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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
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
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
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.
Yossi Millo Gallery pages for
© 2003 Christian Perring. All
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