Sven Johne


A man stands on the seashore. He swings his arm and tosses a message in a bottle into the waves. This procedure is captured seven times in a series of black-and-white photographs, the places and times recorded in logbooklike annotations: “Sent in: Rockaway Beach, NYC, USA Date: 15 Sept. 2008,” “Sent in: Fire Island, NY, USA Date: 16 Sept. 2008,” or “Sent in: Block Island, RI, USA Date: 18 Sept. 2008.” If the Gulf Stream is reliable, the bottles should eventually arrive in Europe. And with a little luck, the commentaries sealed inside, with their quotidian observations on the topic of “speed, efficiency and solidarity in daily New York,” will find their way back into the work, ideally being incorporated, with notes specifying the time and place of their discovery, in these diptychs whose right-hand panels await notation of the results. The man in these photographs, Sven Johne, born on the Baltic Island of Rügen and trained as a photographer at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig, has previously attracted notice with his pointed docu-fictional conceptual projects, which combine researched or found histories and individual life stories with atmospheric photographs. The contemplative tone typical of Johne’s work is visible everywhere in this show, “52 glückliche Orte” (52 Happy Places). The way his work plays with location and dislocation, however, is taken further here: Johne’s explorations of the search for happiness, dream locales, and romantic longing and disappearance find their culmination in the no-man’s-land of the high seas, abandoned subway tunnels beneath New York City, and an archipelago in the South Atlantic.

Besides in the message-in-a-bottle diptychs, which have already integrated a speculative horizon of expectation into their very form, Johne’s yearning sensibility can be seen above all in his suite of ten fictional nautical charts, Seafaring Discoveries of Our Time (all works 2008). The viewer is presented with coordinates and arrows indicating depth, boundaries, and “restricted areas,” but in the absence of any markings of land or coastlines. Instead of facilitating orientation, these charts evoke dislocation; instead of describing concrete locations, they serve as diffuse metaphors of disorientation. These maps also function as an allegory for the alienation of labor, thanks to the reports that form their basis—notes by young seamen who often go months at a time without leaving their ships—and find their analogue in the “52 Happy Places” of the show’s title: Fifty-two small images found on the Internet depict islands belonging to the Vanuatu Archipelago in the South Pacific, on which, according to the “Happy Planet Index,” live the happiest people in the world. Johne’s collected photos, however, don’t show us this mythically happy life, but instead function as a commentary on our projection of unattainable happiness onto distant parts of the world.

For the most part, the results are compelling on a formal level, highlighting the interplay between concept and affect, between the strict imposition of form or structure and the emotional depth of subject and tone. But what really makes these pieces stand out is the subtlety of their sociopolitical component. Far from trumpeting any political content in overt declamations or in terms of site-specificity and institutional critique, Johne’s works gauge certain individual—if socially structured—emotional universes and trace them with sensitivity. Neither losing himself in feeling nor denying his essential emotional investment, Johne maintains an effortless balance.

Dominikus Müller

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.