By VICTOR SLEDGE, May 2021
Anthropologically, a liminal zone is the ambiguous, uncertain stage of a rite of passage often filled with reflection, contemplation and a confrontation with the self and its surroundings. Liminal zones are ephemeral, yet impactful. They are not meant to be a dwelling place, but a simple passageway. That is the beauty of artist Laurel Johannesson’s work: it forces the viewer to exist, to dwell in these liminal zones with her.
Johannesson is an international artist, scholar and professor with a career spanning over decades at this point. Italy, Greece, Iceland, Canada—her multimedia art has landed her in mesmeric locations all over the world, exploring the farthest, most remote places to capture mystifying images.
Themes of temporality, the body and isolation are often present in her work. Johannesson’s ongoing series, Situations—an unassuming confrontation of isolated, remote psychological states of being for both her and her viewers—captures these themes on ever-changing shorelines, which she considers the “quintessential liminal zone.”
“Somebody said about me once that if I had one foot on land and one foot in the boat, I’d like the foot in the boat,” Johannesson says.
It’s true. She has found comfort in the limbo of the liminal shorelines of Greece throughout Situations. The images show her almost haphazardly placed on rocky shores with her body in obscure, awkward positions under celestial skies of glittering stars but also amidst seas reflecting the sunlight. Her images aren’t quite during day or night, not aquatic or terrestrial, still or temporal. The essence of Situations is the same ambiguity and isolation of a liminal space.
Referring to the significance of shorelines in the series, Johannesson says, “It’s never one thing or the other. It’s always sort of shifting and changing and morphing.”
That is exactly what Situations as a whole feels like. It forces the viewer to nestle into a space where things are not just as they seem, but rather, everything that they seem. The individual elements like day and night or time and stillness that make up her dreamscapes are as perceivable as the viewer decides. That license of perception further adds to the experience of the series even though, on the surface, Situations can feel extremely personal.
“Ultimately, I want to be authentic to what I’m feeling and thinking about the space,” Johannesson explains.
She starts her art with her connection to these locations. In fact, Johannesson often shoots alone to stay in the zone of those connections while she works. As she shoots isolated and naked, the vulnerability of the personal is clear in her work. Even her titles, “You don’t call me anymore,” or “Waiting for you at the departure gate,” heard out of context could easily be text messages to a loved-one.
However, Situations surely speaks to Johannesson as much as it does her viewers, and that is intentional.
“I hope that people will feel that they can put themselves in that position,” she explains, “and I think the spaces allow them to do that.”
These spaces, the sea and the sky, are two infinite frontiers equally known and unknown to everyone. From shorelines to the stars, the sea and the sky seemingly belong to everyone and no one at the same time.
As Johannesson’s work leans on these entities, the work itself also belongs to everyone and no one. The omnitude of the glittering stars and endless sea, the vulnerability of her exposed nudity and uncanny isolation: Johannesson’s work may be noticeably personal, but it is also unmistakably universal.
For one, the attention to the body in Situations asks the viewer to insert themselves in the shots. As Johannesson is seen in her most natural state throughout the series, there is nothing else to distract you from the body’s position and how you imagine it feels. You can also never fully see a face in the photos, making it even easier to replace her body with yours.
From there, you have to ask the questions that a liminal space would bring: How did I get here? What’s going on around me? Why am I so vulnerable?
These questions flood in as you study the images, and, suddenly, the viewer becomes the subject. And as the viewer begins to place themselves in the scenes, and all the discomfort and contemplation that brings, the intention behind the work starts to reveal itself.
“I wanted the images to be a little bit more vulnerable so that feeling of uncomfortableness goes to the viewer as well,” she explains.
Even in the mystical locations, she says, “The landscapes are beautiful, but they are also really harsh.”
Johannesson’s photos make you question or maybe even simply acknowledge your body in space. They make you confront your body, its vulnerability and how the two act in places that are equally beautiful and harsh.
“It’s not like you’re looking at a classical, posed nude that is trying to be demure or pretty,” she explains. “It’s more about the discomfort of being in that space, but also a kind of strength that comes from that at the same time.”
Even in reference to her titles, she says, “They have some personal connection to me, but I also want them to be phrases or titles that you can hear yourself saying or hear someone saying to you.”
There is a specificity to the titles that, again, creates the idea that although they are personal to Johannesson, they can also trigger a memory or feeling for the viewer as they settle further into the images’ liminal zones.
“I wanted to have a personal resonance with the viewer,” she says. “The titles aren’t just labels or identification tabs, they’re another element of the work.”
The intention to push for a personal resonance or to remind people of their strength through her photos is a natural inclination that is indicative of the type of artist Johannesson is. Her attention to others in relation to herself and her attempts to connect even the most vulnerable parts of herself with her audience is what carries the viewer through Situations but also all of her work. She even mentions that her inspiration behind working on the shoreline came from observing the look of longing and rumination on peoples’ faces as they looked out into the ocean.
“People look at the night sky because it’s comforting and attractive, but at the same time you know its vastness,” she says. “Then I think about the sea and the horizon line that just disappears into nothingness and that gives you that same sensation.”
Somehow, Situations allows the viewer to find company in isolation and solidarity in discomfort. The work reminds us how small and vulnerable we all are but also how universal that feeling is and the power we all have in those spaces. And as we have all been experiencing the same isolated liminal space for over a year now, Johannesson’s work is as timely of a reminder of our strength in isolation as we could hope for.
“The limbo that we’re in right now and our separation from other people, there can be strength in it,” she said. “The body can have that strength to be comfortable no matter how insecure that expanse can feel.”
To see more of Johannesson’s work, you can visit her website here.
Follow her on Instagram: @laurel_johannesson WM
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.