The Polish artist Janek Simon has made a name for himself as an avid voyager, carrying out projects in Madagascar, Southern India and Africa. Yet, it seems he has grown weary of roaming the world. I am reminded of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s confession in the opening lines of Tristes Tropiques (Sad Tropics, 1955): ‘Travel and travellers are two things I loathe and, yet, here I am, all set to tell the story of my expeditions.’ In Simon’s recent exhibition at Raster, ‘People with the Heads of Dogs’, the artist shared his personal treasure trove of found and created objects, which speak as much of his own autobiography as they do of the mechanisms of storytelling.
At the centre of the exhibition was an installation of metal shelves containing a video and numerous small items (Mr. Seven, 2012/15). The collection included photographs Simon bought in Alang, India, where massive ships from around the world are scrapped and whatever is deemed unfit for recycling ends up at the local marketplace. The shelves also housed a black lump of rock from Trinidad, a fake Rolex from Shanghai and, in their midst, a tiny model Simon made for one of his early shows, conceived as a hypothetical future retrospective. A fragment of a trunk of the first tree he climbed as a child was transformed into a plinth for a small plastic bust of a boy. Throw in a couple of Soviet-era toys, an antediluvian ZX Spectrum computer, a slingshot complete with hand-painted stone ammunition, and you had a thrift store of Simon’s life.
Amongst the objects, a monitor played a video interview with an Indian man in his 60s. His expression is deadpan as he shares his life’s exploits, which include single-handedly building the Panama Canal, having sex with the Queen of England, unwittingly assassinating Benazir Bhutto with a mango-shaped bomb and accidentally destroying the White House in an attempt to leap over it holding a tank of compressed gas. A worthy rival to the legendary Baron Munchausen, the real identity of ‘Mr Seven’ remains unclear, although he could also be seen as Simon’s alter ego, surrounded as he is by artefacts from the artist’s life.
The question of fact versus fiction was further explored in Man with the Head of Dog (2015), a series of figurines made using a DIY 3D printer. Displayed on a tabletop and clad in long colourful robes, these figures depicted the Cynocephali, a hybrid race claimed to have been encountered by many explorers since ancient times. Simon’s interpretation, inspired by medieval illustrations of The Travels of Marco Polo, seemed like another trophy from one of his adventures, but also attested to the dubious nature of any traveller’s account, including Simon’s own.
Self-mythologizing was also at play in a vivid, geometric mosaic of tribal and folk motifs that hung on the wall (Untitled, 2015). This tapestry of plastic elements resembling toy bricks, also made with a 3D printer, was set in an aluminium frame and composed of coded references to the artist’s previous works – and, perhaps most importantly, was a nod to his debut installation, Carpet Invaders (2002), in which the classic video game could be played projected on the floor, with graphics altered to resemble the patterns of typical oriental rugs. Across the room were three compositions on paper resembling Mondrianesque renditions of a circuit board (A, M, K, 2015). These are Simon’s love poems, each telling of an intense emotional relationship translated into an inscrutable language with the use of a computer algorithm devised by the artist. ‘People with the Heads of Dogs’ was not only a summary of the artist’s practice thus far, but a confession of the motivations behind his many travels, and a clue as to why he has chosen to return home.