Stepping into the Unknown

A woman, carrying shopping bags and a phone, steps out from an escalator into a misty forest. The enchanted stairway is a few paces behind her, emitting a golden glow. Her ruby-coloured coat calls to mind the story of little red riding hood: what path has she strayed from to find herself here? The piece is titled Above All (2019) and fits into the creative universe of Erik Johansson (b. 1985). The Swedish artist blends reality and imagination to make surreal scenes come to life. His work aligns with other contemporaries inspired by the movement, including Elina Brotherus (b. 1972), Fares Micue (b. 1987) and Jee Young Lee (b. 1983). Now, his latest show at Fotografiska Stockholm explores filter bubbles, echo chambers and what happens when we dare to step outside our own safe zones. The exhibition includes interactive objects, plucked straight out of the pictures, and immersive installations that invite visitors to step into his worlds. 

In their influential book Echo Chamber (2008), academics Kathleen Hall Jamieson (b. 1946) and Joseph N. Capella (b. 1947) define the term as “a bounded, enclosed media space that has the potential to both magnify the messages delivered within it and insulate them from rebuttal”. These come about when people only absorb news from similarly minded individuals and media sources that amplify their own opinions. New perspectives are blocked out, so these narrow views of the world are never challenged. Johansson visualises this in the Echochamber (2023) installation. The photograph on the wall shows what first appears to be a maze from above. A closer look reveals lots of people who each inhabit small and separate rooms. They are disconnected despite the close proximity. In the centre of the composition is a hopeful sight. We see two figures using a ladder to break free and escape to the surface. Visitors attending The Echo Chamber will get to interact with the piece through a replica structure in front of the photograph. Johansson reveals the beauty of gaining fresh perspectives and invites attendees to be part of this.

The term “filter bubble”, meanwhile, was coined by activist Eli Pariser (b. 1980) in his 2011 book of the same name. He explains how social media and search engine algorithms generate personalised results that “create a unique universe of information for each of us […] which fundamentally alters the ways we encounter ideas and information.” Johansson’s second project reflects on this idea. His images show two figures enveloped in separate bubbles. The man in the foreground stares blankly ahead. Within the gallery, projections of on the walls enable visitors to step into these bubbles. The third work explores the world we create together. Here, we find a woman surrounded by makeshift walls created from planks of wood. Paintbrush in hand, she decorates them with beautiful scenery. Unlike in Echochamber, there aren’t physical constraints. A ladder balances against the outside. Has she also broken free from the first piece? Visitors can follow the subject’s lead and enter the bounded space to see these painted walls for themselves.

“Daring to take a step into the unknown and leave your comfort zone is something that has been recurring in my work for many years. It’s a fairly broad subject that can be illustrated in many ways, but here I have worked more specifically with how we construct our own separate worlds” explains Johansson. This exhibition invites audiences into surreal scenes and immerse themselves in the art. Echo chambers, filter bubbles and the myriad of other ways we cut ourselves off from other people can often be subtle. Nevertheless, we can see the damaging consequences every day on social media. Johansson shows how broadening our horizons can be transformative, like stepping off an escalator into a new setting or climbing out from small, confined boxes. His work draws our attention to ways we can break free from the familiar.

Fotografiska, Stockholm: Erik Johansson: The Echo Chamber | September 22 – January 14 2024

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Echochamber, 2023 © Erik Johansson.
  2. Erik Johansson, Above All, (2019). Courtesy of the artist.
  3. Filter Bubbles, 2023 © Erik Johansson.
  4. Erik Johansson,The Cover Up, (2013)Courtesy of the artist.