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Boy StoriesReview - Boy Stories
by Johan Willner
Hatje Cantz, 2012
Review by Christian Perring
Aug 5th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 32)

Boy Stories has a strong autobiographical element for Johan WIllner.  In his preface he explains how his photographs here are related to his childhood memories of his father's hospitalization for mental illness, and then, when the psychiatric hospitals closed, a move to other housing.  Most of these images are staged, but others are more authentically documentary of his father's current living conditions.  There is no indication of which are which though, although in most cases it is fairly easy to guess if they feature actors or people from Willner's family.  More are staged than are documentary.  Some of the pictures are clearly from a hospital and they have more of a sense of reality to them, while pictures featuring boys or adults in artificial situations look like they have been carefully arranged. 

Autobiography is deeply personal, and these reconstructed memories or ideas from the past are often hard to make sense of.  We get only a general idea of what they are about, and an emotional aura from the form of representation.  There is a bluish tinge to many of the pictures, and the framing is static, even when they show people in movement; there's a sense of people being frozen.  As we have come to expect from so much Swedish art, there is an overwhelming sense of isolation and disconnection.  Some of Willner's images also represent physical violence or the fear of it; on the cover (Die Ordnung), there is a boy with blood on his face in the back of a car, looking out to the camera.  In others there are dead animals, recently killed, with not much indication of what caused the death.  In Forward, a boy walks up a hill while a house is burning behind him, and a man watches him go. 

This collection is more about the effect on the boy of his father's move away from the home, rather than the father himself or the son's relationship with his father.  It's an intriguing set of images, with the emotions clear but at the same time not fully on the surface.  People's faces are nearly always mostly blank, or mildly sad, and they don't show the deep regret and fear that the content of the images hints at.  The artificiality of the images also mutes the emotions they point at.  So this is not a cathartic representation, but more an investigation of the meaning of memory.  This project relates to the understanding of trauma, psychodynamic explorations of childhood, and making sense of one's life, but it is diffuse in its approach; it is far more opaque than didactic. 

 

Link: Johan WIllner website

 

© 2014 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York


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