Inventory Number: SIK089
Year Made: 2017
With life-size ceramic "Moss People" sculptures depicting innocent yet beguiling child figures, Kim Simonsson leads the viewer into an imaginative, fairytale-like world inspired by the forests of Finland. His gestures are indeed sublime. Simonsson is a superb sculptor who uses clay with great sensitivity for his subjects.
“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?” So asks Piggy in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). A plane full of boys has been shot down over an unpopulated island. At first they enjoy their newfound freedom: no rules to obey, a wilderness to explore. But gradually they descend into communal savagery, eventually killing several of their number (the nerdy, bespectacled Piggy included) in a chaotic bacchanal. It’s a novel that generations of American and British schoolchildren have been asked to read, primarily in order to understand literary symbolism. Nearly every page of the book features an emblematic artifact of one kind or another: a conch shell stands for leadership; the parachute of a downed pilot, which flaps eerily in the trees, embodies the ghosts of the past; Piggy’s glasses are emblems of fragile rationality.
Lord of the Flies is an ideal portal into the world of Finnish artist Kim Simonsson who cites the book as a direct inspiration for his most recent body of work, The Moss People. The collection comprises a series of childlike figures, executed in stoneware sheathed in green nylon fiber flocking. This unusual technique immediately suggests a woodland setting, and though their features are youthful, they seem ancient, their surfaces an accumulation of passing time. Particularly powerful in this regard is Moss God, the largest of the series, which depicts a seated child with sheaves of hair hanging down over her face. A soft, lichen-like encrustation seems to grow up the feet, as if she were being reclaimed by nature. A related work, Moss Bear, has been overtaken entirely; it looks a bit like a fuzzy teddy, but also has that indefinable sense of alien threat that attends all of Simonsson’s work.
Many of the Moss People are dressed in regalia reminiscent of that adopted by Golding’s castaways: headdresses, leather packs, shabby tunics bound with rope. Moss Girl with Bonfire stands pensively, staring at the ground as she hold the fire in her palm aloft; she seems to have set off on foot, intending for wild songbirds to be her only company. Others in the group are outfitted in futuristic fashion, with helmets and spacesuits that contrast bizarrely with their own plush, sylvan textures. Simonsson views the Moss People as a community that has broken apart, each individual left to their own devices out into the world. The idea that some would plunge into the woods while others become astronauts – that fond dream of so many children – makes a crazy kind of sense. No longer rooted in their forest home, they have set out to explore as far as they can.
Simonsson has done more in the past decade to rehabilitate the reputation of figural ceramics than anyone else, and he has done so by reimagining the very terms on which such objects exist. To begin with, the apparently simple fiction of figures detached from their natural home, sent out into the world, can be taken as a metaphor for artworks leaving the studio. Even as they travel to exhibition venues and collectors’ residences, though, Simonsson’s intense psychological relationship to his characters remains – one might say that he clings to them fiercely. Even in a commercial gallery space, one feels as if one has intruded on his private territory. Many of Simonsson’s earlier works, similarly, dwelled upon difficult, deeply personal themes of trauma, shame, and disgust. As Claire Gould has rightly observed, in looking at them “we become voyeurs or appear to witness vile or violent acts. The works reveal more about ourselves than we wish to confront.”[i]
This imagery is more or less absent in the Moss People, but there is still something disquieting about them, thanks to Simonsson’s instantly recognizable brand of faux innocence. His wide-eyed characters often approach kitsch – think of Precious Moments collectibles, for example – and to the Japanese kawaii aesthetic, the cult of cuteness that has unleashed Hello Kitty and Lolita fashions on the world. Counterintuitively, this is one of the key ways that he has breathed life into the figural ceramic tradition: by appropriating the banality that so often besets this genre and turning it upside-down he brings out the latent psychological charge in these anodyne sources.
Often, his characters seem transfixed in a moment of magical transformation. A Moss Girl kneeling face-to-face with a four-eared rabbit. A figure in white stoneware inflates a perfect silver sphere of glass with her lips. And many of Simonsson’s children hold small animals in their hands, like little sorcerers. In the majority of his works, however, these children are caught in a moment of introspection, their faces obscured by hair, hoods, or helmets. When we do see their faces clearly, their expressions are blank. All this is a reminder of the hidden nature of childhood to adults. We can read emotions into the figures’ stance and gestures, but ultimately, they are remote from us.
Perhaps the best way to read Simonsson’s sculptures are as a many-faceted return to his own growing-up years? Collectively, they occupy a spacious mental architecture, one that can only have developed through protracted interior monologue. On this reading, each sculpture could be seen as a flash of memory, a long-buried fantasy brought out into the open. But that misses the universalism of Simonsson’s work. His iconography may be generated from his own experience, in response to the mythically resonant landscape of Finland; but it also speaks to the human condition, in a general – even a generic – way. The smooth, ethnically vague physiognomies of his figures contribute to this, and so too does the simplicity of his emblematic vocabulary. Just as in Lord of the Flies, his symbols feel reassuringly clear, but combine to distinctly unsettling effects.
A final aspect of Simonsson’s work that deserves consideration is his use of scale. Some of his children are life-sized, others slightly less than that. Others are enlarged to the size of adults or even bigger. The choice of scale always feels inextricably linked to narrative intent. Moss God, for example, is one of his largest works and seems perfectly suited to the monumental, mountain-like image. When seen together in installation, the works’ variable scale enacts a telescopic effect and is another way that Simonsson blurs the distinction between adulthood and youth.
The most ambitious and complex work from the Moss People series – entitled Moss Woman with Ghost Children – is also premised on this idea. It comprises no less than seven figures: a woman slumbers in an antique armchair, with six children surrounding her. Each holds a miniature version of itself. It is a “generational” image, in both senses of that term. We could see the Ghost Children as belonging to the sleeping figure, and her as a mother; or, given her own relative youth, perhaps we might see the children as her imagined future progeny. Or, we could understand the sculptural group in its entirety as an allegory of creativity, with the woman as artist, the Ghost Children arising from her subconscious. None of these readings exhausts the possible meanings of the work, because Simonsson’s works cannot be contained by literal interpretation. They are best understood as embodied ideas, rich and complicated, intuitive and passionate, walking amongst us.
[i] Claire Gould, Kim Simonsson: Beyond Superheroes (Finnish Cultural Institute in Denmark, 2015).