The Daily Heller: When Parallel Worlds Intersect

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Viktor Koen’s recent photomontages, “Greetings From Pandemic Island,” are what he calls a “pictorial bridge” between the pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19. In fact, it is an opening into a zone where darkness and light intersect. These dreamscape images are Koen’s signature dystopian expressions of “the crises by questioning personal and collective responsibility, humanity and gross indifference, but also highlight new and long existing layers of racial and socioeconomic disparities catalyzed by the epidemic.”

“Greetings From Pandemic Island” will be on view from June 3–18 at Emily Warren Roebling Plaza during the 2023 New York City–wide Photoville festival. Before leaving for his native Greece, where the work has been widely shown in museums and galleries, I spoke to Koen, chair of SVA BFAs in Illustration and Comics, about making “postcards” of these tragedies.

The title “Pandemic Island” speaks for itself. But what are the inspirations (or triggers, if you prefer) for this forward/backward vision?
This was not so much a series driven by inspiration as it was guided by need. The desperate need to keep busy and somehow respond to the way this pandemic was developing around us day after day with the only tools I had. My wife, Ninette, ventured to her hospital labs, our kids Zoomed to school and I went to make pictures. Inspiration was only found from image to image as I spent hours going through what life looked like in the last century and found contemporary equivalence to work with. By functioning in a forward/backward vision mode I could explore issues of personal and collective responsibility, humanity and gross indifference, but was also able to highlight new and long existing layers of racial and socioeconomic disparities catalyzed by the epidemic. Lastly I needed to communicate and break this heavy sense of isolation that just wouldn’t go away. It was the first time that Manhattan truly felt like an island.

Was this work done entirely during lockdown? Do you feel it represents a universal angst or just a personal release?
Most of the work was done through the pandemic year and I found it very difficult to stop. It was so comforting that it almost became addictive. From a series of 12 postcards they grew to 24, 48, 100 and ended up at 156 or so. There was an urgency to capture and express emotions before they evaporated by creating disconnected (at first) images into what eventually became a long visual essay. From time to time I still revisit images that don’t seem to be fully resolved.

I love the inflated rubber glove. There is something so organic about it. Does it have deeper significance?
“Glove Balloon” was the very first image where the series came to its own as an independent body of work instead of visuals for social media consumption (not quite Malevich’s “living, royal infant” but that’s the closest I can get to it). After a day of photographing surgical gloves, a number of compositions were developed around them without making them the central theme. “Glove Balloon” functions as a giant signal for help, message in a bottle we release in the air and hope for the cavalry. A public act of desperation. On the other hand, inflated latex gloves have a humorous connotation, making this duality an expression of the sense of humor characterizing New Yorkers. It also makes this image one of the friendliest in the lot.

How do you select your imagery? Is it forethought, instinct or both?
Both. Completely intuitive at first as I was deeply lost, grasping for something to hold onto, where archival research was clearly where I found some composure. Once the series took shape, brainstorming, specific concepts, sketches and studies became more and more part of it. As a result, searches assumed more and more specific directions but without ever losing appetite for unexpected finds that demanded attention and were embraced as cornerstones for new ideas or compositions.

What do you want to get out of this collection? And what do you want your audience to take away?
“Greetings from Pandemic Island” was initially conceived as a set of postcards, and that’s exactly what it is—an ironic memento from one of the most affected areas on the planet. Crystallizing bits and pieces for a personal mosaic of experiences while they happened felt important, essential and cathartic. Important also was my need for contribution to the memory and commemoration of such a global crisis. Hopefully the audience will find fragments that in some way match their own emotions as we try piecing together a collective understanding of what we individually went through.

Posted inCOVID-19 The Daily Heller