Swedish assemblage artist Michael Johansson constructs complex 3D puzzles, filling in strict boundaries with a tight jumble of everyday objects. “Sometimes I describe my process as playing real-life Tetris,” he says. Johansson must be a master of measurement to create his expertly packed spaces, and so he keeps a Talmeter—a Swedish measuring tape from hand tool manufacturer Hultafors—close by. “This model was introduced to me by a friend and colleague when I still lived in Malmö in the south of Sweden, right after finishing my [master’s degree] at the academy there. It’s a tool I’ve used for about 15 or 16 years,” he says.
“You could say my works are based on society’s overproduction of things,” says Johansson, who lives in Berlin. He typically uses secondhand and discarded objects, including blow dryers, matchbooks, tennis rackets, and cars. At times he selects appliances, containers, and other materials united by a general purpose, such as transportation, or by a shared color scheme. In novel arrangements within works both technically rigid and playfully inviting, each individual item is redefined.
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Johansson usually starts a sculpture with a collection phase. This involves minimal measuring, though he says, “Sometimes, when I’m searching for something more specific, I bring the Talmeter on the hunt.” He generally places larger objects first into the space to be filled, which might be an interior doorway, exterior arch, freestanding cube of gallery space, or gap between stacked shipping containers. For really big items, he may need “a second pair of hands,” professional help, or a motorized lift. He works his way down in scale, piecing in smaller and smaller objects. Accurate measurements are essential throughout, as “the search for items with a perfect fit continues all the way until the end.”
Precision is especially important in Johansson’s pieces that employ mirroring, like Daily Pattern (2019), which he made for the Cheongju Biennale in South Korea. In this work, all the objects repeat, which he says “creates a kind of rotation.” Keeping careful track of the dimensions was crucial: “When you’re trying to find a way to place a washing machine upside down three meters up in the air, you don’t want to have to repeat the process because of a miscalculation.”
Johansson especially likes that the Talmeter has a small extender bar that facilitates the accurate measurement of an object’s internal dimensions, like the inside of a box. He says a foldout metal extension “adds 10 centimeters to the measurement, which is just as simple as it is clever.” Then the user reads the internal measurement from a red scale on the tape (instead of the usual black numbers), a step Johansson has forgotten “a few times.” Various models of the Talmeter also allow users to read measurements vertically and take the dimensions of rounded surfaces, among other functions.
Johansson’s work has been exhibited in permanent installations and solo and group shows internationally, and he has gotten into the habit of handing out Talmeters as he travels. “When installing projects abroad, I usually end up leaving the Talmeter with whoever is helping me out since it’s usually a tool they haven’t experienced before.”