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Johansson, Janeric - VM - Janeric Johansson

Janeric Johansson: The Seven Elements
by Janeric Johansson
In 2008 I started to think about making a large painting based on old ideas about the four elements (water, air, fire, and earth) for an exhibition in China. In the ancient world the four elements were a way of explaining how life and the universe are put together. Through the Internet I could see that in certain circles this kind of thinking is still alive. So I wondered if I should go into this area, which I knew so little about.
But my heart forced me to continue with this idea. I read about Aristotle, who in the fourth century BCE occupied himself with this thinking as part of science. According to him the four elements are moving in a circle. Each of them has a counterpart, and they can overlap and eliminate each other. But he also felt that there must be something more – a fifth element perhaps, which has always been there and that can never be taken away – a heavenly element that he called Eter (Ether). It made me think of eternity and ethics. Maybe Aristotle’s intuition that there should be something more was caused by a longing for God, just as the altar to the unknown God that was built by the Greeks.
I decided to make a big painting with canvases of four different sizes and connect them to each other in the form of a circle with an empty space in the centre. To this I wanted to add the elements. In the Chinese tradition there are five elements: instead of air they include gold and wood. Combining old western and Asian thinking there are six elements, which in my mind I represented on metal pieces that I attached to the canvases with Eter in the empty space in the centre.
I struggled, however, whether I should actually make this painting or not. So when I came to my studio in China, I put four white canvases on the floor and waited for two weeks for strength for the first brushstroke. I knew that this painting would be very different from everything I had done before and that it was not enough only to have an interesting idea. It had to be good art too.
Then two Chinese young women came to my studio, which is situated on the roof of an old factory. One of them had been a Christian for a few years and had been living with me and my wife in Sweden for a year. While we were climbing up to the roof, she told me that her friend had been to church with her twice. After I showed them some of my smaller paintings, her friend asked what I would make out of those big white canvases on the floor. I told her my idea about the elements and Aristotle. ‘I know a lot about this,’ she said, ‘I need more fire in my life.’ And then she told me that the ancient thinking about the five elements is still very prevalent in modern Chinese society and how important it is that everything is in balance. Some parts of what she told me felt right, but other parts felt far-fetched and superstitious. In the middle of the conversation I asked her, ‘Don’t you feel that this thinking is binding you more than helping you?’ She looked at me without answering but some minutes later she suddenly said: ‘When I look at your painting I realize that this thinking has taken up too much of my time. And it’s true what you say: it has bound me more then helped me. It is God I need.’
I was very touched by her Aha! experience and realized why I had not been able to leave this idea behind. The next day I met with a leading Christian woman in the city and she told me that the elements were the subject most talked about in China since the Olympic Games as the Chinese government was emphasizing the idea of creating a ‘harmonious society.’ It had realized that it is not enough to give people opportunities to buy better apartments and cars. They need something more. And so the government had decided to promote the old thinking of Confucius about the five elements. Thousands of articles were written about this subject. Many people changed their names, bought new furniture etc. in order to get a more balanced and better life. ‘But we as Christians feel that this is not the right way to go for China. And in the middle of this you want to make this painting without knowing what has occupied the Chinese people’s mind these last months.’
Two weeks later the painting hung in my exhibition at an art museum in the south of China. Because of its size and special form it inspired many discussions. One woman told me that her lucky number was seven, while normally eight is the lucky number in China. I told her that seven is seen as the perfect number in the Bible. Suddenly it struck me that Eter in the empty space in the centre of my painting forms a seventh element. All of us are searching for a good life, but we always feel that there still is a space that is empty. I shared with the woman that God wants to fill this empty space and we were both deeply touched.
Janeric Johansson: The Seven Elements, painting in 11 parts, acrylic and sand on canvas and metal, 2008.
Janeric Johansson is a self-taught artist from Sweden. He has been working fulltime as an artist for 41 years and has had more then 200 solo exhibitions all over the world. His work is represented in 35 art museums in 17 countries.
ArtWay Visual Meditation October 23, 2011