Featured Artist – Michael Johansson


The Deconstruction of Michael Johansson

Installation artist Michael Johansson was in the middle of preparing for his upcoming show at Haninge Konsthall when he graciously agreed to let us interrupt and pick his brain.

Bleka Minnen (Faded Memories) (2009). Installation view: Galleri Arnstedt, Östra Karup.

HAHAMAG: One of the more distinct aspects of your work is the obsessive nature applied to it. Many of the objects found within your sculptures appear to belong to a collection of sorts, making each sculpture seem thematic. America has a new obsession with hoarders, attempting to conclude why there is a major necessity amongst individuals to maintain and at the same time be controlled by their “things”. Through your work, do you attempt to make note of the contemporary consumer’s obsession with “things” that has produced a seemingly anti-social society?

MJ: It is important to me that the objects within each work are connected on several levels, that not only the notions of color and shape adds up, but that the objects also make sense between themselves when it comes to qualities such as origin and spirit of time. But of even greater importance is that the work has the ability to connect with the viewer on several levels.

Dealing with our generation’s obsession with “things” is of course one major aspect of my work. But I am also intrigued by questions about functionality, efficiency, and the thin line between order and chaos, to mention some. I would never bother spending all this time putting my pieces together if I didn’t think my work held commentaries on today’s way of living, but I think the interpretation of the work can, and must, vary with each person, depending on their very own experiences and view on life.


Strolls through Space and Time (2009). Installation view: Örebro Open Art, Örebro

HM: Although your pieces tend to explore the obsessive nature that drives this generation, many of the objects you use seem to be obsolete in modern society, as found in “Strolls Through Time and Space”. Do you directly attempt to make a connection between the past and modern day with your sculptures?

MJ: The main reason why I have chosen to mostly work with used, and as you mention outdated, objects is that I am interested in the history they hold. For me, this concentration of objects of different origin, into one imaginary image of a fake reality, is much more intriguing than using newly produced objects purchased at the nearest supermarket. It is something about the knowledge that there are only a limited number of these particular objects left that increases the unlikeliness of them being morphed together with such a precise fit.

But in the same way, it feels necessary to deal with topics that are up to date when it comes to the concept. As you mentioned in the previous question, hoarding and consumerism are probably more current topics today than they have ever been, which of course is something that both me and the viewer have in mind in the making and interpretation of the piece. But I also believe the meaning we read into it could change with time, and that the same work could be used to illustrate a different matter in a different context.

HM: Others have coined your art as Tetrism or Compactism, and as every artist is forced into a category, forced to assume a specific identity that clarifies their objective and creative process – do you think that your art follows a set pattern that is distinctly individual in terms of crossing varying barriers and is collectively of its own, or do you not subscribe to labels?

MJ: For a long time, I was collecting various objects without any idea of what to use them for. In my practice, I was mostly making project-based works including photo and video, but at the end of my Master’s education in 2005, I regretted not having taken more chances during my studies. In some ways, I saw my final show as the last chance to take that leap before the harsh reality awaited, and I decided to see where working with the collected objects I had stored would take me. This resulted in my first series of sculptures but also presented me with a challenging framework contributing both possibilities and limitations from which I could create a context of my own. I did not at that time see any clear references, but of course there are a lot of artists working in similar ways, both today and in the past. But I think you have to do your best to come up with your own method of work, and keep doing that; otherwise both you and the viewer will lose interest of your work. Even though my works might seem to have been following the same structure for the last years, my reasons for using certain objects and in what context to put them have continuously changed.

It is really intriguing to hear the different labels put on my work, especially since most of them, like Tetrism or Compactism, are expressions I have never heard of before. But there is also a risk being labeled since this also adds expectations that might limit the possible development of future work.


Lijevalchs Konsthall (2009). Installation view: Vårsalongen 2009, Liljevalchs Konsthall, Stockholm

HM: I’m really interested in your use of space and color and its application. When looking at Liljevalchs Konsthall from photographs, it seems as if it is intentionally set off from a “traditional” exhibit setting; it looks like a janitor’s closet, considering what makes up the sculpture itself. Is space just as important as the objects themselves? Does it serve as its own functionary premise in the sculpture?

MJ: Yes, I think the usage of space makes a great impact on the outcome of the work in many different ways. When I started to use objects in relation to build up a specific environment, I realized quite instantly that to be able to build an obsessive atmosphere for this environment, I also had to find a way to create some kind of limiting framework. We are so used to having too many things around us in our daily lives; to just fill up a room with a large number of objects wasn’t enough. But when using an already established limitation, no matter the size of this limitation, every component taking part in the process also becomes necessary for the fulfillment of the work. The different objects all morph together, and you can’t remove any of them without also removing the balance of the work itself.

In this particular series described above, when making a site specific piece from things found within the same institution or gallery as the work is exhibited, finding a suitable space to fill is usually the first problem to solve. This is actually the case with most of my work; the surrounding space usually sets the framework for how the rest of the sculpture will proceed. I sometimes think about how similar my method of making a work today is to how my process used to be when making drawings at preparation school. Somehow it feels natural to start with the big lines before focusing on the details.


He ain’t Heavy he’s my Brother (2005). Installation view: “…one more time”, Cirkulations Centralen, Malmö

HM: Where do you find all the objects that make up the installations? Do you keep some sort of visual inventory of everything?

MJ: Most of the things I use I collect from various flea markets, but some of the objects are items I have carried with me for years. These are things that I for some reason bought a long time ago, without any specific idea of how to use them. I have always been more or less a collector, but ever since I started to work with object-based sculptures, I feel kind of a relief that there’s a chance that something unnecessary I already own might fit perfectly into my sculpture, and that I have to let it go. This has really changed my view on things, and I have gotten rid of a lot of the unnecessary items that used to take up space in my apartment. Now they take up space in my studio instead, as possible material for an upcoming work.

And yes, lately I have actually started to sort out things into boxes divided by color. But I have no more detailed inventory than this. It would simply take too much time.


Inside peek of Michael Johansson’s studio

HM: Can you describe the beginning process of creating a piece for us? What goes through your mind as you’re building the installation?

MJ: Usually the process for coming up with a new work starts naturally when a deadline is getting closer, and the context for that specific situation helps to set the parameters for how to proceed. For example, the size and shape of an exhibition’s space or a certain theme for an exhibition might play a role in the outcome of the piece. After that, I usually collect objects for quite some time, in most cases for a bit too long, until I start to feel unsure of whether I will be able to finish the work in time. I have tried to change this pattern, but I think I need that extra pressure to get started, and maybe this also helps me to stay focused. To put the different objects together is actually the part of the process that takes the least time. But there’s always a critical moment when there are too many loose ends at the same time, and I feel that everything is about to collapse. Since there’s no beginning and no end of the puzzle, changing or removing one object also has consequences on the other end of the piece, but so far I have always been able to tie the work together eventually.

HM: You were quoted in an interview saying that you were “intrigued by the irregularities in daily life. Not those that appear when something extraordinary occurs, but those that were created by an exaggerated form of regularity”. Do you analyze your own daily routine in that way? If so, what parts of it would you categorize as these “exaggerated forms of regularity”? And are any of those represented in certain pieces of your work?

MJ: I wouldn’t say I analyze my own daily routine in that way. It is more that I have realized that some things I encounter in my close surroundings have become great sources of inspiration for me. For example, when two people passing each other dressed in the same outfit, a parking space packed by only red cars, or discovering that an actor is playing two different roles at the same time when switching between TV channels. These situations make me stop in my daily routine and look at things differently. A few years ago I was mainly working with photography, and at that time, I think the connection to the situations described above were more obvious in the work itself. But even though this inspiration might have become less obvious lately, I think it is the same thing compelling me in spotting unexpected situations in daily life, the mix between the common and the unexpected, that is central in all of my works.


Ghost II (2009). Installation view: Galleri Arnstedt, Östra Karup

HM: Pictures of your installation “Ghost II” are being reblogged constantly on Image-heavy social networking sites like Tumblr and design blogs alike. As well as comparisons to the sculpture work of Louise Nevelson. I’m interested to know why you think people are connecting with your work on such a huge level. And if you mind the comparisons…

MJ: Unfortunately I can’t answer why people feel a connection to my works; I am just very happy that they do. But one of the reasons why I started to use daily life objects in my sculptures was that I hoped that by using things we recognize from daily life and have a relationship with from before, the recognition of these things could be used as a starting point for discussions within a wider context as well.

And even though I wasn’t at all thinking about the relation to Louise Nevelson’s work while making the piece, of course I can see why people make the comparison. But I think her reason for doing what she did was very different from mine, and I also think it is impossible to avoid being compared to other artists working in similar fields. And honestly, I wouldn’t prefer that; it is both very flattering and instructive being compared with such an important artist as Louise Nevelson.