Embezzeling the (un)real. Jonathan Monaghan

I had a dream. I was floating in the air, surrounded by beheaded sheep, winged lions’ heads, wired birds, and floating castles. The background music reminded me of something that I couldn’t classify, something between the music of a video game and the soundtrack of an action movie. I was continuously feeling emptiness in my stomach, as if I was on a roller coaster, and although the scenery was very colorful and friendly, I felt a slight sense of disorientation. Sometimes I seemed to be in a fictional animation, in other moments as if I had splashed into a Salvador Dalí painting, or maybe a Magritte. When I suddenly pinched my arm and felt real pain, I realized that I was not in a virtual world but contemplating the artwork of Jonathan Monaghan.


The video animations by Monaghan tell us contemporary tales, funny and colorful, almost superficial, but at the same time based on a deep analysis of the history of art, politics, and social dynamics with an emphasis on former and actual power structures. Although the stories are very different from each other, we can recognize similarities – the interpretation and reconstruction of monarchial structures, the exercise of power and control and its decay, a criticism of contemporary society controlled by the industry of consumption and new media.

We are thus transported inside a Gothic church, the nave deprived of its roof. Huge moving penises monitor the hallway that surrounds the abode of the Sovereign, a giant penguin trapped in his own mausoleum. Forced to eat his descendants who beg grace before being greedily swallowed, French Penguin (2009) is an absurd and sad representation of power as a slave of itself, of the cycle of life and death determined by our own behavior, and in a sense a courageous critique of a male dominated society.

Rainbow Narcosis (2012) starts with a playful and colorful song, appearing at first glance like a video game but soon delving into an ambiguous and disturbing spell of images and sounds. The head of a beheaded sheep invites us to a journey through absurd worlds, loaded with historical and artistic references. The section between the neck and head of the animal serves as a platform for charming landscapes, buildings, and entire cities. As guided by an imaginary camera, we fly through the Opera Garnier, a luxury metropolitan loft, an island floating in the air, and snow-capped mountains. The different worlds exist one in another as if in a Russian Matrioska, and the transition between them takes place in a way totally unexpected and extremely surprising. The background music, changing between a driving beat and melancholic mellowness, alternately creates tension and relaxation in the viewer and leads the image to exude different sensations with passing time. The sheep that initially takes us on a peacefully journey through different sceneries transforms, in the end, into the assassin of its creator who is sucked into a black hole by his own invention, the Technology.

Other references to the rise and decline of power structures and the psychological control of today’s consumerism can be found in Sacrifice of the Mushroom Kings (2012). The protagonist, a character of a famous video game, wanders through the deserted buildings of Wall Street. As in a ghost town, there is nobody around, and the total absence of life creates an atmosphere of fear. Besides the appearance of a hybrid cow-angel, the only thing left is a golden bull, fighting to establish himself as the commander of the arena (symbolizing the marketplace). In the end, he sadly loses his life in front of the stunned soldier.


In his latest work Robot Ninja (2013), the environments are becoming more abstract and the spirit more masculine, almost macho, although there are recurring symbols from the other video works; the crown, the sheep, Baroque / Gothic elements, the rainbow, symbols of famous brands, and hospital furnishings highlight Monaghan’s analysis and transposition of other levels of historical or cultural meanings.

Jonathan Monaghan, Robot Ninja, 2013

In fact, the organizational principles of his works are an ideological criticism of today’s society. Monaghan often reverses the meaning and function of objects and characters, embezzling not only the elements and protagonists of pop culture, advertising, consumerism, and new media, but also their subconscious strategies that elicit a particular response in us. The immediate familiarity granted by images from our cultural heritage mediates the surreal foreignness of his aesthetic. It is this combination that makes his works so magnetizing. Monaghan defines our contemporary society not as self-contemplative, as suggested by Siegfried Krakauer, but rather medicated, anesthetized by the surplus of information, products, and technological possibilities that go far beyond the capabilities of neuronal processing by our brain. Through his works, he thus provides a new opportunity to get in touch with ourselves. His ornamental exaggeration and artificial constructs force us to wake from a coma of indifference and into a state of deeper self-reflection.

Sarah Corona, “Embezzling the (un)real. Jonathan Monaghan”, New York 2013.

Images courtesy Curator’s Office, Washington D.C.

The catalogue will be published on the occasion of the Moving Image Art Fair London in October 2013 and is available at Curator’s Office, Washington D.C. .