Looking Back

Simen Johan

November 1, 2019

We asked Simen Johan to tell us about a picture that means something to him, and why. Simen Johan: Conspiracy of Ravens is on view at Yossi Milo Gallery through January 4.

When I was a kid, I saw a troll in this photograph. I couldn’t see my grandfather – this is actually a portrait of him as a young bachelor in Kirkenes, Norway. Instead, what I now know to be his white shirt looked to me like the opening of a cave. In the bottom left corner I saw the profile of a craggy troll wearing a hat, lurking in the shadows. I never could figure out what those two striped things were on the lower right, but they looked spooky and worm-like. I’m puzzled by how I could have missed the man’s face, looking straight at the camera, but I don’t remember paying any attention to it. 

This photograph hung framed in my family’s apartment in Oslo, Norway, in the living room that also functioned as my makeshift bedroom. Lying in bed at night I couldn’t escape this apparition. It hung on the opposite wall, and it terrified me. My mother met my repeated pleas to hide the picture with bemusement and chuckles. It wasn’t until she realized one day that I was genuinely petrified that the picture came down. It became a family joke that I thought my grandfather looked like a troll. My grandfather? What was he doing in the cave, and why did he look like a troll?

My work is about many things, but at its core lie the elements of illusion, emotion, and imagination, along with an interest in how these shape our experiences and reasoning. As a testament to my own early delusions, I recently asked my mother if I could have this photograph. It now hangs on my bedroom wall in New York City.