942. A string measuring a total of sixteen miles (ca. 26 km) was strung up in an exhibition room thereby creating a physical and visual jumble of matter that impeded the public from entering the room.
We have seen other examples of how he makes use of equipment, such as trolleys and stepladders, as major elements in his installations – or interventions – and some- thing that to a certain degree hinders the institution from conducting its daily tasks in a routine manner. Is this to be interpreted as criticism of institutions? No, I do not think so. I believe it has more to do with a strategy where one makes use of what one finds at hand, and in the process it’s not improbable that one might end up poking fun at the institution.
Art is full of references and it is obviously great fun for an art historian to uncover them. Some of these have already been mentioned in connection with what we can call Johansson’s interventions. But, at the end of the day, it is a question of pointing at the relevant references. This act of pointing is necessary in order to view art in general, and in this case, Michael Johansson in particular, in a particular perspective, as well as in a particular context. Contrary to what some might be led to believe, neither the artwork nor the artist is autonomous.
When it comes to style, Johansson’s works are closely associated with type of conceptual art that is both European and American. The cubist form points to works by American minimalists such as Donald Judd (1928-1994), Tony Smith (1912-1980) and Larry Bell (b. 1939). In the choice of material as well as palette, it is reasonable to recall the early works of Tony Cragg (b. 1949). Johansson’s use of (and obsession with?) everyday household objects can also be linked to Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933), who is most famous in Norway for his installation The Garbage Man (The Man who never threw away anything) (1988-1995) which is permanently housed in the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo. A striking feature of Johansson’s works is their systematic organisation and taut construction. There is a degree of sentimentality in the works, which almost imperceptibly shifts between connotations of possession and obsession. A definition of possession includes the concept of having, owning or collecting things, in this case in order to use them in an installation. Obsession evokes exactly the same traits: to have, to own or collect.
The title of Johansson’s piece Ghost may indicate something past, perhaps lost, but this “something” is nevertheless highly present. When it comes to form, this work calls to mind the British artist Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963). In 1990 she executed a work with the same title, Ghost. What Whiteread did was to make a cast of the interior of a traditional English townhouse. The walls, ceiling, floor mouldings and the fireplace are visibly imprinted in the massive, cubic concrete block.
There are many points of similarity between Whiteread and Johansson; for one, the cubist and geometrical aspect has already been mentioned. Both are also oriented towards the familiar, what we find in the private sphere. Whereas Whiteread makes casts, Johansson uses everyday functional objects. In addition they have a strong interest in empty space, perhaps it is even a case of ‘horro vacuii’, a fear of empty space. In the early 1990s Whiteread created several works that were actually casts of the empty space beneath a chair. They were arranged in a row, like geometrical shapes, a strategy that linked them to the serial aspect of minimalism. Johansson is also pre- occupied with empty space, in particular with filling them with objects that are in some way related to each other.
Michael Johansson’s Ghost is also reminiscent of works by American artist Tony Smith, who in the early 1960s created the iconic work Die, which measures 6 x 6 x 6 feet – the equivalent of the average height of a human being. In an interview Smith was asked why he did not execute the work in a larger scale. He responded by saying that he did not wish to create a monument. He was then asked why he did not execute it in a smaller scale. He responded that he did not wish to create an object.
I have mentioned Marcel Duchamp’s Sixteen Miles of String in relation to the work 1,5 m2. One can also point to two projects exhibited in Paris more than 50 years ago. In 1958 the artist Yves Klein mounted an exhibition entitle “Le Vide” (Emptiness) in Galerie Iris Clert. To create the exhibition he had removed the entire inventory and painted the room white. In 1960 his friend and colleague Arman responded by mounting the exhibition “Le Plein” (Fullness) in the same gallery venue, which he filled up with various objects making it impossible to enter it.
One must keep in mind that there are hardly any limits to what one can point to when it comes to refer- ences from art history. This applies to art in general, and to Johansson in particular. It would seem natural to take a closer look at Tony Cragg in this context. The connection is most obvious in his earlier works, i.e. those from the late 1970s and a few years there- after. Cragg’s career spans over three decades and extreme diversity when it comes to both material use and idiom. Cragg belongs to the generation of British artists – together with Bill Woodrow, Allison Wilding and Richard Deacon and others – whose main strategy was to use prefabricated, low-status materials instead of those commonly used in handicrafts and art. Cragg’s use of plastic objects such as toy shovels, buckets, toy cars, and the like, were not intended as recycled objects but more as a way of defining a new kind of raw material. These were the new stones of sculpture, and it is with these kind of stones that Michael Johansson further develops the tradition.
Johansson’s three-dimensional works, and installations are clear examples of a development in modernist sculpture. They diverge from the classical tradition, or references to classicism, among other things via the character of the material and their arrangement in space. What was once a radical mode of expression has now become an established tradition, which is a good thing, and we have shifted from the revolutionary to the evolutionary. Johansson works within a broadened sculptural context, but he does not expand the field of sculpture itself. He works well within the norms of the medium, yet with a unique language that, with its multiple levels, is commonly accessible. Johansson’s art is executed in such a way as to be part of our daily speech. This idiom is both visually beautiful and intellectually challenging. We may like what we see, and let it go at that. But we can also allow ourselves to be tempted to partake in intellectual exercises when we observe the works. When we perform these exercises we can discover the references and traditions that he belongs to. And by doing so, we begin to build with new stones of our own.
Text written for the artist book Recollection
Published in connection with the solo exhibition at Ystad Art Museum, 2011
Michael Johansson collects things and shows them in a new context. I can’t help thinking of the three words that sum up the task of a museum: collecting, preserving, showing. Even if preserving stands for something different in Johansson’s oeuvre than in a museum, there are undeniable parallels between Johansson’s art and the role of a museum. And the similarities are striking when it comes to a historic or ethnological museum, where objects are collected and tell their story when they are shown together. Objects can be read like words that make up sentences. They get their meaning from the context, and many words can form a story. Johansson has a unique way of handling objects. By presenting them en masse, he tells a story, while building a sculptural design. He defines his own rules for collecting and presenting, based on certain aesthetic criteria.
Michael Johansson’s works are created according to a “collect-and-show” principle and can roughly be divided into two categories: Firstly, the free-standing works, made of objects from jumble sales, which he combines into sculptural shapes, transforming them forever into art. These works can be exhibited indifferent spaces and locations. The work Monochrome Anachron, for instance, now belongs to the permanent collection of Malmö Konstmuseum. This work from 2008consists entirely of brown and transparent objects. It can be read asa monochrome painting, a stylised sculpture, or an installation; an installation made of things that could once have belonged to a person, a home. It is a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, where the pieces consist of books, clocks, games, glasses, decanters, clothes and shoes. The work Days and Names from 2010 is like an abstract representation of an office. A filing unit on wheels has been packed with things suggesting an office environment, including binders, drawers and briefcases. As always inJohansson’s works, each item is carefully chosen for its colour and shape. The angularity and brownish-green hues conjure up cubist paintings by Picasso or Braque.
A second category is his site-specific works.Johansson gathers together objects from a given place and transforms them into art in the same location. When creating a site-specific work at Ystads Konstmuseum, he uses only things found in the building. The objects he chooses are everyday objects, not the museum’s valuable art collection. Rummaging through basements, offices, storage spaces, workshops, he collects things that can be spared throughout the exhibition period, that is, things that are not used that often: cases, chairs, tables, boxes. In this way, the work tells a story about the activities in the building, focusing on what happens behind the scenes. We are shown things that have somehow ended up here, a far less consciously accumulated collection than the one shown in the public galleries of the art museum.
In his site-specific works, Johansson interacts with the architecture and uses the confines of the space as a frame.He finds a place in the building, a gap, a parenthesis, a framework, and fills it with things, with words, with art. These site-specific works can only be shown in the place where they were created, and the objects cease to be art when the exhibition ends.
The site-specific works are photographed and preserved, however, and the temporary installations live on in these photos after the exhibition, albeit in a new context. When the photographic works are shown in a new setting, they tell a different story.
I am wondering how far back in art history I can find parallels to Johansson’s art. Perhaps 17th century still-lifes: the still-life painters created their compositions by arranging objects, like Johansson, and achieving a balance in colour, shape and spatiality. This classical motif was also the subject of lively experimentation in modernist art. Johansson’s sculptures could perhaps be seen as contemporary still-lifes. Parallels can also be drawn to Donald Judd’s sculptures, with their minimalist formal idiom. Judd’s way of arriving at shapes by means of various mathematical formulae is comparable to Johansson’s strict puzzle system.
Johansson’s works are abstract, in the way the objects are puzzled together according to shape and colour. But the purpose of the objects is also important, and he chooses and combines things that could belong together based on their purpose, time and/or place. Johansson’s oeuvre also brings to mind Duchamp, the father of conceptual art, who turned art on its head by introducing his found objects to the art space. Objects became art, and ideas were more important that form. Like Duchamp, Johansson takes the mundane out of its context, places it in the art space, changing its context and thus its meaning. I see Johansson’s works as a combination of form and idea, of painting, sculpture and conceptual art, of the abstract and the figurative, and of collecting, showing and, ultimately, preserving.
Text written for the artist book Recollection
Published in connection with the solo exhibition at Ystad Art Museum, 2011
“I’m a thing-finder,” Pippi tells Tommy and Annika one day.
“A thing-finder, what’s that?” asks Tommy
”Someone who finds things, of course,” says Pippi.
“The whole world is full of things, and somebody has to find them. And that’s what a thing-finder does.”
(Astrid Lindgren, 1945, Pippi Longstocking)
Pippi Longstocking isn’t the only thing-finder. Most of us have to look for things we need now and then, without finding it at once. It could be our keys, the remote for the TV, the bicycle pump or something else. Michael Johansson is also a thing-finder, bu this search is of another kind. He doesn’t look for what he needs at the moment but for things that are gathering dust somewhere because the are not needed. And eventually, these things are forgotten.
Johansson looks in many places. Some of them are full of things that have been weeded out because no one needs them any more. Just think of all the basements, attics and garages. But we still have ties with the things we keep there. They are in limbo, we no longer use them but we haven’t thrown them away either. They have been given a reprieve. Sometimes, we take them out again and give them a second chance; other times, all that remains is that last journey to the dump orre cycling centre.
As a thing-finder,Michael Johansson is a contemporary archaeologist, looking for objects that can provide useful, and sometimes surprising, information about us and the times we are living in. Sometimes archaeologists dig in the ground, or they search in other places. Johansson makes his finds at jumble sales and in storage spaces.He then assembles them with meticulous precision to form new objects. As sculptures, some are islands of matter-of-factness surrounded by empty space, while others fill spaces that were previously gaping holes.
In their new context, these objects acquire new visibility. They no longer appear like rejects but are charged with new possibilities that affect us. Things we recognise from our own past strike us with a peculiar impact, appearing at once both familiar and remarkably strange. There are many fond reencounters: there’s a glass cabinet like the one grandma and grandpa had; that wall clock is like the one in our kindergarten, and those grey filing cabinets, just like the one sin dad’s office. Recognition triggers memories; suddenly, we remember things that we would never have thought of otherwise, things we thought were forgotten.We recall people and places, tears and laughter, situations and events that happened long ago. These memories come to us whether we want to or not; we are defenceless against these objects, they do something to us.
With his sculptural installations, Michael Johansson explores our relationship to objects and to our own history. Since I grew up during the economic boom of the1960s and 70s, this encounter with this material inheritance of the Swedish welfare state prompts a plethora of thoughts. Many of the objects that were once modern and appealing now appear remarkably uniform and actually quite tasteless. How could we find them attractive back in those days? And now, when we come across these objects, we realise with some surprise how similar many homes must have looked. Suddenly, our own personal history no longer seems quite as unique.
The installations are made of things extracted from their original setting. Despite this, they don’t appear dislodged. On the contrary, inserted as they are in new geometric forms, each item seems to have found its right place. Nothing sticks out unnecessarily.Perhaps this new order has something important to tell us about the old order where these things formerly belonged, something we could not previously see or understand.
The whole world is full of things, as Pippi Longstocking once observed. Michael Johansson helps open our eyes to things that we would normally let our eyes sweep across without noticing. They can be rejected or tossed aside, but as triggers of memories and thoughts they retain their poignancy.
Text written for the artist book Recollection
Published in connection with the solo exhibition at Ystad Art Museum, 2011
What we don't realise about ourselves when we are small is revealed to us many times over later in life, when we grow up.
Hilde Karmiller was a great kid! When she was only a few months old she had already charmed all four of her grandparents to the extent that they were almost fighting to babysit for her. Hilde's parents just laughed. Hilde gurgled. They forgot about going to the theatre. All six in the Karmiller family stayed at home and took turns mashing bananas.
In her infant years, Hilde's bedroom was a riot of dolls, toy cars, clay and plastic beads. She persisted happily with her habit of wearing one red and one yellow sock until she was around 25. Hilde loved finger paint. Her kind and understanding parents didn't wallpaper her room. They repainted the walls white once a month. In her early teens, Hilde was the most vociferous pupil in the classroom. She answered without holding up her hand. She liked dressing in leopard-patterns and purple. She chewed pink bubble-gum. There was never a Friday throughout her school years when she didn't contribute in some way to the Fun-Time Hour. If her classmates could only remember one single person from those days, it would be Hilde Karmiller. She was a whirlwind. Yes, and she was also a bit o fa whirlwind in the way she was always scattering her belongings; she could never find her glasses, her pen, her money. And there was always someone who knew where she had left them. Because they couldn't take their eyes off her. She was committed to the cause of endangered fish and molluscs, and found inspiration in psychedelia for her textile collages. But these interests were superseded by surfing and ball gymnastics after a few years.
Hilde Karmiller was not only athletic, she also had a flexible mind. Chemistry had always been her favourite subject, but after only one term at university - during which time she was highly active in the university film club, the voluntary fire brigade and theSaturday orienteering competitions - she instead wanted to see the world. They promised her that she could return. The Chemistry Department didn't want to lose her. For a few years, however, she disappeared from the radar. One could also say that she "swam out of the picture". Occasionally, she was spotted in Mexico City. And at the carnival inRio. She was really living it up! The nightlife in Madras, Berlin, Washington never stops!
Every Christmas, it was said, she returned to the Karmiller family, to make jam, marzipan and cheese, dance around the Christmas tree and build snow lanterns.
The years went by and made their imprint on Hilde, just as she had always made a lasting impression on all the people she met. She had a generous and effervescent personality, candid,yes, perhaps even too candid, about her private life. Everyonethought they knew her. And she never did anything she didn't enjoy. She lived life to the full.
But then one day, she returned for good. Because she had been away solong, she had to visit the university to obtain a stamped certificate. The university archivist was Miss B. Many eyebrows were raised in their circle of friends, or rather, Hilde Karmiller's circle, because she had one, when Hilde, at the age of 43, met MissB., fell madly in love, got married and changed her lifestyle completely.
Miss B.'s life had been considerably more ordered and structured.
Dedicated to the work Monochrome Anachron.
Text written for the exhibition catalogue Objects Subjected
Published in connection with the solo exhibition Cuboids at TSSK, Trondheim (NO), 2008
To pack, to stack, to pile, to put, to collect and organize, to fit and economize, these are the games most of us act out in our everyday lives.
Michael Johansson repeats these actions in the gallery and the museum, the professional venues for collecting and exhibiting. At first glance the sculptural work look funny.They are color coordinated, and the carefully organized objects have an air about them, which is part efficiently serious and part absurdly foolish. The piled objects often point to a certain time in history, where these colorful industrially produced materials signaled a brave new world and were designed for functional and aesthetic purposes, and to thoughts and ideas prevalent in the period after the second world war when it came to design and what impact good design, new materials, and functionality could have on society.
The objects carefully stacked and packed also point to certain people, like mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts and uncles. Piled and put in improbable constellations, these objects also comment on what meaning they have in contemporary society, either as antiques and remnants from the past, or as functional objects that are plain and mundane. From the design classics and chance finds at flea markets and auctions, to contemporary classics that you can find at convenient locations such as Ikea, Johansson utilizes an array of materials. When using a well-known brand name such as Ikea, which represents a cheap and efficient way of life and has become an international supplier of good design at a low cost, Johansson comments on the continuing Swedish social democratic ideal of Folkhemmet and how these ideas, inherent in the design and brand ethos of Ikea, are spread and recognized in increasingly more countries across the world.
Johansson himself is a Swede and an avid collector and a very efficient stacker, but as we continue our musings on the colorful and cheery sculptures, we will find something more serious hiding beneath such shiny surfaces, which pretends to be playful and uncomplicated. Johansson tries desperately to make sense of the chaos of collecting and displaying, which is today’s tricked out version of hunting and gathering, perhaps a way to simulate and deal with our primal instincts to collect, amass, survive, in order to achieve status, good taste and a well-organized life. There’s also a hint at another skill set, not just hunting and gathering, in Johansson’s work. He’s crafty. Very crafty. There’s something macho about some of the objects found in the stacks, like tools, cans of paint, boxes of nails and other objects used to improve our habitat and also used to create the immaculate space of the white cube, exhibiting the tools of the trade so to speak. Institutional Critique, as practiced by a number of contemporary artists, expose the hidden structures of the museum and gallery and speaks to the operation of those spaces and their supposed objectivity and autonomy. Some of Johansson’s work fulfills the function of Institutional Critique by using tools and equipment found in the gallery space, effectively hindering some of the day to day activities of the gallery or museum, but it is the confluence of social critique and absurd humor that is Johanssons forte.
The convergence of the ordinariness of the domestic and the extraordinary and heightened purpose of the artwork in the exhibition, Johanssons work speaks about the principles of organization in society and the way in which objects function and are amassed in consumer society, and what value they have. The objects might be arbitrary, but the surrounding systems aren’t.