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Room to PlayReview - Room to Play
by Simen Johan
Twin Palms , 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jul 25th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 30)

Maybe it is best to get the obvious points made first -- not that they are unimportant, but focus on them gets in the way of more searching discussion.  Simen Johan's images will be deeply disturbing and offensive to some people.  Many of the manipulated photographic pictures portray sexualized young children.  For example, "Untitled #81. 1999" is a black and white photo of a young girl in a bare room except for a rudimentary Christmas tree in the corner.  The girl is holding up maracas in both hands and, with a large toothy grin, she seems to be enjoying shaking them.  Judging from her face, she looks about five years old, but it is hard to judge, because she has a very high forehead, which makes her face look more baby-like, and she has long fine windswept blond hair flowing down from her head in supermodel fashion.   Her arms are short, again those of a young child.  But her torso, which is nude, has budding breasts of a pubescent girl.  The effect of the image is certainly transgressive, and those who are uncomfortable with any sexualized depiction of children will probably have pejorative labels for this work.  Even those who have no moral concerns about the photography of Jock Sturges and Sally Mann may find Johan's pictures disconcerting and troubling.  Producing such reactions must be one of Johan's goals.  However, mere shock is by itself not particularly interesting.  It's worth considering what other goals he has.

Johan has many similar images in Room to Play.  "Untitled #71.  1999" shows a girl in a gymnasium, taking a model's pose, one hand on her hips, facing to the left of the viewer into the distance.  She is wearing a transparent one-piece outfit, and her young face does not match the pre-pubescent body.  Indeed, the darker complexion of the face makes it easy to guess where Johan stuck the image of the head to that of the body.  In "Untitled #79.  1999" a girl with a baby doll-like face but very styled hair is reclining in a park, exposing adult breasts.  She has bright eyes but her face is utterly devoid of expression.  The picture brings to mind bring to mind some of Hans Bellmer's use of dolls and the psychoanalytic interpretations such work invites.  It's easy to analyze them as the expression of forbidden fetishistic desires, embodying a consciousness of their own depersonalization.  They also could be read as feminist works, protesting the sexualization of young girls in pageants, and the loss of childhood innocence that comes with the commodification of girls' bodies. 

However, the other pictures here tend to discount such readings, because they are darker, more bizarre, and more complex.  The first image in the book, "Untitled #71.  1998" shows a boy and a dog, and is more obviously a well-crafted collage.  They seem to be in a trailer park surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings.  The boy has Asian facial features and looks at the viewer.  His body is that of a toddler, but his face is of an older boy.  He is wearing an odd sort of hat or crown, with a furred cylinder topped by a crude bejeweled dome with a cross in the middle.  His underwear has a wet dark spot in the front.  The little dog is a highly groomed fluffy white poodle, also wearing a garish ornament on its head.  The picture has a drab feel to it, but it relishes its own incongruity.  "Untitled #65.  1997" shows a girl in a foggy field holding a dead sheep, with flies on her and the sheep.  Her face is intend but not upset.  "Untitled #78.  1999" shows a boy and girl dancing in their underwear against a background of jet planes leaving impressive looped jet trails.  The blond boy looks about four years old, and is wearing a wet tight fitting pair of swimming trunks -- he seems to have a rather large penis for his age.  "Untitled #75.  1999" shows a girl in a room with the curtains drawn.  Her face gives little clue to her age -- her hair is unevenly cut and disheveled, and her upper teeth have large gaps between them.  Her eyes are rolled up in her head and she has running mascara; a tear rolls from her right eye.  She is wearing a bright silver necklace and the pendant shines from inside her mouth.  She looks drugged or even possibly dead.  These are not pretty images, and their flirting with taboos of child sexuality, disturbance, and death place Johan's work in the realm of a rather adolescent surrealism.  Yet they are emotionally powerful, and even darkly humorous. 

All the work from 1999 and earlier is in black and white.  The pictures from 2000 and later are in color, and this work, taking up the second half of the book, are less overtly sexual and in many ways are richer and more successful, although the explore similar themes.  The picture on the book's cover, "Untitled #120, 2001" is representative.  A little boy in a heavy coat and a fur-skin hat on a snowing city street at night.  His round wax-like face makes him look very young, and his bright green eyes look sadly to the right of the viewer, and he seems lost in thought.  His corpse-like hands hold a child's camera.  There's more of a sense here that this is a moment from a narrative, and while the boy still has an other-worldly look to him, he's a more sympathetic subject than in most of the earlier pictures.  Several of these pictures are more naturalistic.  For example, "Untitled #86.  2000" shoes a little boy with no apparent manipulation of his appearance.  He is about three years old, and is kneeling in a garden next to a house with a lake and mountains in the background.  He is intent on prodding a mound of earth with a stick, while on the earth there are many large beetles and grubs.  Another picture has a small naked girl on a muddy patch of stony ground playing with cigarette butts.  The last composition in the book shows a young blonde child, whose dirty face is covered in scratches and whose left eye is bloodshot, clutching a black cat that is leaning away from her trying to get away. 

However, it is the more surreal fantasies that especially striking.  "Untitled #93.  2001" shows a dark dirty stone space full of small mummies.  Judging from the size and shape of the objects, they are children's stuffed animals wrapped up totally in mummy wrappings.  "Untitled #103.  2002" shows a girl in ballerina costume indoors, covered in slime from head to toe, with a white ball or small planet caught in mid-air -- it's not clear is it is just hovering or it is in motion.  The girl looks at it showing her teeth in a grimace.  Maybe the most artful and humorous image in the book, "Untitled #95.  2001" is a young boy riding a tricycle at night, crossing train tracks, towing a stuffed and mounted monkey wearing a feathered turban tied to a skateboard.  The boy appears calm and intent, but the monkey's mouth is wide open and it looks terrified. 

Despite some of Johan's own statements about his work and those of some art critics, it seems a stretch to interpret his works as universal statements about the modern world or the dark side of childhood.  His art has the feel of experiments in the composition of visual elements, flirting with children's sexuality and destructiveness, playing with unusual depictions of youth.  Some of the pictures employ iconography of race and culture, and indeed, this part of his work may be more problematic than his depiction of sexuality, since it seems to rely on derogatory stereotypes of native peoples.  It's probable that Johan has some underlying rationale for his work that explains the troubling aspects of his work, but there is no text by him in the book, and the short essay by Lyle Rexer at the end of the book does not provide much insight.  Nevertheless, Room to Play is a remarkable and provocative collection of pictures, and Rohan's work is certainly very distinctive. 

 

Links:

Yossi Millo Gallery pages for Simen Johan:

Other websites

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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