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Interview: Laurel Johannesson — 07.06.21

Balancing Between The Real, Surreal And Imagined: With Laurel Johannesson






Interview MARYAM ARSHAD
Visuals LAUREL JOHANNESSON



Mystical, ethereal landscapes find themselves woven with human figures in Situations, this body of work by Laurel Johannesson. Shot across vivid and emotionally charged locations in Greece, the finished works fuse together remote places with a transformative locale and a sense of dreaming. Johannesson visualises the real with the imagined, producing photographs that elicit nostalgia and ambiguity simultaneously. The liminal nature of the chosen setting – beaches – serves to enhance the delicate border between determining what is present and what is not. The body of work as a whole is perplexing, as Johannesson notes, we too find ourselves continually noticing new elements which trigger new thoughts. We spoke to Johannesson about Situations, delving further into the complex landscapes and narratives behind this striking series.





What themes run across this body of work?


With Situations, I’m interested in themes of vulnerability and isolation as well as temporality. It is a mix of mythology and autobiography. Perhaps you can call it personal mythology. I explore the psyche through uncanny juxtapositions between body and nature, realism and dream.


Greece is an ethereal, vibrant place. How were your “mystically-charged” locations selected?


I felt that I “knew” Greece before I ever set foot in the country. I believe that it’s possible to have some sort of genetic code for the memory of a place that you have never physically been. I have the same sensation in Iceland. Perhaps my Icelandic Viking ancestors lurk somewhere in my DNA, as I’m never happier than when I’m in the water or on a boat.

The locations are selected in somewhat esoteric ways. When I’m planning, I usually have a particular site chosen as a starting point. It could be somewhere that I have seen or heard of. Perhaps I’ve been intrigued by a legend or myth related to the place. Other times, it’s solely about the terrain, the water, and a vision I have for how the body might react to the harsh beauty of the shoreline. The island of Milos is one such place. When I’m going to a place, usually an island, I stay for an extended period of time, I really get to know it and the people, and I go back over and over again to the same place. The obscure locations that I choose are usually challenging to reach, and frequently I’ll be led on a journey to a hidden spot out of a chance meeting with someone.

For example, I’ve ended up in some secret places near Otranto in the south of Italy. After learning that Otranto occupies the site of the ancient Greek city Hydrus, I went there on a whim. I travelled for many hours to reach one elusive cave in the middle of the Cyclades in Greece and repelled into a grotto. I’ve been fortunate to be an artist in residence at several institutions in Greece, Italy, Iceland, and France. Each has provided a doorway to some new temporal experience with both the landscape and its surrounding waters.
 


You were always somewhere else

How to conjure an other



Why was the beach chosen as the locale?


I started photographing the beach after many years of underwater photography. For a long time, I was totally focused on the water and the perception of suspended time when you are underwater. However, over the years, I began to notice people at the seaside and how they stare at the water, seemingly mesmerized. There is often something in their posture and expression that conveys longing—or what I interpret as longing—for something unreachable or unknowable.


The beach can signify a border almost- between an unlimited, unknown expanse of sea and a more solid, structured state of land. How does Situations interact with this idea?


I usually include a shoreline or sea cave, as I see the beach as a liminal site: the transformative space between two temporalities. The beach is a mesmeric place. The beach is the quintessential liminal zone. It is neither land nor sea. It is an expanse of precariousness that reverberates with the sound of unpredictable seas: placid, serene, and soporific, or unsettled, chaotic, and disconcerting. It is a margin that unveils a space of intensified sensations that are fleeting, idiosyncratic, and fugitive. It is often a place of naked truth, of judgement, a site of initiation into consciousness. It provides the verge of transition from the sanctuary of land to the vastness of the imposing sea. It is a threshold for self-awareness and an exploration of aloneness, isolation, and remoteness.



The triangulation of a star crossed love

The language of longing

Waiting for you at the departure gate



Situations hones in on the fusion between body and place. How were your compositional choices feeding into the ideas of “aloneness, isolation and remoteness”?


The figures are usually depicted alone. Sometimes, there may be another figure in the distance, or a small group almost imperceptible in the water. But the figures are definitely alone and isolated in their remoteness and distancing. I try to take this one step further by using somewhat awkward, uncomfortable, or vulnerable poses, positioning the figures so that they appear engulfed by their surroundings.


The other-worldly undertones from this series present these environments as ethereal and unearthly. What is the process like, from shooting the location to the finished piece?


The works are a combination of my photographic imagery, digital collage, and hand-painted elements. I have archives full of source images that I’ve shot over the past ten years. I comb through folders and files, like a memory bank, deconstructing and reconstructing spaces out of real and imagined scenarios. It’s like a strange form of time travel, and I hope that the resulting images reflect that. The memory of the place becomes the reality of my mind.

After I’ve completed a work, I often feel like I have a clear memory of the location, but then I’m jolted when I look back at my original photograph of the place. So, I’m immersed in the place while I’m there, reacting to the elements, the sharpness of the rocky shoreline, the negative ions, but a transformation continues when I revisit the image back in the studio. I’m once more immersed in the location, but this time with a memory of the place that is triggered by studying every detail of the photograph. Sometimes, I find things that I didn’t initially see and that sets off another narrative. The finished image is a psychological landscape.




You were always too much and never enough

Polysemic venus in waiting



Do you favour an imagined landscape over a natural landscape - or do you find that a balanced and intertwined interaction of the two is more powerful?


I like to strike a balance between the real and imagined landscape. I’m interested in creating a sense of the uncanny. Sun on the waves, and stars in the sky. Places that look familiar but are strangely foreign. The eerie disquiet of the uncanny is at the core of the remembering body.

I remember as a child realizing the oddness of the night scene that I was watching in a film was due to it being shot in daylight. Underexposing a daylight shot can add to the illusion of darkness or moonlight. It is typical to underexpose by about two f-stops. A neutral density filter is often used to achieve this darkening so that the camera aperture remains unchanged. During the silent era, scenes were often tinted blue during night scenes to enhance the illusion. Although moonlight is not actually blue, it appears bluish to the human eye. So, although I don’t use these particular techniques in my work, that aesthetic of the oddity of the “Day for Night” technique utilized in filmmaking has influenced the way I construct an image. Daylight and moonlight commingling have an uncanny effect.



You dont call me anymore



Do you have a favourite piece from this body of work, one that resonates with you the most?


I’d have to say that “You don’t call me anymore” is my current favourite. It was the first image that I made in this series, and it has set the tone for the others that I have made so far. There is something apocalyptic about the imagery. The vulnerable body that is situated in an environment that is so unforgiving is being observed by three others in the distance. They all occupy a kind of limbo space. It’s this in-between space of protracted temporality that I’m interested in revealing. When I was making this image, I was intrigued by the connection between the figures. Three observe as the main character lies face down in a somewhat rigid, anxious, and protective posture. They act as a constellation that activates the shoreline where the intimation of celestial powers is murmured by the vacillation of the tides. Tides that are so easily impacted by human action.


What power and perspective do you think artists have, if any, in relation to environments and the climate?


Artists can inspire people to think through images. We can also use our voices to talk about our observations and shed light on issues. Right now, I’m talking to you, and perhaps someone is reading this, and they might not know that there are over five trillion pieces of plastic littering the ocean. When I am on location, in remote areas of the sea, I am often surprised by plastic debris. No matter how remote, there is no place that is untouched by humans and our plastic waste. Some extraordinary organizations, like The Ocean Clean Up Project and Common Seas are trying to reduce this threat to the environment. Paros, an island that I have spent most of my time on, is attempting to become the first single-use plastic waste-free island in the Mediterranean.


Are you currently working on any other projects?


Besides still photographic imagery, I work with moving images and have had a life-long fascination with technology. So, I’m interested in turning one of my moving image works into an NFT. Of course, there are some environmental implications to this, so hopefully, some of the platforms will become more eco-friendly. I’m continuing to work on the Situations series, and I’d love to get back to the Aegean as soon as it’s possible to travel again as I have so many more situations in my mind.







THE ARTIST / LAUREL JOHANNESSON

“Although I have a background in printmaking, painting, and drawing—which could be seen as somewhat traditional artistic pursuits—I’ve always been attracted to technology. Early on, that technology came in the form of SLR cameras and photo-based print techniques. However, when I first started utilizing computers in my work, I felt that I was close to having all of the tools I needed to realize the images that lived in my head. Now, technological advances have made it possible for me to work not only with still photographic images but also moving images, and occasionally generative code and interactivity. I have an ongoing interest in philosophies of temporality, and my research in that area feeds my approach to image-making from the technical and conceptual to the theoretical.”

Laurel Johannesson’s works incorporate print, photography, moving imagery and interaction fluidly. Light, spaces and time are central to her latest works, including this series – Situations.

TO PURCHASE WORKS SEE BUY BELOW. IMAGES COPYRIGHT © LAUREL JOHANNESSON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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