Johna Hansen – a magician’s territory

Johna Hansen’s sculptures activate the space they occupy. They are both architecture – they own the space – and machine: they set something into motion, whether mentally and/or spatially. The codes of most galleries and museum spaces are clear: what is on display must be contemplated from a distance and they must certainly not be touched. Yet many contemporary artworks are provocative; our senses find it hard to resist their unusual materials. We long to interact with them. Hansen loves this tension that is created when artworks are put on public display. Her works occupy the twilight zone between studio, transition and contemplation. She presents her work in such a way that you could touch it, set it in motion perhaps, but this is not a prerequisite and she does not explicitly ask you to do so. The forms embody a certain transformation. In earlier work the artist was sometimes present in person – though not always in view – to set elements in motion. An object changes shape, a string tightens, a sculptural element reveals another side of itself. A small sculpture made of light material is activated by the air flow generated by passers-by (Resting Position, 2019 ). Her installations can be seen almost as puppets that appropriate the exhibition space and relate to the visitor.   

The exhibition is Hansen’s territory. She introduces systems and subtly sets them in motion. The way she makes the architecture the focal point and at the same time incorporates the visitor’s body, is reminiscent of the way Bruce Nauman lets a work’s physical space and the viewer spill over into each other. He does away with the role of the visitor purely as observer. In his work he replaces his own body with that of the visitor. The exhibition experience becomes an activity rather than the mere presentation of a product. It is the same with Hansen’s sculptural interventions, which are changeable, or clearly embody the capacity for change. Here, too, there is a tangible relationship between the artist’s exploration in the studio and that of the visitor coming face to face with the exhibited works. Her objects guide our behaviour; looking at them, we are intrigued, as we study the logic between the different elements. The searching process that underlies her work – the exhaustive testing of materials, formats and combinations – is palpable in the result she presents.   

Johna Hansen’s installations are not merely architectural constructions, they are also tactile. Materiality plays an important role, natural materials predominate and there is a complete absence of loud colours. There is a tentative balance of materials, which serve one another, complement each other, or clash. The formats of her fragile constructions are often monumental and take over the space. A large piece of jute is given a plastic-like layer, vaguely referencing artist’s canvas (Second Wall, 2019 ). The material is attached to a vertical hinge and can open like a door or window, thus influencing our view of the work and our perception of the space. A new viewpoint shifts our focus rather than revealing additional visual information. The artist plays with functionality and mobility in a most unusual way. The positioning of her works and their individuality serve as an implicit invitation to interact with them. The Among Invisible Strings (2019 ) sculpture consists of what might be described as a wooden handle attached to the handrail of a staircase, and a string system. If visitors push the handle, they unwittingly alter a formless sculpture elsewhere. Visitors are not openly invited to interact in this way; the handle is merely positioned near a functional stair rail.  

Form and formlessness go hand in hand. Hansen looks for structures, like her recent metal frames, and at the same time she looks to present formless, tactile materials: fabric, string, polyester, sand, etc. In her search for materials, I sense an affinity with the artist Eva Hesse who in the 1960s used latex, string and the like to explore what the definition of form can be, including changeability and spatial relationships. Similarly, Johna Hansen considers how form can be minimal, modular and playful. The co-existence of sculpture, architecture, materials and a pronounced generosity towards the viewer leads to a unique encounter, which simultaneously rouses our curiosity and challenges our experience. 

Eva Wittocx