DUAL PURPOSE: a conversation with Panu Johansson

 

Text written by
Gauthier Lesturgie

With an artist
Panu Johansson

The term ‘’experimental’’ is ambivalent and often paradoxical when it qualifies an artistic practice. It commonly designates works which reflect the cultural and material norms subjected to their medium, frequently by attempting to their dismantlement (be it photography, film, writing, etc.).

Nowadays, notably when talking about films, the word repeatedly names a specific aesthetic (often artificially reproduced) inherited from experimentations made in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s.

 

When watching films of the Finnish artist Panu Johansson, this dual purpose of the term comes immediately in mind. One may wonder if they are counterfeit nostalgic works made by a super-8 fetishist.

Indeed, Johansson’s films shared many attributes with early experimental films which established the term as an identified ‘’aesthetic’’. However, when studying the artist’s work closely, we understand that its visual character results from inner logics.

These logics relate to his making rather than a fabricated desire. Here listed few common characteristics with early experimental films:  no crew, no script, non-linear narration, grainy film’s texture, use of superimpositions, perceptible glitches on the film’s membrane, non-diegetic self-made soundtrack and eventually broadcasted outside mainstream circuits.

The very vast notion of memory crosses the entire work of Panu Johansson, through the means of its recording. Whether it be the attempt to recollect another’s memory or to make a record of his own moments.

The film as a matter by itself essentially reflects the way we think about memory. Somehow, film has an authoritarian nature as it is,  inflexible : one can not turn back so easily as with digital devices. Moreover the film is being concretely inscribed : time and light are physically outlined on its surface.

‘’From One’s Silence to Other’s’’ (2014) has been made in collaboration with Annika Rapo and takes as its subject her grandfather deceased in the early 1990’s. Named Arvo and living in Finland, he was a very quiet and withdrawn being.

The film is a quasi investigative portray of this man, however a very incomplete one. It starts with a close-up on a black and white photograph depicting the face of a man who we assume is Arvo. The film develops on fragile biographical threads, very few things remain and are known about Arvo.

‘’From One’s Silence to Other’s’’ contrives a fragmentary itinerary of a life through recorded places. Houses and lands are superimposed with photographs which slowly slips within the frame. They are literal ghostly presences inhabiting these images, faint traces which suggest us that these filmed places were once familiar.

The eight minutes long film is a ‘’hollow portrait’’, more of a contemplative evocation than a faithful reconstitution. Holes and gaps are significant in themselves, they tell us about a reserved man and a remote time.  In that time, logics and possibilities of representation and its recording were completely different.

This mute wander, lacking of archive material about its subject, produces in itself an uneven archive. Panu  uses or enjoys several methods allowed by the film’s capricious texture (grainy, fuzziness, incandescent effects, etc.).

Aesthetically, this sustains the idea of a damaged biography. The format’s characteristics of the ‘’experimental’’ genre allows this narrative’s deficiency – no need here for explanation, for linear storytelling, for facts as it would be inevitable in the case of an informative documentary produced for mainstream television.

Johansson’s earlier ‘’Out of Order” (2011) is another itinerary and an almost literal road movie. Johansson depicts an absurd urban situation where we encounter once more recurrent patterns in his work : disappearance, abandonment and the passing of time. ‘’Out of Order’’ pictured the former main highway in Finland, replaced by another highway located very near to the old one. Today, the former road which the artist used to follow in his childhood is naturally in a state of neglect.

The camera somehow reenacts this family journey by showing simultaneously through a triptych system, a bleakness landscapes inhabited by deserted gasoline stations and drive-in restaurants along with its current lively copy, albeit empty of the artist’s memory. This two sites have different rhythms, a fast and elliptic one when on the road and a more contemplative and motionless’s camera when filming the quasi-wasteland.

Both in ‘’Out of Order’’ and in ‘’From One’s Silence to Other’s’’, landscapes have a central position. They bear the marks of countless uses, solid ones as much as unsubstantial. We see altered landscapes, if only by the passage of a walker and surely by someone’s memory. In Johansson’s work, they are landmarks for narratives, whether it be the artist’s one or from a more anonymous ‘’collective’’.

Thus, Johansson is not filming landscapes as a direct response to a visual pleasure he felt when watching them, albeit he is not afraid of a certain kind of contemplative beauty. The thinker Gilles Clément’s definition of the term ‘’landscape’’ is clarifying when thinking of Johansson’s work :

‘’To the question ‘’what is the landscape ?’’, we could answer : it is what remains in our memory after we have ceased to watch. What we keep in our memory after having ceased to practice our senses within a space inhabited by the body […] the landscape appears as something essentially subjective. It is being read through a strong filter made up with personal history and a cultural armour […]” (1)

Johansson first long film (about 56 minutes long), ‘’Somewhere Else and Yet Always Here’’(currently in post-production) is a collage consisting of filmed pictures that the artist has gathered during a period of 10 years.

Once again, the film itself constitutes an archive of a precise time, a fragment of the artist’s life he has manipulated and then reread it through the process of editing. No acting, no mise-en-scène : it is an unposed recording of his mute subjectivity.

Johansson’s images are a quick succession of random moments snatched from his daily experiences, but we can sometimes glimpse here and there repeated patterns following each other (for instance several series of windows, doors or swinging ceiling lights).

Johansson pictured his surroundings, situations and phenomenons which are often familiar. However, they render uncanny impressions. Frequently, recognizable elements turn into abstract visuals motifs due to the film’s texture. For instance, in one of the scene, the snow gathered on a windscreen slowly becomes an obscure composition in the fuzziness of the image.

In another scene, the film’s defects conjures up a rain of little red luminescent dots  : a true visual epiphany for the artist himself. (2)

Thus, the film’s texture and its failures which interfere with the images caught live, are very visible and often works as a second skin.

It produces a distanciation reinforced by the non-diegetic soundtrack. We never have the illusion to share the same space as this recorded reality whereas we watch very ordinary sceneries.

Johansson’s associations mimic the train of thought, his pictures lack often a clear and logic development. There is no necessary order  for each of these scenes, what we would have precisely found in a linear narrative. Obviously we do not think in a rigorous order neither but through modes of montage as Godard had stated :

’’Thus, montage concerns the level of thought. And Godard reminds us ‘that cinema [was] first made for thinking,’ that it should first of all be given a ‘form that thinks.’ Montage is the art of producing this form that thinks.’’(3)

Text by Gauthier Lesturgie

  1. Gilles Clément, Jardins, paysage et génie naturel, Paris, Collège de France, Fayard, 2012, p. 19-20. (My own attempt to translate the quote from French to English.)
  2. Panu Johansson does not artificially reproduce these effects in post-production. These visual failures concern the film’s condition and thus, are not controlled by the artist.
  3. Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All [2003], translated by Shane B. Lillis, Chicago, London, The University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 138.
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