“…for the Lonely Distant Baby Souls”
An interview with Joakim Ojanen
Tearjerker, eye bender, fall over! Figures moving about, minding their business in their world filled with thingamajigs and overall tomfoolery. In the work of Joakim Ojanen brouhaha and hahaha echo around the endless stage of existence. The snakes and ladders of fortune take us from happy, uplifting moments to tragic seconds of light misery. Fiddlesticks! One is always only a second away from breakdown or total catharsis.
A few months back, I wrote a short essay titled ‘Baby One More Time’ in the theoretical issue of Új Művészet about the notion of ’cuteness’ in art. Using the amazing texts of Sianne Ngai as a starting point, I looked at the presence of so-called non-cathartic aesthetic categories – fuzzy, zany, glossy, whimsical, cosy, etc. – in the contemporary scene. In my essay, I also mentioned the artistic practice of Joakim Ojanen. I decided that it would be exciting to delve deeper into his work and interview the artist himself! With the help of digital telepathy, we got into contact while he was travelling by train from one exciting project to the next one.
Patrick Tayler: What do you think of the idea of ‘serious art’ or the myth of the omnipotent, severe grown-up artist? How does a lonely distant baby soul cope in the global art scene?
Joakim Ojanen: At the beginning of my artistic career, more precisely when I was studying between 2008 and 2014, I was actually thinking a lot about the notions of serious vs. Lowbrow art. I was studying illustration at the time but didn’t really see myself working with clients, so I moved towards studying art instead. Initially, people didn’t take the Lowbrow movement as seriously as the Highbrow art scene. I think, in general, people have an issue with seeing humour as something that you can take seriously and this was pretty much the general viewpoint back then. It was good for me to see other people working towards this direction: the Japanese-born painter Misaki Kawai was one of the artists that were really important for me to find!
PT: Where do you find your inspirations? Are there any specific artists, genres of art or concepts – like ’cuteness’ or ’wackiness’ – that have become important for you in recent years?
JO: As I said, Misaki Kawai was important for me in this initial period, but other artists that inspired me from the international scene was Laurent Impeduglia, The Chicago Imagists and for example Philip Guston. Previously, I was also assisting a Swedish artist called Matti Kallioinen. He and his wife Lisa Jonasson was an important influence for me together with Ragnar Persson. They are great artists and it was nice seeing this type of art unfold in, my home country, Sweden. A few years later I found this strong connection with several amazing artists like Austin Lee, Charlie Roberts and Devin Troy Strother as well.
I love the clash or mix between notions like cute, gross and weird. It’s something about the unexpected ways of solving things that I’m really into. Like funky mascots or small company’s logos can be really inspiring if they are not too polished!
PT: Do you like to spend time developing the stories behind your artworks?
JO: I don’t think too much about the stories behind my pieces. When you follow my work, it kind of shapes a story of its own, but it’s nothing well-planned, I leave that part to the viewer.
PT: What kind of non-art related visual experiences excite you as an artist? Do you collect anything?
JO: I used to collect zines and make a few myself. I loved the cheap DIY print scene, I don’t know why I stopped really, haha.
PT: How does your 3-dimensional and wall-based work mix together? How do you choose the medium in a given situation? Do you remember how your figures flattened out or was it the other way around?
JO: I actually started with making drawings. Then the sculptures and the paintings came about pretty much at the same time. I think I reached a point with my drawings where I felt that I didn’t move forward, so I started to search for new ways to find something interesting. I love testing out new materials and mediums, and I’m not trained in any of them. Usually, I find a material that I’m interested in and don’t really know what to do with it. But after playing around with it, ideas start to pop up in my mind and then the fun begins! The paintings and bronze pieces usually start with small doodles. Ceramics is more a material-centred experience for me: I just need to put my hands in the clay and things start to appear.
PT: Which part of the artistic process is your favourite time to zone out? How do you integrate the rich tactile, hand-made qualities into the process of establishing a microcosm outlined by different figures? Are these purely material moments essential for you?
JO: The material aspect is definitely essential for me, and you can see that when you look at my work. I’m never trying to hide the material. I want you to almost feel the tactile qualities of the material simply by looking at it. It’s important for me to keep my work pretty rough and not to make it too clean. I think this gives my pieces a life of their own.
PT: Does your art provide insights concerning society? How do you narrate the happenings of the Ojanen-universe? What is your preferred viewpoint? Are you an observer, an innocent bystander, a sociologist or a documentary cameraman?
JO: I kind of stopped thinking about this after finishing school. In the beginning, it was important for me (or my teachers) to verbalise what I was working with. When this kind of question comes up, I usually say that I’m trying to describe what it is like to be a human in the time that we are living in. It’s crucial for me to include different emotions in my work, but to be honest, I think this is kind of something that I only put words on when I’m in an interview situation. When I’m working in the studio, I’m just trying to stay in the moment or keep working on the latest thing I found fun or interesting. It’s small steps of progress for me all the time, and I never really look back.
PT: What are you working on at the moment? Are you thinking currently in separate artworks, or more in large-scale, immersive exhibitions for the future?
JO: Haha, all of this at the same time! I’m working on a series of large-scale bronze sculptures for Västerås city, the Swedish town I grew up in. They will be placed in a new residential area they are building there. I’m also having a big exhibition opening at The Hole in New York City in November. I’m planning a few more exhibitions after that, but I haven’t really started thinking about them too much yet. You know, one show at a time.