“The relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.” This quote from John Berger’s seminal book, “Ways of Seeing,” is appropriate when looking at Magnus Gjoen’s work. The juxtaposition of styles, techniques, and media doubles as a palpable tension in his creations, which embody contradiction almost with an intention to glamourise it. Seeing and not knowing sounds paradoxical, nearly half a century after its original enunciation – we’ve come so far in handling the visible. Visibility and trust are historically intertwined (although not without controversial exceptions) and vision has been elevated to the status of a stand-alone force, with political and social applications. Nevertheless, vision and visibility often fail to work for our benefit.
It is this failure that Magnus Gjoen addresses in his art. The artist manipulates the borders that define art’s traditional space by handling the unpredictable as an act of seeing or reacting. His works are provoking, but at the same time, they ask the viewer important questions: “What did you expect to see?” “Where do your expectations come from?” This performativity inherent in his works, coupled with subtle steam-punk allusions, humour, and a clear interrogation of value systems, is gripping.
Gjoen’s works propose alternative histories. Symbols and figures, ubiquitous to the point of invisibility, are given new embellishments and have their aesthetic statements inversed: skulls, weapons, female figures, and hearts don’t mean what we know they should. This obligation that form has to content is turned upside-down; its legitimacy, questioned.
The artist looks at symbols and their inherited content, testing the capacity of the symbol for resistance beyond the aesthetic: what do we see in a hand grenade, when bejewelled into a Fabergé egg-looking shape? Conventional thinking, mainstream beauty, and rigid categories cease their reign, even if only within the frame of one piece. Objects tell new stories; seeing is not knowing the old, but learning the new.
Elena Stanciu: What can you tell us about your creative roots and artistic evolution? Do you have any formal art education?
Magnus Gjoen: I did a Bachelor and MA in Fashion Design and before that I studied Art as one of my subjects in high school. Although my work started with wanting art for my own wall, having a fashion background, I believed that as an artist you still have to think of your art as a product: you can still do what you want artistically, but you can’t be the only one who wants it on their wall.
ES: If you looked at your very first and your latest artworks, side by side, what observations would you make?
MG: Going back to my own past is also something I enjoy doing. As I develop and discover new techniques, I often look back and pick up a theme which I am now able to develop further due to my own knowledge and development.
ES: What attracts you about your technique? How experimental are you with this art form – do you try multiple versions of a piece before choosing a final one? Do you start with a clear concept, or let the work “arrange” itself along the way?
MG: I will often start a piece and add to it as I go along. There will be a concept and thought behind it, but I often leave works for longer periods of time if there is something not right about it. I won’t finish it until I have the last piece in the puzzle of inspiration that I need. One work has taken me six years. I will try multiple versions of something once I’m nearing completion, but usually stick with what I did first. I like discovering new ways of doing pieces and constantly evolve because of this.
ES: Your bio mentions your art to be “challenging the notion of beauty.” What’s wrong, in your view, with the notion(s) of beauty we currently operate in the West? Do you compare it with those of other cultures?
MG: A lot of people today like something because they are told to and because they follow the hype. I try to ask people to look for themselves and question what they see. Beauty is also where other people haven’t seen it.
ES: Your artistic ethos revolves around rather subversive ideas of renewal/ rediscovery/ rewriting the history of symbols and objects you depict, often in spectacular and provoking ways. What fuels this rebellious approach?
MG: Most of the time, my work is about rediscovery and taking things from the past and renewing them for the contemporary market. It’s similar to breathing a bit of fresh air into dusty old paintings forgotten in the far corners of a museum or in its basement. It’s about presenting an object in a new light to the viewer who has innately been told how to perceive that specific object. Beauty can also be found in a small piece of engineering, such as a gun. I choose the subjects that I connect with, that trigger something emotionally.
ES: Speaking of symbols and objects, I can see some recurrent ones in your pieces – hearts, skulls, weapons, Christ figures. Why do you come back to these specifically?
MG: They all have to do with human conditions, love, death, war, and faith. I use them to produce a commentary on the fragility of us humans, as well presenting them as beautiful objects.
ES: You’ve recently released J'AYME À JAMAIS (I Love For Ever - Old French), a new addition to your heart series. What can you tell us about this collection and this piece in particular?
MG: J'AYME À JAMAIS depicts the story of Venus, the goddess of Love; of her unrequited love; and of her attempted seduction of Adonis, an extremely handsome young man, who would rather go hunting. Juxtaposed inside an anatomical heart it adds another dimension to the myth of where love originates in the body.
ES: Is your art at any point intended as a statement/ critique on the current state of the artworld? Of how art is being produced, consumed, and valued?
MG: It’s meant to start a discussion, not necessarily about the artworld, but rather about what we are fed by news and media and how we see things.
ES: What’s your favourite piece in your portfolio so far?
MG: San Sebastian: a piece I did for a show back in April 2018, which included Japanese Bamboo arrows.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Artwork: Magnus Gjoen
Special thanks to Kiko Gaspar Communications