STAY AS A TREE, POETIC AS A MOUNTAIN
The sculptures of the Swedish artist Johannes Nielsen are characterized by an evident aesthetic minimalism: his subjects are slim human and animal bodies, lacking characterizations, with thin limbs and unperturbed faces. They appear to us with elegance and intensity together, sometimes firmly steady, sometimes plastically in motion.
They are bodies in harmony with space, against which they do not stand out as opposite forces but from which they are dominated and supported. Even when they are extremely static, they do not lose vitality: the light remains trapped on the rough surface, thus making them slender bodies; curves and edges do not appear sharp and threatening, if anything welcoming, like trunks and tree branches. The artist has always looked at the trees, in search of his own poetic language. It is from plant forms that he draws inspiration to shape his creatures.
Nielsen creates subtle shapes but not frivolous or textureless. The essentiality that distinguishes the work of this artist is not the result of a cold minimization of the material, of pulling it thin and sparing it, but of letting enter the space, welcoming it, a condensation of full and empty spaces with attention to give the viewer deep contents without ever weighing down the gaze or thought, with the lightness and elegance that only those who go to the essentiality of the world can show. Where he creates a hole or leaves cracks immediately a sort of emotional filling emerges and makes those empty spaces now so full of meaning. In this way the work no longer appears to us as incomplete but, on the contrary, it seems very heavy; vice versa, when we see clearly how well rooted it is on the ground, it appears to us very light.
The human body appears disrupted, fragmented, recomposed. A figure that must be investigated by piercing it, punching it, subtracting matter rather than trying to fill it. Nielsen subverts the bodies to restore emotional fractures and allow us to pour into them with our gaze. He draws on the parallelism between what is immediately evident, that is, sculptural forms, and what is hidden behind objective forms, that is, internal experiences.
In these works, calmly and without excesses of pathos, we are confronted with the duality between objective materiality and inner reality that we experience, both equally true and existing, one and the other prevailing according to the sensitivity of each person. The ability of the Swedish sculptor is precisely to convey to the observer a feeling of balance in which he is called to reflect on his own balances.
During an interview, Nielsen has talked about the choice of his sculptural language, sympathetic yet essential: “Less acquainted with languages as expression, I use shapes to express my feelings […] My worldview and my perception of life are expressed through my hands, using wood, copper or other materials. Some I would sculpt, and others knead. The perception expressed through my body may transcend languages, and everyone can be present in the space. This is the greatest strength about mankind”.
Even paper works are never just two-dimensional spaces but surfaces that must be probed far and wide, trusting the physical and emotional sensations that originate from them. This is due to the material of color – that is it first disturbed – and its movement, which shatters the surface and breaks the figures, tearing them from flattening, making them charged with tension, forcing us to refine our gaze. Through the graphic sign and the disturbance of the lines, the feelings, the vital breaths, the sensations, the beats and the blows of life pour out beyond the work on us.
Nielsendeals with the theme of the identity of man, of his external and internal changing movements, also through a figuration of the double and the divided:in his sculptures bodies and faces often appear broken, dissected by a clean cut or reunited in a new way, with the space that surrounds them or with each other. The art curator Crespi well explains how it is «a cut which is irreparable but from which shines the splendor of the polished bronze, contrasting with the rest of the sculpture which is patinated and scratched: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” as Leonard Cohen would sing, meaning that the virtue of this scission, that is not a “diminutio”, if anything, is the possibility of imagining an elsewhere, of seeing inside or, on the contrary, of making it possible for the inside to come out.
This permeability between inside and outside, between one and multiple, between stable and unstable, strongly emerges in works such as “Endless (study)” or “Echo”, where man takes part into man and so on into an infinite game: this is the silent movement that we, the viewers, are called to make, reach out and take root, to open ourselves to new knowledge and a new perception of ourselves
“The man who moves a mountain
begins by carrying away small stones..”
Johannes Nielsen currently lives with his family in China, in the capital Beijing, and has established his own studio there. To write this focus we have been in contact with him, but only being able to talk to him at a distance. Partly because of the channel he uses, partly because of the character of his works in the eyes of those who see them for the first time, we would have expected short and clear answers from him. In reality, the personality of the Swedish artist is surprisingly rich, calm yes, but warm, exactly as it turns out to be each of his creations.
Where you see hard material, where you think there is only the bare minimum, there emerges a great and deep poetics and familiarity that allow, without realizing it, to open the thought wide.
In the same way, by talking to Nielsen, he appeared as welcoming, rich in details, passionate in his story and extremely vital. When we asked him how his adventure in China had begun and what had led him to choose it as his home, the answer was not vague at all. Indeed, you will read, it is full of emotion, which seemed to have him there in person to tell it. He told us about when, once landed in China, he first saw the mountains.
«I have a memory of when I flew to China for the first time, I was 25 years old and in my bags I had packed maps and lists of places I wanted to visit, my heart was filled with expectation and my mind of curiosity. As the plane came closer to Beijing, I was consistently looking out of the windows. The pilot announced that there were an hour to our destination and they began preparing the cabin for landing. Several hundreds of meters below us I saw mountains that I never seen before. They were high and sharp peaks penetrating out of the surface of the earth.
This was my very first encounter with the Chinese landscape, when I landed, I could not communicate to anyone, but somehow I felt I understood the culture and the people through my meeting with the mountains. Now 16 years later, I’m still here in Beijing, and I have been hiking in those mountains several times. Still they sometimes call on me and I take my car and drive to them. And its when I meet them when I understand why I live here and what my purpose is of my visit.».
Looking for those landscapes of his story, observing the breathtaking shapes that leap upwards without effort or apparent weight, we felt a shock, recognizing that same vitality and silent poetry that flows along the thin bronze bodies he sculpted.
There was the opportunity to have a look at the past but also for a quick sight into the future. Among the most recent projects of the Swedish artist there is in fact a series of experiments with NFT technology and digital works of art, a theme that is much discussed today for the radical change that involves the ontological, if not economic, value of artistic production.
Digital Art, due to its intangible nature, is often accompanied by the prejudice of its own inconsistency. It is surprising how Nielsen’s work does not seem evanescent at all, turning rather into a welcoming space for thought. The sculptor proves to be able to offer beyond the screen that same solidity and spatiality that we find in his works in bronze and on paper, thus making us really curious to find out what the future developments of his work will be.
«When you sculpt in clay it’s all about adding and adding, working the sculpture from the inside and outwards until its complete. One day when a sculpture I was working on suddenly fell apart I realized that instead of repairing and adding the piece back I will allow it to fell apart even more. It was then I got curious about the act of “removing” in my sculpting process. It felt fun and space was invited in to my creative process.
It was this new working process that also lead me to discover 3D sculpting, a digital space where you are not limited to gravity or materials limitations.
I began by 3D scanning my own body and brining it in to a 3D environment. In a way my whole body became the clay for my future sculpture and still is the foundation for each of my new sculpture. These sculptures I then 3D printed so they could be casted in to bronze. So the transaction in to NFT was very organic, I was already very familiar with the digital environment when NFT became known, I’m not very invested in it, but I’m excited to follow how it will develop and looking forward to offer more NFT’s in the future.»
Johannes Nielsen was born in 1979 in Falkenberg (Sweden). In 2001 he began attending the Lund’s Art School. In 2003 he moved to Dublin and became assistant of the famous sculptor Patrick O’Reilly, where he honed his sculptural practice. He has taken part in several art fairs and exhibitions in Europe, USA and Asia. His works are part of public and private collections in Europe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Kaliningrad, Hollywood, Miami, New York and Montreal.
In 2016 his works were exhibited at the Songzhuang Museum in Beijing for his first solo show there. In 2017 and 2021 some of his sculptures were exhibited at Art Stays, the International Festival of Contemporary Art that takes place every year in Ptuj (Slovenia). In 2021 he was also represented at Westbound Art Fair in Shanghai. Since 2007 he has based in Beijing where he lives together with his wife and daughter