Over the past decade Simon Fujiwara has become known for his staging of large, complex exhibitions that explore the deeply rooted mechanisms of identity construction for both individuals and societies. Now, his thought-provoking work Joanne is on show for the first time in Denmark at ARKEN.

Simon Fujiwara’s film Joanne depicts the many faces of Joanne, Simon Fujiwara’s former secondary school teacher. Presented as film and image environment, Joanne combines a series of free-standing structures: one that includes in-built LED screens on which the video Joanne is shown on one side and a photograph on the other, and two large free-standing lightboxes with images on both sides. The subject of both the larger-than-life photographs and the film is Joanne Salley, a former art teacher of Simon Fujiwara from 2000 to 2002. Winner of the 1998 Miss Northern Ireland beauty pageant, artist, teacher and champion boxer, Joanne had a formative influence on Fujiwara as a scholarship student at the prestigious Harrow School for boys in Britain. Several years later, Joanne became the victim of a tabloid newspaper scandal after students discovered and circulated topless photographs of her that had been taken privately. The ongoing media campaign that followed destroyed her career and public image.

In 2016, Fujiwara and Joanne embarked on the production of a short film that aimed, through the use of advertising and marketing techniques, to restore her image. One way to do this, they feel, is to try and harness the new possibilities of social media: a realm where emotions are readily shared, where everyone is always on first-name terms and where an easy familiarity is a staple of the new internet etiquette. Yet in a world where full self-disclosure is valued as the hallmark of authenticity and relatability, Joanne realizes she must meet her new public’s demands with another form of exposure – this time emotional. But when authenticity and fantasy are prized in equal measure, which new mask should Joanne adopt?

In the course of the video, we follow Joanne as she meets a branding team, films image material and revisits the school from which she left in disgrace. The images of her on the lightboxes depict Joanne in athletic gear, often in familiar poses – acting out a faux naturalism that has become a trope in advertising campaigns. Though manifestly staged, they connote spontaneity – a paradox that while being implicitly understood, still appears powerfully seductive. The work engages with this contradiction, allowing viewers to experience their own complicity and ambivalence. Conspiring and confounding, transparently manipulative but also genuinely moving, Joanne (the film) does not pretend to portray Joanne the woman.

Simon Fujiwara was born in 1982 in London and lives and works in Berlin. Addressing the inherent contradictions of image and narrative making – from social media and self-presentation to marketing and history formation – Fujiwara revels in the complexity and paradox of our simultaneous quest for fantasy and authenticity. Crossing multiple media, from sculpture and installation to video and painting and mining worlds as diverse as advertising and archaeology, Fujiwara’s works are a constant reportage on the real world sources from which they draw inspiration. However, rather than simply presenting commentary, the artist creates a unique universe of his own – one that is populated with challenging and often absurd new narratives that are as intellectually rigorous as they are emotionally stimulating.