Sean M. Johnson makes work about the human spirit - its challenges, flux, frailty, and endurance. The way he describes such an array of universal experience is by using everyday objects as metaphor. He takes great care in the way he evokes our subjective response: though we all go through some version of the story he’s telling, there will always be room for us to imagine our own narrative in the context of each piece.
When Johnson and I began to work on his exhibition, ‘Before When’, he brought up an interesting point about grief, that it is not particularly about the event which provoked it. It’s about the grief itself: a crippling emotion that leaves the spirit incapacitated and bereft. It’s about a state of between-ness that is all at once momentous, dynamic, and confusing. How do we move on while hindered by this cataclysm? At what point do we accept the between-ness while trying to also reach acceptance of our loss? Some people and some circumstances take mere seconds to regain footing, while others take years; and others will never recover.
At the time, my experience of such a recovery was a distant memory. But as I sat with him, musing over the underlying philosophy of this exhibition, and how I would frame Sean’s work in the context of his intention and our potential interpretation; I couldn’t help but place it squarely within my own encounters with shock, loss, and upheaval. Our conversation recalled the aching and ever-present muscle memory of this between-ness in the face of something monumental. The feeling of that tilt came rushing back, flooding my head with the sensation of certain uncertainty.
Johnson is trying to describe the span of time between a “before” and an “after”. The word “after” isn’t correct. Rather, it is the “when”. This is the instant you have begun to understand a thing even as you are still experiencing it. This isn’t specifically related to death or even tragedy - it could be the the effect a major life event, or a birthday; it could be the ending or beginning of something significant. It is the fraction of a second that hangs suspended in air. It is a ticking watch. It is a rocking chair on end. It is the pressure of multiple things holding each other together, about to break free from restraint. Balance, precariousness, and tension are all a part of the allegorical visual language Johnson employs to represent the slices of time that occur between happening and knowing.
It would be a mistake to identify these moments as suspension, limbo, doldrums, or purgatory. One is not still, nor are they stuck. We are not in stasis. And Johnson’s installations are not at rest. They express force, nearly to a breaking point. They are upended. They gather themselves together. Their continued existence is improbable and yet they endure, defying our expectations.
What is it that holds them together? How do they continue to stand? It is the question we ask ourselves: how will we do the same?
We will only know after we survive the compressed inward force of that time. But not before.