Category Archives: Final Projects

Contextualizing Authenticity in Tourism: An Examination of Postmodern Tourism Theory

By: Arianna Drumond


Tourism is, in many ways, an art form. With the advent of the leisure class in the mid-twentieth century, and increased mobility observed as a result of the processes of globalization, the tourism industry has leapt to meet the needs of a demanding public. Of the many tourism sub-categories, “authenticity aimed tourism” is among the most contentious. As affluent travelers become increasingly acquainted with cultures dissimilar to their own, the desire to see and experience something that is “authentic” and “genuine” has prompted the development of sites, museums, tours, and even hotels that simulate a foreign reality. While tourists crave a unique and true experience, it is critical to note that any recreation of an event or other scenario is of course a simulacrum, a mere representation where the original attributes of a people or place have been supplanted by false a simulation of themselves.

The Postmodern Tourist

In order to sufficiently explore authenticity and its many related terms, it is first necessary to examine the modern and postmodern tourist. When, in the 1970s tourism studies emerged as an academic field, many key researchers and theorists regarded it as a phenomenon resultant of modernism, and used modernist discourse to interpret visitor motivation. Two competing theories quickly dominated the field. In one camp, those who regarded tourism as nothing more than a superficial enterprise experienced by the moderately wealthy. The opposition argued a very different viewpoint. Dean MacCannell, a major influence in the field, viewed the experience as “a meaningful modern ritual which involves a quest for the authentic.”[i]

In recent decades, modernist theory has been replaced with postmodern thought. The postmodernity of tourism can be best observed in the many travel opportunities available; tourists can now experience “heritage tourism,” “ecotourism,” “adventure tourism,” “nostalgia-based tourism,” and any number of other specialty and focused travel packages. According to researcher Natan Uriely, the discourse surrounding postmodern tourism suggests two frameworks of thought. The first focuses on “simulational tourism,” the second on “other tourism.”[ii] Studies of “simulational tourism” focus largely on the “hyperreal,” and a traveler’s quest for simulated versions of reality. “Other tourism” deals principally with the idea that tourists are mainly seeking an opportunity to travel through the “natural” environment where they might encounter true authenticity.[iii] Though still polarized, postmodern tourism theories are united by an unwillingness to assume that all tourists are alike, now visitor motivation is considered to be multidimensional.

The Bedouin tours in Israel serve as an excellent example of a postmodern travel experience. Bedouin tours, which are offered by a number of agencies, work on the premise of ecotourism, cultural preservation, and authenticity. Through one agency, Kfar Hanokdim, travelers have the opportunity to sleep in a number of Bedouin inspired tents, cabins, or lodges. There are two “packages,” each offering donkey or camel tours and traditional meals. All visitors receive “Bedouin hospitality,” a package that includes a traditional greeting by a village host, a viewing of a coffee grinding ceremony, and lectures and stories of life in a Bedouin community. Kfar Hanokdim also offers Bar Mitzvahs and village rental for the hosting of private events.[iv]

A second company, Bedouin Experience, has chosen to emphasize the fragile relationship between the Bedouin culture and the Western world. They regard “…indigenous tourist venues as having important potential in strengthening the local Bedouin economy, as well as bringing people from different cultures to know and respect each other.”[v] Furthermore, they hope to educate visitors on the important role the desert plays in Bedouin culture, thereby promoting its preservation.

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All images courtesy of: Kfar Hanokdim

Bedouin tourism experiences perfectly align with postmodern tourism theory. Travelers are afforded the opportunity to experience a culture unique to their own. It is certainly an example of a simulated event and inline with the hyperreal as defined by “simulational tourism” theory. Visitors also have the opportunity to experience “other tourism” here as they are able to revel in the harsh desert environment of the Negev region of Israel. The desire of the traveler to be placed in such a harsh environment is especially ironic as they lack the skillsets necessary to survive here without the assistance of the Bedouin community that is hosting them and the travel agency that has arranged their tour.


Authenticity, when applied to tourism, is a fairly controversial term. Dean MacCannell first introduced the concept in his seminal text “The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class,” as a way of exploring tourist motivations and experiences.[vi] In recent years, MacCannell’s use of the word has been challenged. Researcher Ning Wang argues that the ambiguity of the expression stems from its over-application.[vii] Wang is particularly critical of MacCannell’s use of “experience authenticity” and “staged authenticity.”[viii] In regards to “staged tourism,” MacCannell states: “It is always possible that what is taken to be entry into a back region is really entry into a front region that has been totally set up in advance for touristic visitation.”[ix] A tourist’s experiences can never be authentic even if they perceive them to be. Wang counters this argument by observing that authenticity is often a term ascribed by the educated elite, outsiders—in many ways similar to tourists—looking in.[x] It would seem that Wang and MacCannell are essentially on opposite sides of the same coin. Authenticity is in fact subjective. To the tourist, a staged event may seem perfectly genuine, though to the organizers and performers, the event is indeed staged.

In his 1988 documentary “Cannibal Tours,” director Dennis O’Rourke accompanied a group of affluent Western European and American travelers up the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea as they embarked on a grand tour of the river and the many villages en route.[xi] Visitors frequently paused to photograph indigenous residents of each community. In order to provide the tourists with as “authentic” an experience as possible, villagers often posed and behaved in the ways expected of them by their Western observers. This was of course all done with the expectation that payment be made to the individuals being photographed. As a result, the indigenous population of Papua New Guinea became aware of themselves as “Other.” It is that very self-awareness that has resulted in the loss of the true and authentic “Other” and resulted in a mere facsimile. It is here that the simulacrum is especially evident. The original “Other” no longer exists; instead, a version that is all too aware of Western expectations has replaced it to the dissatisfaction of both the tourist and the “Other” themselves. This situation creates an unfortunate feedback-loop where the desire for the authentic begets the simulacrum resulting in a search for the authentic. In his discussion of “Cannibal Tours,” MacCannell describes a scenario where tourists in the American Southwest are greatly disappointed in the “modern” appearance of the Native Americans in the region:

“The commercialization of the touristic encounter extends to the point of commodification not merely of the handicrafts and the photographic image, but to the person of the exprimitive. Southwest American Indians complain that tourists have attempted to pat up their hair and arrange their clothing before photographing them, and that they receive unwanted offers from tourists to buy the jewelry or the clothing they are actually wearing..”[xii]

Here it is clear that perceived notions of authenticity are in great conflict with a modern reality. Visitors are much more interested in seeing their perceived understandings of a culture played out so that they may return home with photographs and souvenirs “authentic” to the “Other.”

Authenticity and Dark Tourism

Authenticity takes on a particularly unusual quality when dark tourism becomes a factor. According for the Institute for Dark Tourism research, dark tourism is:

“…An academic field of study is where death education and tourism studies collide and, as such, can shine critical light on the social reality of death. Dark tourism can also reveal tensions in cultural memory, interpretation and authenticity, and political and moral dilemmas in remembering our ‘heritage that hurts’”[xiii]

In this study of the authentic, dark tourism is significant in its relationship to postmodern tourism theory, the hyperreal, and simulacra. Researchers John Lennon and Malcolm Foley are credited with the first usage of the phrase in academic writing and also for linking it to postmodernism.[xiv] The authors argue that in order for a site to be considered truly “dark,” it must insight a reaction to modernity and therefore must relate to an event or catastrophe that has occurred within recent memory.[xv]

The recent development of tours through Chernobyl’s radioactive district and the neighboring town of Pripyat, Ukraine serve as an excellent example of dark tourism and can be examined through the postmodern lens.

On April 26, 1986 Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl power plant malfunctioned causing a plume of radiation equal in magnitude to 400 times that of the Hiroshima bombings during World War II, devastated Chernobyl and forced the evacuation of the nearly 50,000 residents of nearby Pripyat. In 2010, certain areas along the perimeter of the blast zone were deemed safe for tourism.[xvi] Visitors are instructed to attach disometers to their clothing in order to monitor radiation levels as they walk through the site. They are also warned not to:

“…touch any structures or vegetation, don’t sit on the ground or even put your camera                     tripod there, don’t take any item out of the zone, don’t eat outdoors. Guides make sure                   the visitors understand that various spots in the zone are more contaminated than                           others and insist no one wander off the designated paths.”[xvii]

Tourists are guided safely around the reactors and are then taken to Pripyat, the town built for the plant workers and their families. While there, visitors are invited to walk through, touch, and otherwise observe the shell of a once thriving community. Local schools, the never-used Ferris wheel in the town amusement park, and the Olympic sized swimming pool are among the most popular sites; each one a reminder of the people who were forced to flee their homes and possessions in haste.

chernobyl-plant4 r042s019 zone_0043_pripyat

Understanding visitor motivation when examining dark tourism sites is critical and the Chernobyl tours serve as an excellent case study. Again postmodern theory comes into play. Visitors seek out a “real” experience when touring Chernobyl, but their understanding of the explosion and its ramifications come only from their exposure to media surrounding the event. Foley and Lennon would argue that these tourists are not seeking any sort of intellectual enlightenment here, but simply wish to experience the spectacle.[xviii] Tourists are desperately attempting to use their perceived understanding to create form and derive sense from an event that is inherently chaotic. This is in fact a hallmark of dark tourism, and in many ways of postmodernism. Where death and chaos reign supreme, people attempt to categorize and systematize the events in order to reflect upon them and study them.

Reality Tourism and the Hyperreal

In his definitive text  “Simulacra and Simulation,” Jean Baudrillard discusses the concept of the hyperreal. Hyperreality is defined as a seamless blending of the real and unreal. The result is the inability to distinguish between the two.[xix] When considering the hyperreal in tourism studies, authenticity must again be considered. Umberto Eco builds on Baudrillard’s analysis. He argues that hyperreality is also defined by yearning for reality. It is this need to experience what is real, that often results in the simulation of reality. The simulacrum is consumed, but nothing is authentic.[xx]

South Africa’s Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa offers tourists an opportunity to experience the shantytowns of Bloemfontein. Experience is referred to as “poverty tourism.” Travelers pay roughly $82 a night to sleep in a shake made of corrugated iron sheets. Visitors however, are not expected to live in the conditions of a South African shantytown. All of the rooms have heated floors, running water and wifi connections.[xxi] There is also a spa on the premises, and the opportunity to participate in gamedrives and walking trails were some forty species of Africa’s most exotic animals could be viewed within the confines of the company’s private game reserve. Emoya also offers a wedding package, and suggests that its shantytown is the perfect for team building activities.[xxii]

The Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa is a perfect example of the hyperreal. Tourists, who a desire to experience the shantytowns of South Africa are given the opportunity to do so with as little inconvenience as possible. In fact, there is nothing at all authentic about the environment Emoya has created. Eco’s belief that the hyperreal extends from a desire to experience reality, but simply create a simulacrum is proven here.

The Prison Hotel in Liepaja, Latvia is an exceedingly puzzling example of postmodern tourism and the hyperreal. Here, visitors experience—in a manner that is very watered-down—the brutal treatment of prisoners by the KGB. The experience is considered to be a form of “reality tourism.” The Prison was originally used to house criminals who, as punishment, frequently experienced psychological torture at the hands of their KGB guards.

Upon their arrival, visitors are forced to squat with their hands behind their head while guards explain the hotel rules. Guests are then subjected to a medical exam, photographed and quizzed on Latvian history. Failure to satisfy the guards can result in solitary confinement. Everything is timed, guests are told when to sleep, when to use the restroom, and when to eat.[xxiii]

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 9.30.28 PM Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 9.30.47 PM Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 9.31.22 PM Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 9.31.35 PM

All Images Courtesy of: Thiery Tinacci: “In a KGB Prisoner’s Skin.”

Liepaja’s Prison Hotel is a curious example of the hyperreal. As in South Africa’s shantytown experience, visitors cannot, under any circumstance truly experience what it is to be a prisoner in a KGB run prison in a rural town in Latvia. The quest for the authentic is one that cannot be fulfilled. However determined visitors are to experience a slice of life through the perspective of an “Other,” the simple fact is that, they too are “Other” and the two worlds can only collide to create a world that is derived from hyperreality.


As in the case with each of the tourism examples discussed, postmodern discourse aptly applies to the experience created both by the tourist, and those who create the experience for the visitor. In each case, both frameworks of postmodern tourism theory can be applied. Visitors clearly seek out “simulational tourism” experiences. There is an eagerness, and in some ways a desperation, to examine life through the lens of the “Other.” As in the case with dark tourism, the desire for this experience is based on a need to make sense of the chaos of death, a topic that is frequently removed from the discourse of the average Westerner. The quest for “Other tourism” is also apparent. As in the case with the Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa experience and the Bedouin village accommodation, visitors can experience a landscape unlike their own and admire and revel in the “Otherness” of the physical world. In the end of course, it is only the end, only a simulacrum can be achieved. The authentic remain out of reach.

[i]  Natan Uriely. “Theories of Modern and Postmodern Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 24(1997): 983.

[ii] Uriely, “Theories,” 983.

[iii] Uriely, “Theories,” 983.

[iv] Kfar Hanokdim, accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[v]  Bedouin Experience, accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[vi] Dean MacCannell. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (California: University of California Press, 1976).

[vii] Ning Wang, “Rethinking Authenticity in the Tourism Experience,” Annals of Tourism Research 26(1999) 350.

[viii] Wang, “Rethinking,” 353.

[ix] Wang, “Rethinking,” 353.

[x] Wang, “Rethinking,” 355.

[xi] Dean MacCannell, “Cannibal Tours,” Society for Visual Anthropology Review 6(1990) 14, DOI: 10.1525/var.1990.6.2.14

[xii] MacCannell, “Cannibal Tours,” 15.

[xiii] Institute for Dark Tourism Research.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[xiv] Stephanie Yuill, “Dark Tourism: Understanding Visitor Motivation at Sites of Death and Disaster” (MA diss., Texas A&M University, 2003) 10.

[xv] Yuill, “Dark Tourism,” 18.

[xvi] Andrew Osborn, “Chernobyl’s ‘Illegal Tours Stop,” The Telegraph, Sept. 20, 2011, accessed December 14, 2013, Web.

[xvii]  Jim Heintz, “Chernobyl Tours Offered 25 Years After Blast,” NBCNews, April 11, 2011, accessed December 14, 2013, Web.

[xviii] Yuill, “Dark Tourism,” 10.

[xix] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981).

[xx] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, Trans. William Weaver (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1986).

[xxi] Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa

[xxii] Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa, accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

[xxiii] Tim Bryan, “Handcuffs Are Included in the Room Rate, Sir,” The Guardian, June 26, 2006, accessed December 14, 2013,Web.




Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. Translated by William Weaver. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 1986.

MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. California: University of California Press, 1976.


Dean MacCannell, “Cannibal Tours,” Society for Visual Anthropology Review 6(1990): 14-24 Accessed December 14, 2013. DOI: 10.1525/var.1990.6.2.14.

Uriely, Natan. “Theories of Modern and Postmodern Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 24(1997): 982-985.

Wang,Ning. “Rethinking Authenticity in the Tourism Experience,” Annals of Tourism Research 26(1999): 349-370.


Yuill, Stephanie Marie. “Dark Tourism: Understanding Visitor Motivation at Sites of Death and Disaster.” MA diss., Texas A&M University, 2003.

Web Articles

Bryan, Tim. “Handcuffs Are Included in the Room Rate, Sir.” The Guardian, June 26, 2006. Accessed December 14, 2013,Web.

Jim Heintz. “Chernobyl Tours Offered 25 Years After Blast,” NBCNews, April 11, 2011, Accessed December 14, 2013, Web.

Osborn, Andrew. “Chernobyl’s ‘Illegal Tours Stop,” The Telegraph, Sept. 20, 2011. Accessed December 14, 2013, Web.


Bedouin Experience. “Bedouin Experience.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa. “Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

Kfar Hanokdim. “Kfar Hanokdim”. Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

University of Central Lancashire. “Institute for Dark Tourism Research.” Accessed Nov. 4, 2013. Web.


Black Owl. “The Abandoned City of Pripyat/Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web

Kfar Hanokdim. “Gallery”. Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.

Leave Me Here: Bones of Wanderlust, Web.

Thiery Tinacci. “In a KGB Prisoners Skin,” Web.

Witness This, Web.


O’Rourke, Dennis. Cannibal Tours. Film, 1:08:07 (excerpt 1:43). 1988. Web.

Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa. “Emoya Luxury Hotel & Spa.” Accessed December 14, 2013. Web.


Commercialism and International Art World: Takashi Murakami and the Rise of the New International Artist

By Abigail Bisbee


When Andy Warhol began to release his artwork in the 1950s, the art society was astonished, and in some cases, enraged by the manner in which Warhol presented depictions of everyday commercial objects as fine art. Warhol ignored the critics and continued to break down the barriers between high and low art forms, thriving on the process of print making in his “Factory” in New York. By the 1960s, however, Warhol had progressed from a misunderstood creative mind to one of the most profound artists in the second half of the twentieth century in the western world. It was through his process and the collaboration with different forms of art, such as film and fashion, that Warhol almost single-handedly destroyed the barriers between popular and high art forms that led the art market into a new era.

While Warhol was very influential in the initial creation of the post-modern artist, it was not until the mid-1990s that a new artist was able to fill his shoes and once again recreate the way that art is both created and received. Takashi Murakami, a contemporary Japanese artist, emerged onto the international art scene with his anime inspired paintings and sculpture. Well received, Murakami then used the momentum from his early success to become more than just a studio artist. Over the course of the next decade and a half, Murakami would spearhead the re-establishment of the artist’s factory and the merging of commercial enterprise and art in a manner that took Warhol’s vision to a new level. The following essay will examine how Murakami was able to rise to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s become the embodiment of the dynamic international contemporary artist and his incorporation of commerce into his artistic product. This exploration of Murakami’s career and the effect it has upon other contemporary artists will demonstrate how international dialogism and the globalization of the 1990s have changed the way that not only the artist creates and disperses his artwork, but the way that the art is received by audiences around the world.

Takashi Murakami – Artist Background

Takashi Murakami grew up in Tokyo in the age of post-WWII Japan. Born in a nation uncertain in its identity and not quite far enough removed from the terror of the nuclear destruction, Murakami came of age in a culture that was increasingly turning to cartoons and animation and away from the artistic tradition that had defined pre-war Japan. Murakami was fascinated by okatu culture, “the subculture of “geeks” or “pop culture fanatics”– a fantasy world where apocalyptic imagery, fetishistic commerce, and artistic vanguards meet” (Little Boy), but found that he did not have the talent to succeed in anime illustration (Lubow, 51).  Choosing another direction, Murakami went on to attain his PhD in nihonga, “the refined hybrid of European and traditional Japanese painting that was invented in the late nineteenth century.” While he would later leave this traditional art form, it would strongly influence his production for the rest of his career. After achieving his PhD, Murakami began to venture down the path of other contemporary artists of the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating artwork that was global in character. After a trip in 1994 to New York, however, Murakami decided to rediscover his Japanese identity and since then his artwork has been founded in Japanese culture and history (Lubow).  Still strongly interested in okatu in the mid-1990s, Takashi turned toward the fabrication of his own oversized anime character designs including his famous Miss. Ko2. 

Takashi Murakami's Miss Ko2 on display at Versailles

Takashi Murakami’s Miss Ko2 on display at Versailles

After working with several of the fiberglass character statues, Murakami shifted gears and returned to the exploration painting. It was at the beginning of his painting career that he developed the theory of “Superflat.” This theory was based on linking the flat picture planes of traditional Japanese paintings to the lack of any distinction between high and low culture (Lubow). Traditional Japanese painting, like nihonga, was founded in a two-dimensional aesthetic that easily transferred over into the pop anime culture that Murakami was inspired by. These paintings that he produced were a kind of remix, a hybrid of traditional and contemporary art forms in Japan. In his Semiotics for Beginners, David Chandler notes that,

“…the semiotic notion of intertextuality introduced by Julia Kristeva is associated primarily with poststructuralist theorists. Kristeva referred to texts in terms of two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and reader of a text, and a vertical axis, which connects the text to other text…Uniting these two axis are shared codes: every text and every reading depends on prior codes.”

This understanding of codes and intertextuality applies to Murakami’s artwork. By combining the two genres of painting through a corresponding theme, Murakami was able to connect with various nodes within Japanese society including the anime- obsessed generation and the elder population who had experienced Japanese culture prior to the war. In addition to formal qualities, his “Superflat” technique was often enhanced, particularly in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, by an underlying theme of nuclear warfare and its emotional toll on Japanese society. In this sense, he was merging both internal (Japanese) and external (Western) views of how the modern Japanese society was functioning, particularly as an ahistorical state (Lubow, 52).

Takashi Murakami's "Tranquility of the Heart, Torment of the Flesh" at the Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2007 (copyright Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

Takashi Murakami’s “Tranquility of the Heart, Torment of the Flesh” at the Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2007 (copyright Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times)

The Rise of the Multi-Faceted Artist in the International Contemporary Art World

One of the ways that Murakami has built upon Warhol’s legacy is that he has not only blurred the lines of high and low art, but the artist has also redefined what it is to be a post-modern international artist. According to Arthur Lubow in his 2003 piece on Murakami in the New Yorker Magazine, the artist has “moved frictionlessly among his multiple roles as an artist, curator, theorist, product designer, businessman, and celebrity” (50). In this statement, Lubow is referring to the many hats that Murakami appears to wear but the crucial element from that excerpt is not the individual role that he plays, but rather how “frictionlessly” he shifts between them. For Murakami he is an artist, but that title encompasses all of the titles formerly noted. Thus the new contemporary global artist is not only creating hybrid artwork through merging genres and various international identities into his final product, but he is exercising these dynamic qualities in addition to his artwork in an effort to capture the new commercially driven art market.

Murakami’s involvement in art is not only based on his direct involvement with the artwork that he creates, but also that of other artists. In 2005 Murakami served as the curator for the “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture” at the Japan Society (Japan Society). For the exhibition he drew inspiration from Japanese otaku culture that had defined his adolescent years. Murakami curated the exhibition to elaborate upon his theory of “Superflat,” the show serving as the final piece of a trilogy of exhibitions curated by Murakami. The manner in which Murakami addressed the show according to scholarly theory reveals how the artist has moved beyond the structured role of artist to represent the academic character of the new contemporary artist as well. The other key element in this discussion is that the trilogy of exhibitions were presented outside of his native Japan across two continents, demonstrating the effects of globalization in the shaping of today’s artists. In his introduction to Globalization and Contemporary Art (2011), Jonathan Harris states that “awareness of global context and conditions has come to shape how artists conceive, realize, manifest, and attempt to sell and many other ways propagate their works…” (Harris, 8). While Murakami presents artwork that is distinctly Japanese, there are elements of his artwork that can be understood in an international context because “he is reacting to a hyper-stimulated and decontextualized Japan” that appears similar to western cultures, particular American society (Lubow, 77). In the globalized art market, the national borders that previously existed for contemporary artists have been transcended, and with Murakami, he is recognized in Europe, North America, and Japan for his work.

Incorporation of Commercialization into Murakami’s Artistic Production

A lifelong admirer of Warhol’s, Murakami sought in his early career to draw inspiration from Warhol’s process while incorporating his approach within pre-existing Japanese traditions. Murakami founded his own factory, KaiKai KiKi, which is a fusion of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” and the Kano Schools of sixteenth century Japan (Lubow). KaiKai Kiki serves as more than a location of production for Murakami’s art, it is run as a true business. Murakami has over sixty employees between his Tokyo and New York City locations with computerized time cards and training manuals for new hires (Lubow, 51). While Murakami used to produced his own art, he now leaves the physical production to his studio assistants who follow exact instructions written by their master. KaiKai KiKi represents a distinct shift in the production of the modern artwork, where the artist’s hand no longer determines the financial value of the item, but rather the symbolic value that produced through subject matter, execution, and the artist’s association. For Murakami, he has no inhibitions with the commercial nature of his enterprise, an element derived from his upbringing in Japanese society where high art was displayed in department stores and merchandise was given the same symbolic value as high art as a function of habitus (Bourdieu). KaiKai KiKi also serves as a home for seven artists whom Murakami sponsors and mentors. Murakami often travels with his students to international art fairs, an institution that has grown in recognition and prestige over the last two decades.

In 2003 the artist expanded upon his commercial empire with the collaboration with Louis Vuitton to reinvent the traditional Louis Vuitton monogram. His “brightly colored hued logos as well as the artist’s own signature ‘jellyfish eyes’ and smiling cherry blossoms and fruit” covered the Louis Vuitton handbags. The collaboration between the artist and the fashion brand brought in over 300 million dollars in profits for Louis Vuitton. While many highly educated art collectors and critics scoffed at Murakami’s collaboration with low art, for the artist it was one of his “deeply held tenets that demarcations between fine art and popular merchandise are now completely un-Japanese” (Lubow, 50). When the merchandise went to market, so too did Murakami, displaying his flawless paintings of the LV monogram in the Louis Vuitton store rather than in gallery demonstrating how the art has become a hybrid of both a commercial and artistic product.

Takashi Murakami, Eye Love "Superflat", 2003. Screenprint in colors.

Takashi Murakami, Eye Love “Superflat”, 2003. Screenprint in colors.

©Murakami: How the Murakami Integrated Remix Culture into Contemporary Exhibitions

When he collaborates with museums and galleries for solo exhibitions, Murakami makes an effort to display the work in a dynamic manner that enhances the experience. In 2008, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles worked with Murakami to put together a retrospective of over ninety works of art covering Murakami’s entire career. In “©Murakami”, Murakami was “intent on exploring how mass-produced entertainment and consumerism are part of art” and in addition to his works sold Louis Vuitton merchandise in a separate pop up store he specially created for the exhibition, that also sold prints of his works. Beyond the sale of Murakami merchandise, the artist also included multi-media in his exhibition, including a short animation film (another art-form he had started to pursue in 2008). While the animation film was not running, Murakami played an “MTV-style video” Kanye West’s 2008 hit, “Good Morning,”(Vogel) further explaining how the contemporary international artist is not only responsible for the production of his own work, but for the collaboration with his contemporaries in other fields.

Kanye West Music Video of “Good Morning” (2008)

Murakami proves that the global artist is no longer only obligated to create of art in multiple forms, whether it is sculpture, painting, film etc., but that artist is also responsible for combining popular culture into high art production. The combinatoriality that exists in his paintings that merge Japanese tradition with Japanese present is also a key element in his exhibitions and his artwork. According to the head curator of the show, Paul Schimmel, Murakami was able to reach new audiences through “various kinds of cross branding” because of names like Louis Vuitton, Kanye West and eBay (Vogel, “Watch out,Warhol”). In a world generation that is increasingly more connected to popular culture through the use of social media, this dynamic approach to the display of his artwork opens up high art to a new section of society. We are seeing the collision of art and popular culture in extreme that we had not seen prior to Murakami’s emergence in the Western art market.

The Murakami Effect: Commerce and Art in Society Today

In a review in 2003, Todd Zaun stated that “Japan needs more creative types like him who are able to find ways to export Japanese culture all over the world” and it appears that ten years later his request has been answered. While one could argue that Murakami’s presence in both the art scene and popular culture is an anomaly, recent campaigns in the consumer goods market have been modeled off of Murakami’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2003. This can be seen in the Yayoi Kusama collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2012 utilizing her iconic polka dots for handbags and an assortment of other products. The marketing campaign came simultaneously to the retrospective of her works at the Whitney in the summer of that year. While her show is no longer on view, her collaboration with fashion has continued and displayed on the front cover of W magazine. For the front cover of the December 2013 “Art Issue”, Kusama collaborated with Giorgio Armani to create the clothing for the photo shoot staring international heart-throb and well-respected actor, George Clooney (Lee). This year another major cross-collaboration came to fruition between Dom Pérignon and artist Jeff Koons, who created “hot pink chrome limited editions of his Balloon Venus sculpture, inspired by a paleolithic fertility figurine” (Kolesnikov-Jessop). The pink figure holds a bottle of 2003 Dom Pérignon Rosé that is being sold for about 15,000 euros. The rise of the cross-collaboration between artist and luxury branding was established not only as a means of profit by Murakami when he first worked with Louis Vuitton in 2003, but his collaboration broke down barriers so that it was not only artists who could recreate commerce, but that commerce could re-create art.



Takashi Murakami led the charge for the integration of remix culture into art in the 1990s and the 2000s. His art, distinctly Japanese in theme, was able to transcend the walls of the Japanese society. The cultural encyclopedia that Murakami uses in reference to his artwork is one that is distinctly Japanese, but his exposure to other cultures through the power of globalization in the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first permitted him to use his remix techniques (combining art-forms, cultures, identities, technologies) so that his artwork could be understood across international symbolic systems and codes. Murakami has illustrated to artists around the world the power (both symbolically and financially) of combining artistic and consumer genres. Prior to the artist’s rise to fame, the dialog between the art and consumer culture was a one way street (art discussing consumer culture), but with new barriers broken, one decade into the twenty-first century Murakami’s method of combinatoriality is not only accepted by both the art world and popular culture, but it is expected.



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Murakami, Takashi, Paul Schimmel and Dick Hebdige. © Murakami. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007. Print.

Vogel, Carol. “The Warhol of Japan Pours Ritual Tea in a Zen Moment.” The New York Times, 7 May. 2007: Print.

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Werner, Paul. Museum, Inc.. Chicago, Ill.: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2005. Print.

Zaun, Todd. “The Andy Warhol of Japan.” Far Eastern Economic Review, 166. 39 (2003): 35. ProQuest. Print.



Cyborgs, the monsters of the 21st Century.

Estefanía Tocado Orviz


Monsters, as hybrid and mixed identities of the self, have long generated ambiguity and anxieties in their social context (Irvine).  Generally, monstrosity over the centuries has been utilized as an instrument to dismantle authoritative discourses of political, sexual, and social nature.  Andrew Smith, who studies ghosts stories and the role of monstrosity in 19th century American and British literature, affirms in his book Gothic Literature that there was an important change in the treatment of monsters and ghosts within the field of gothic writing around 1790-1890.  Up to that point monsters had been represented as externally manifested sources of danger, but with the appearance of Frankenstein a new monster had emerged, one in which “the monster lived in you,” installing the evil in the human body.  This miscreation, now an integral part of the self, also invaded private spaces such as the home as well as other sacred spaces that the individual, to that moment, had thought to be safe (Smith).

Similarly, in the 21st Century cyborgs, half human and half technological machines have been the focal point where human concerns about the fear of technological agency and sexual representation have been portrayed.  According to Donna Haraway a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.  Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction a world-changing fiction (117).  As Haraway states, cyborgs are social as well as fictional entities and, therefore, they condense the image of both the imagination and the material reality (118).  Moreover, cyborgs, in the same way that monsters did in the 19th century, are the reflection of material and ontological cultural anxieties of their time.

The purpose of my essay is to analyze how technological hybridization incarnated in cyborgs projects the social anxieties and repressed sexual desires through their culturally hybridized representation of the postmodern society.  These anxieties are, in the most part, a sign of the cultural, political, and social traumas as well as sexual fantasies of their historical period.  I would specifically like to use three films as case studies:  Cronos (1993) that deals with issues of vampirism and cyborgs in contemporary Mexico, Matrix (1999) by Andy and Larry Wachowski which makes us question reality, hyperreality, simulacra, and simulation of human life in a world where machines have taken over human beings at the turn of the millennium, and Avatar (2009) by James Cameron which immerses the audience into the virtual world of the Na’Vi culture, a non-technological world that has been threatened by the arrival of a highly machine based human world.

Sigmund Freud asserts in his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” that the resistance of the conscious and the unconscious ego operates under the sway of the pleasure principle:  it seeks to avoid the unpleasure which would be produced by the liberation of the repressed (172).  Therefore, according to Freud, the patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him and that forces him to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of remembering it as something belonging to the past.  These reproductions, which emerge with such unwished for exactitude, always have as their subject some portion of infantile sexual desire (171).  This need to repeat and experience one more time a traumatic event of the past is known as “the return of the repressed” and, in many cases, ghosts, monsters, and cyborgs have been an incarnation of the unconscious projections of societies hidden fears as well as repressed sexual desires.

As Freud also asserts in his book Civilization and Discontent, society has forced the individual to repress their sexual libido in order to enter into civilized society, but those hidden primitive sexual impulses come to light through our unconscious (Felluga).  As Freud asserts “we believe that civilization is to a large extent being constantly created anew, since each individual who makes a fresh entry into human society repeats this sacrifice of instinctual satisfaction for the benefit of the whole community” (qtd. in Felluga).  Therefore, the unconscious finds a way out to these repressed impulses through dreams, literature, and fantasy…  (Felluga).  It is precisely through fantasy and the literary and media world that society has channeled these desires towards vampires, monsters, and cyborgs as instruments to deal with these socially repressed sexual impulses and as a platform to collectively project all these fantasized libidinal desires, in many cases turning them into fetishes.

Cronos:  The Vampirised Cyborg,Transnationality, and Hybrid Cultures

This film introduces the audience to the Cronos device through a short story of the alchemist who created the machine.  In 1536, Uberto Fulcanelli was fleeing from the Inquisition and arrived in Verazcruz, Mexico.  After his arrival and with the help of the Viceroy, he was granted the opportunity to invent a device that will provide immortality to its owner.  Uberto hid the device inside the statue of an angel.  In 1937, 400 years later, Uberto reappears as a dead vampire under the vault of a building that collapsed.  His belongings were sold in a public auction and ended up in the hands of Jesús Gris, the protagonist.  As an allegory of the future of the main character, the film uses the metafictive biographical story of Fulcanelli as a way to advise the audience about the dangers of the Cronos device (shaped as an insect with several sharp metal shavings that look like bee stings, these penetrate the skin in search of blood) in his quest for immortality.

As soon as Jesús Gris is bitten by Cronos, he starts experiencing all of the symptoms related to vampirism:  the first after he was penetrated by the device, he ate raw meat from his refrigerator in the middle of the night after he had inserted the device into his chest becoming a cyborg.  That night, paradoxically, occurs during Christmas time as a metaphor of the new postmodern messiah, introducing an embedded Christian component to the movie´s storyline.  Progressively, as he starts transforming himself into a vampire, he suffers from light disruption and other common symptoms associated with vampires.  However, it is interesting to point out that he looks younger, more sexually virile, and his physical appearance improves.  Despite his efforts to repress his need for human blood, he succumbs to his desires.

As Geoffrey Kantaris asserts:  “Vampires and cyborgs are the prototype of the modernist and postmodernist use of these figures encoding multiple fears about hybridization, racial-cum-sexual pollution, the corruption of the virginal ‘nature,’ and the transfusion of body into simulacrum – the latter being one of the reasons why the vampire has had such cinematic resonance” (Kantaris 2).  As vampires and cyborgs incarnate the projection of hidden fears of hybridization and repressed sexuality, it is interesting to note that in the film the character of Jesús Gris, after being bitten by the Cronos device, becomes a cyborg immediately, later on a vampire, and finally a zombie.  Jesús Gris represents the cultural fear of the loss of masculinity and sexual virility.  As he becomes addicted to the Cronos device, he feels younger and more sexually satisfying to his wife.  Ironically, his counterpart character, Dieter de la Guardia, an old sick man who lives thanks to a highly technologized room with a number of machines that keep him alive, whose obsession for acquiring the device is to gain immortality and, therefore, to turn into a vampire, underlines the current cultural concerns with the use of cyborgs in the medical field.  Moreover, as a vampire he would bite his victims to suck their blood as a metaphor of sexual intercourse as Jesús does and, in this case, neither Jesús nor Dieter would make any distinction of gender regarding their potential victims, pointing out issues of homosexuality or bisexuality.

As incarnated by Jesús Gris, a fallen messiah, issues of religion, hidden sexuality, and life extension (immortality) are portrayed in the film as some of the main collective anxieties of postmodern society.  These could also be related to a transnational apprehension of our current society with issues of time, gender as a social construction, fears of technology agency, and territoriality of urban space[i].  In reference to this last issue, the fact that the film setting is in Mexico City has been argued as being presented as a globalized technological society as well as a hybridized city.  It could be claimed that this is presented to the audience through a constant code switching between Spanish and English, cross-cultural references to Argentinian culture through Tango dancing and the main actor´s nationality, Federico Luppi (who has a noticeable Buenos Aires accent), streets signs in Russian, and the vampire machine brought from the Old World to the New World by an Italian alchemist (The Ghost Smith 2).  This plays as an uncanny allegory of the highly hybridized Mexican culture, as Paul Julian asserts, as well as the close ties between the Latin American world, particularly Mexico, and the United States, as can be seen in the mixture of American and Latin American actors that integrate the main cast, providing in this way a transcultural and transnational background to the movie.[ii]

Matrix:  The Hyperreal Aestheticized Cyborg

The main character of the movie, Neo (the newcomer and messianic character), is rescued from his cyborg[iii] enslaved life as a human electric power generator for the machine ruled world by Morpheus´ team including the woman Trinity (her name is undeniably embedded with Christian connotation).  As a result we learn that there are two worlds:  the so called “real” world, and the “virtual” world in which humans were defeated and enslaved by intelligent machines.  The humans are enslaved to provide electric power with their own bodies to sustain the cybernetic world[iv].  As the film progresses, Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus (the mythological Greek god of dreams) live in the real world but access the virtual world[v], called “The Matrix,”[vi] in which they fight against Agent Smith and a number of other machines who are trying to prevent them from succeeding in their insurgence.  Morpheus’ team takes Neo to the Oracle to find out if he is the chosen One to lead the insurrection, but the Oracle advises him that he is not the One.  At the end of the film when Neo dies in the virtual world and therefore the real world, Trinity kisses him in the real world and grants him new life in both worlds[vii].  The number of literary, philosophical, and media references are numerous, but it is worth citing some such as Alice in Wonderland[viii], Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, the Old Testament (Nebuchadnezzar), Nietzsche’s ideas on nihilism, and Jean Baudrillard´s Simulation and Simulacra.  Drawing on this last reference, the idea of living in a simulated reality serves as a utopian projection (the same way it functions in Avatar) as a parallel platform in which to forecast the cultural anxieties of controlling technological devices, the virtual “internet-based” world, and how to regulate it from the “reality world.”  According to Baudrillard:  “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these.  It no longer needs to be rational because it no longer measures itself against either an ideal or negative instance.  It is no longer anything but operational.  In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelops it anymore.  It is the hyperreal, produced from the radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (2).  If reality does not exist, as the Matrix tells us, and it can be produced and reproduced an infinite number of times, the phenomenological questions of what is reality and how human senses perceive them comes into debate.  As an ongoing debate for the last centuries[ix], the Matrix, and the figure of a cybernetic figure like Neo, promotes this idea of a cyborg who easily traverses all these levels of reality and is aware that he has been freed from his life under the machines’ rule.   His constant entries into and exits from these analogous worlds causes him and the audience simultaneous uncanny moments in which the familiar becomes unfamiliar and vice versa.  It is also remarkable that the figure of Neo is a highly aestheticized, attractive, good looking, and futuristically dressed in leather cyborg (incarnated by half English half Chinese-Hawaiian Keanu Reeves).

The fetishistic sadomasochistic leather attire brings to light other culturally significant concerns as a global collectivity.  When looking at Freud´s theories about the repression of the libidinal sexual desires, he affirms that individuals that have not successfully passed the oral-phase in surpassing their previous “love-objects” or “objects-cathexes” become fixated with these libido objects or are driven to abnormal reaction-formations or substitute-formations.  One of the possibilities to those that remain fixated on earlier libido objects is perversion in which the individual pursues repressed desires and follows his alternative sexual practices such as the sodomists or the sado-masochists (Felluga).  In a more general context it could be argued that the aesthetization of Neo as a sexy cyborg with a sadomasochist hint alludes to the actual repressed sexual desires that have culturally been repressed when entering civilized society.  However, all these non-normative and socially unacceptable practices are redirected to a cybernetic character such as Neo, converting it into an approved and attractive fetishistic sexual object that calls to all these unconscious inhibited desires in a traditionally and communally adequate manner.

In regards to this matter, the character of Trinity as well as Neo´s is close to presenting a quite androgynous appearance.  The blurring boundaries of the culturally constructed image of the masculine and the feminine are deconstructed in these two characters.  Trinity plays a dominant role in their love relationship which is normally attributed to the man, and Neo is more passive which is traditionally related to the woman according to Hélène Cixous (579).  Nevertheless, this image, from my perspective, corresponds to the dismantling of culturally constructed roles attributed to men and women as argued by Butler.  This is a reflection of the current cultural and social redefinition of the lack of correlation between sex and gender as Butler affirms, but also with the postmodern need to escape fixed identities.  As Frederic Jameson defends, in postmodern society the individual lives in a “perpetual present” that is clearly a sign of the ongoing frenetic changes of our current society and the need to dismantle traditional concepts of temporality and gender (29).

Avatar:  Cyborgs as an Extra-Terrestrial Aboriginal Hybrid Species

This film starts in 2154 with the arrival of a unit of men who are going to the planet Pandora.  The purpose of their trip is to obtain some of the natural resource of this planet.  However, in order to do so they had to create an individual avatar (a hybrid species produced with human DNA and indigenous Na´Vi DNA) that would allow them to breath and work in that biosphere (Wikipedia).  As the film progresses, the protagonist Jake Sully (who is in a wheelchair and was only asked to participate after his brother Tommy was killed) realizes about the destruction and exploitation that Colonel Quiaritch[x] and the human beings have caused, and allies himself with the Na´Vi after meeting his later partner Neytiri.  As it is a widely well-known plot, Jake fights against the human troops to preserve the Na´Vi culture and land, an indigenous people who live very attached to their mother land and whose deity Eywa is also a mother figure.  Clearly, the polarization of the masculinity and femininity is reinforced in the figure of Captain Quaritch, a military white man and his highly technological men in opposition to the feminine, natural, blue-raced, and non technological world of the Na´Vi, represented in the figure of Eywa, the goddess of the mother land.

Therefore, one of the main issues of the film arises since the very beginning, where the repressed femininity and the imposition of a very masculine society remind us of the duality created by the colonizer and the colonized.  Moreover, it also reminds us of Butler’s affirmations about how gender is a social construction and how these feminine and masculine attributes are also a product of a cultural and discursive normativity (11). It is also interesting to regard the fact that the avatars are, despite their reptilian tail, a highly-sexualized and beautifully sculptured half naked bodies that project present anxieties with physical appearance, the body, and also the culturally constructed perception of the canon of physical and sexually attractive bodies.

A second major anxiety related to gender issues and repressed sexuality is that of imperialism.  In the majority of cases when looking at Western history and the field of post-colonial studies, the invader has always been associated with male attributes and the indigenous people to female features.  As Steve Norton affirms, Avatar´s latent desire is the possession of an archaic feminine-primitive, which is constructed upon an Oedipal drama:  a controlling father, Colonel Quaritch, the insubordinate son, Jake, and the feminine object of desire, Neytiri (133).  This symbolic triangle points out the underlying issues of authoritative discourses that have to be dismantled by promoting a rebellion of the indigenous people and with the new leader, Jake.

There are also other remarkable current cultural angsts that are latent in this film besides that of imperialism and gender construction.  There are clear references to racism and the vision of the primitive as infantile and the civilized as mature (Norton 134).  Commonly, indigenous tribes have been associated with Native Americans in the United States context, manifesting old racial tensions.  All of these issues are introduced thanks to the projection of a utopian and idealized environment of the Na´Vi where all these concerns are disguised in a fictitious world where unresolved anxieties are set free from the normative diegetic reality of the film.  There are also issues of territoriality and space, reinforced with the idea of a highly technological society that has used machinery for non-moral purposes, being the epitome of human moral degradation.  Comparisons can be drawn between the invasions of Pandora for natural resources and the pillaging of American Indians enclosed reservations as well as the deforestation and expulsion of indigenous people by multinational companies in the Brazilian Amazon forest.

In opposition to the negative vision of the type of cyborg that Colonel Quaritch incarnates, the film  promotes a positive vision of another type of cyborg, one that is created as a hybrid entity, half human and half Na´Vi, that uses technology for morally acceptable scientific purposes.  The avatars, like Jake, are connected through a computer in order to access their avatar Na´Vi self.  Hybrid identities represent the declining label of national identity in the postmodern world.  According to Stuart Hall, a possible consequence of the globalization of cultural identities is the rise of new identities of hybridity that are taking place and which are diminishing the idea of national identities as we understood until recently (619).  In reference to Hall, it is also relevant that there is dissolution of the self or a loss of the stable self, called dislocation or de-centering of the subject, incarnated in the figure of Jake who is able to fully integrate into the indigenous environment creating a new self (597).  When the film ends, Jake, now a member of the Na´Vi community, asserts the globalized foundations of our present society and, at the same time, reminds us of the hybrid grounds of all nations.


As seen in these three films, the cyborg represents in a number of different ways in which social anxieties of diverse natures are articulated under the half machine and half human body of the cyborg.  The similarities drawn between cyborgs and vampires are clearly stated in Cronos, and allegorically also in Matrix as well as the idea of their protagonists being fallen messiahs.  Both films share also the idea of the cybernetic seed as incarnated by a mechanized insect, maybe as an undergoing cultural phobia against these species.  Also cyborgs, seen as alien creatures connected to their indigenous origins and to their motherland, recapture the idea of an illusory world in which the mistakes committed by capitalist society and its relationship to natural resources and ecology are questioned.  As a way to come to terms with our mistakes, Western society has created these mechanisms by which we identify and rework haunting ghosts that keep culturally stalking us, projecting them into cyborgs.  The fears of technological agency and robotic intelligence in the contemporary world underline the repressed sexual libidinal desires articulated in the hybridization of human species and robots, and at the same time questions, as it happened in 19th century gothic literature, how to control this integral part of the self that cyborgs represent in our current society.


Works Cited

Avatar. Dir. Jame Cameron. Perf. Sam Worhtington, Zoë Saldana, Steve Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, and Sigourney Weaver. Twentieth Century Fox, 2009.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Cultural Hybridity, Dialogic and Remix Culture, Art, Music, Photography, Film, Technology. Georgetown U. 2005-2013. Web. 13 December 2013.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York-London: Routledge Classics, 2006.

Cixous, Hélène. “Sorties.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Massachussets-Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. 578-584.

Cronos. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Margarita Isabel, and Tamara Shanath. Producciones Iguana and Ventana Films, 1993.

Felluga, Dino. Introduction to Sigmund Freud: Modules on the Unconscious. Purdue U. 2002. Web. 12 December 2013.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. New York-London: Norton, 2010.

—. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Massachussets-Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. 168-174.

—. “The Uncanny.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Massachussets-Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. 154-167.

Hall, Stuart. “The Question of Cultural Identity.” Stuart Hall, David Held, Don Hubert, and Kenneth Thompson, Eds. Modernity An Introduction to Modern Sciences. Oxford, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996. 596-601,611-623.

Irvine, Martin. “Sigmund Freud: Civilization and Its Discontents.” Cultural Hybridity, Dialogic and Remix Culture, Art, Music, Photography, Film, Technology. Georgetown U. 2005-2013. Web. 11 December 2013.

Haraway, Donna. “ A Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” Cultural Hybridity, Dialogic and Remix Culture, Art, Music, Photography, Film, Technology. Georgetown U. 2005-2013. Web. 13 December 2013.

Kantaris, Geoffrey. “Between Dolls, Vampires, and Cyborgs:  Recursive Bodies in Mexican Urban Cinema.” 1998. Web. 11 December 2013.

Matrix. Dir. The Wachowski Brothers. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Wealing, and Joe Pantoliano. Warner Brothers, 1999.

Norton, Steve. “How the Other Is Not Allowed to Be; Elision and Condensation in Avatar.” Arizona Quarterly 69. 2 (2013): 131-144.

Smith, Andrew. “Hidden Identities: Ghosts.” Edinburgh Critical Guides to Literature: Gothic Literature. Edinburg: Edinburgh UP, 2007. 15 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

Smith, Paul Julian. “Ghost of the Civil Dead.” BFI Sight and Sound, December 2001. Web 12 December 2013.

Wikipedia Contributors. “Avatar.” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 13 December 2013.

—. “Cronos.” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 11 December 2013.

—. “Matrix.” Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Web. 14 December 2013.


[i]Néstor García Canclini focuses on the local-global dialectic where Mexico City is a paradigm of the Latin American urbanized and globalized mega city.  In a mega city local communities can only exist in fragmented isolation from an unknowable, unnarratable, unmappable whole (qtd. in Kantaris 2).

[ii] Kantaris uses the term “linguistic hybridization” when referring to the constant code switching from English to Spanish and vice versa (14).

[iii] As seen in Cronos, an insect like machine is inserted in the human body to create a cyborg.

[iv] The cyborgs are the new vampires, they drink the power of humans.  In Cronos, an earlier version of the cyborg is presented in the character of Jesús Gris, one who still drinks human blood.

[v] The telephone serves as a means to communicate between the two worlds.

[vi] Interestingly, the term “matrix” is similar to the Spanish word “matriz” that means “womb.”  It can be argued that machines make humans a power source womb-like generator.  Humans are stored in a womb like facility and are the energy providers that allow the cyborgs to live.  They function as a womb to the matrix world.

[vii] There is direct intertextual / intermedial reference in this scene to the fairy tale “The Sleeping Beauty.”  However, in this case the gender roles are changed, Trinity kisses Neo, dismantling in this way the traditional cultural expectations about gender performance.

[viii] The white rabbit that Alice follows to Wonderland is referenced when Morpheus types on Neo´s screen to “Follow the White Rabbit.”  This is a clue that Neo sees on the arm of a girl at his door.  He follows the girl to a club where he first meets Trinity.

[ix] The idea of life as a dream related to skepticism and determinism versus free will is a constant concern in 17th century Spanish Golden Age literature, especially in the author Calderón de la Barca and his theatrical play:  Life is a Dream (1635).

[x] Colonel Quaritch cyborg is a gigantic robot that he controls and uses to fight the Na’Vi.

Contemporary resistance to the hybrid of low and high art:
the case study of criticisms on operatic pop

Aena Cho


In this era of postmodernism, the distinction between “low” and “high” cultures and art has become increasingly blurred. Beginning with the pop art movement of the 1950s, artists such as Andy Warhol began the process of breaking down the barriers between high and low art. These artists pioneered the use of popular imagery in artwork; artists used comic book images, Campbell’s Soup cans, Spam, fast food, gas stations, celebrities, mass media, etc. Today, many artists continue to draw upon popular culture as a source for their imagery and artistic ideas. For example, Jeff Koons has been criticized for making art that is often described as “kitschy,” a contradiction in terms for modernists. Takasi Murakami, a Japanese postmodernist, is also well-known for combining low and high art together to create anime images, manga, high couture, and 19th century Japanese Nihon-ga paintings. Such a mixture of “low” and “high” cultures is not exceptional in the world of music. It has become more common and accepted that many classical and pop musicians cross over from their own musical genres to each other’s, often giving rise to a new hybrid genre during the process. However, although the hybrid of culture and art is now everywhere, not everyone welcomes or celebrates the hybridity of low and high art and culture. Much of the crossover or hybrid art or music still tends to be devalued and described only as “unconventional,” “experimental “or “exotic.” Further, this art often faces harsh criticism. This paper is to examine such conservative and traditional viewpoints toward hybrid art in contemporary culture using a specific case regarding the criticism of opera pop singers. I will delve into the specific case of the controversy over the popularity of Katherine Jenkins and Il Divo, musicians of a new hybrid genre of operatic pop – the mix of the musical and stylistic elements of pop music and classical opera.


Operatic pop

Operatic pop, or popera, is a specific sub-genre of classical crossover, a hybrid genre that hovers between classical and popular music, targeted at fans of both types of music. It refers to both classically trained opera singers who sing popular songs, show tunes, or holiday songs as well as pop stars who sing pop songs in an operatic singing style. This new genre was first developed by Kimera, a South Korean-born singer trained in classical opera singing, via her debut single “The Lost Opera” (1985), which consisted of a medley of opera arias set to a mid-80’s form of disco and High N-R-G beats (Wikipedia). Since then, operatic pop, as well as other types of classical crossover genres, has become very popular. Following the success of Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye,” pop singers who were not originally trained in classical opera singing, including Charlotte Church and Russell Watson, started flooding the classical charts and official classical awards ceremonies.

Katherine Jenkins

Katherine Jenkins is a popular Welsh operatic pop singer who performs across a spectrum of operatic arias, popular songs, musical theatre, and hymns. She was educated and began her singing career in choirs and TV show programs, rather than in the field of classical opera. Six out of seven of her albums reached number one on the UK classical charts between 2004 and 2008, and she sold more than 4 million albums (Wikipedia). After her first album, Premiere, she became the first British classical crossover artist to have two number-one albums in the same year (Wikipedia).


Habanera from Carmen by Jenkins:

Habanera from Carmen by a Classical opera singer, Elina Garanca:

Bruno Mars’ Talking to the Moon by Jenkins:

Il Divo

Il Divo is an English multinational operatic pop vocal group created by music manager Simon Cowell. The group consists of French pop singer Sébastien Izambard, Spanish baritone Carlos Marín, American tenor David Miller, and Swiss tenor Urs Bühler. To date, they have sold more than 26 million albums worldwide (Wikipedia).

il divo

My Way by Il Divo:


Essentialism and elitism in the genre of classical opera singing

One of Jenkins’ most commonly heard criticisms has to do with her lack of “authenticity,” or operatic quality in her voice (Muldowney, 2011).  According to a number of critics, without operatic authenticity, operatic pop cannot be considered operatic or called a hybrid with opera (Muldowney, 2011).  Indeed, the issue of inauthenticity in art has been addressed in almost every discussion or criticism on any postmodern hybrid genre of art; this undeniably reflects essentialist notions of artistic value of art and music. As in philosophy, politics, sociology, and other types of art, essentialism in music refers to the idea that anything has a certain quality to it, or an essence that exists (Swonson, 2010). It is by this very essence – or by having these certain qualities – that a piece of music can be classified as being part of a specific genre of music.  In other words, if a certain piece of music does not possess these qualities, then it cannot be considered a part of that specific genre. Surely, this is one of the traditional, conservative views on art that postmodern artists have argued against as they believe that no artwork or genre of art has a fixed, essential, or permanent identity (Hall, 1996; 598).

The notion of ‘authenticity’ in the world of classical music, particularly with regard to vocal music, does not necessarily mean innate, fixed characteristics or essential quality of the genre that can be identified from an objective standard. The singing style referred to as operatic or classical singing is characterized by a greatly extended range, especially at the top of the voice, and increased volume and projection; since a voice’s capacity of projection, amplification, natural vibration, and volume is usually evaluated from the points of view of individual audience members, it is a very subjective and relative thing to determine if a voice has such capacity, operatic quality (Arizona Opera).  Jenkins is often criticized for just mimicking “operatic voice” with a lack of natural vibration and comparatively short breaths compared to “real” classical singers (Hunter, 2010).  According to James Hunter, a music critic, her voice “lacks depth of sound, technique and range; [she] is really just a jumped-up pop singer; she has a ‘small voice’, which means there is no power or dynamic range in the voice” (Hunter, 2010). Another critic, Steve Silverman asserts that “[she] hasn’t got the voice or the technique to sing opera” and particularly points out that her “problems stem from the manufactured, plummy tone she employs in an attempt to sound more ‘operatic’” (Silverman, 2012).  Of course, since there is no objective, standardized criteria for determining whether a singer’s voice is “genuinely operatic,” such critiques and scorn regarding Jenkins are merely the subjective opinions of classical music fans. More specifically, many of the criticisms on operatic pop are based on comparisons between those singers and other typical classical singers; many classical music fans tend to look down on operatic pop just because the singers are less trained in classical opera and are regarded as less talented than classical singers (Harper-Scott, 2012). In other words, these people undervalue or do not recognize the artistic values or merits of the singers and their music just because they are thought to be relatively less than those of classical singers. As such, based on these points of view, music is what Stuart Hall identifies as “sociological subject matter” – whose identity, authenticity, and value are “formed in relation to ‘significant others’” (Hall, 1996; 597). Indeed, this perspective on musical value conflicts with the postmodernism perspective which sees art and music as “post-modern subject” whose value and identity can be assumed and interpreted freely since they are “not fixed, essential, or permanent” (Hall, 1996; 598).

The way of implying  values of art or music in relation to “significant others” – classical singing in the case of evaluating that of operatic pop – is indeed the very essence of elitism in art and music which makes a clear distinction between “higher” and “lower” art forms according to their relatively assumed artistic values and/or the relative levels of the audience’s economic and social classes. It is obvious that people with such an elitist notion of hierarchical musical value find operatic pop – in which the singers from “lower music” trespass on to the “higher music” – offensive, accusing the singers of “diluting” classical opera (Plescher, 2013). Many classical music fans’ harsh criticism of Jenkins show that well; [the fans] “just feel very, very insulted by the woman whose talent is as small as the chip on her shoulder is large, and who enriches herself by vandalizing this most complex and demanding of the performing arts” (Silverman, 2012).  Indeed, such criticism of Jenkins, as well as of many other operatic pop singers, for having an “inauthentic,” “non-operatic” voice reflects the contemporary essentialist and elitist view conflicting with the celebration of postmodern hybridisms in art and music.

Operatic pop as commodification, industrial production of classical opera

Authenticity or value in art from the elitist perspective does not only mean the essential quality of a certain genre of art but also “purity” of the art; high art with high value should be only for the sake of the art alone, and it should not serve other utilities or functions. This is surely another way of making a distinction between high art, “fine art,” and low art, “craft.”  The “pure” aesthetic value of fine art has been devalued by many contemporary postmodern artists through commercializing not only their artwork but also existing works of “high art.” As largely driven by the goal of achieving fame and increasing profits, for example, Salvador Dali presented his work via advertisements and product displays, and Andy Warhol reproduced classical paintings as mass-produced poster prints. Basically, they tried to make art accessible to ordinary people. As Andy Warhol said, “If you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.” Such attempts to commodify and thus popularize art ultimately intend to deconstruct the art elitist or purist notion of authenticity, essential quality of art. Indeed, in this era of postmodernism, capitalism and consumerism, the distinction between fine art and commercial art is increasingly disappearing. Frederic Jameson has noted, “aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally” (Jameson, 1991).

In the world of music, pop music is generally recognized as commercially-oriented as compared to classical music; it is primarily designed to entertain the masses and generate profits at the same time rather than to elicit musical appreciation. In between such commercial pop music and “pure” classical music, operatic pop, the hybrid of the two, is also fundamentally commercial in its nature as it is basically attempts to tailor opera music or the elements (although many classical purists insist that the “operatic” elements in operatic pop music are not operatic) to the tastes of the mainstream masses; in other words, it “commodifies” the classical opera, high, exclusive genre of music, as a mass product. While the fans of operatic pop appreciate the musicians for providing more enjoyable opera music – which is more familiar and easier to listen to than classical opera yet still has a sense of operatic grandeur – many classical purists or elitists regard the musicians’ crossover as just “branching out” to broaden their target audience, to gain more profit. Moreover, many critics point out that as the operatic pop has grown in popularity and such branching out has become more systemic and strategic, commodified products of musical industries are specifically tailored to the taste of the target audience that prefers a  “lite version” of classical music (Ginsberg, 2006).

Il Divo, an English operatic pop vocal group, is among the operatic pop musicians often recognized by critics as “commercial,” with a “corporate product [whose] music originates in the corporate boardroom” (Hunter, 2006). Indeed, they are a true hybrid form of entertainment product fused with sex appeal, stage persona of the good-looking singers in tuxedos, acting (choreographed smiles and poses), film (in music videos), and publicity. As all these are “designed and manufactured” by Simon Cowell, a music producer, some harsh critics even call them “Cowell’s Muppet” (Ginsberg, 2006). Moreover, “operatic sound” in the music itself is produced by the strategically crafted structure employed in each of the songs. In fact, it is more like a formula. First, each song begins with a singer taking a couple lines on his own with choreographed facial expressions full of melancholy; this definitely comes from the intro part of popular boy band music. Then, all the singers sing together in the elevated chorus and reach to a grand operatic climax. The chorus section usually starts off with the lead of David Miller, who is acknowledged by many classical critics as the only member of the group who can project an operatic voice similar to that of “real” classical singers. All the added voices amplify and vibrate enough to sound like powerful operatic voices. Some serious critics call such mechanized production of operatic sound “canned music” and refer to this mix of pop and classical musical and stylistic elements as “putting a mini-skirt on the Mona Lisa” (Amorosi, 2009).

Operatic pop as hyberreal simulacrum of classical opera

Many classical purists’ arguments regarding the lack of authenticity and purity of operatic pop and resistance to the popularity of operatic pop ultimately reflect the concern for the prevalence of simulacra and simulation, a pessimistic view on postmodernism art, culture and society. The idea of simulacra and simulation was first proposed by Jean Baudrillard and has been further discussed and developed by many other theorists on postmodernism.  In his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson asserts that postmodernity has transformed the historical past into a series of emptied-out stylizations, pastiche, which can then be commodified and consumed. People will lose “the past as ‘referent’ finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts” (Jameson, 1991); they can no longer understand the art of past except as a repository of genres, styles, and codes ready for commodification. Based on Jameson’s perspective, simulacra is the cultural artifacts, signs, or artworks detached from the history and original meaning, or it is the copies of originals that have just been created only for the purpose of becoming mass-produced. As simulacrum have become more prevalent in our culture and society, many people have become concerned that they will threaten the differences that have existed between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’.

Many classical music purists insistence on a clear distinctions between classical opera and operatic pop – higher and lower forms of music – implies that they, in fact, perceive operatic pop not only as another new hybrid genre derived from classical opera but also as its simulacrum, which might displace it in the end. These days, not only pop musicians but also many classical opera singers, such as Renee Fleming or Su mi Cho, have become interested in the new genre, moving back and forth in both their own classical field and the pop field; they are often interchangeably called opera or popera singers. Due to the higher profitability in and growing audience preference for operatic pop, today, operatic pop can indeed be seen and heard everywhere from opera houses and concert halls to TV shows. With regard  to such increasing popularity of operatic pop, the much deeper, more troubling problem for many classical purists is that operatic pop  – the hybrid of pop and classical opera without the essence of the classical opera, “fake version of opera” (Ginsberg, 2006) – might eventually supersede the higher, purer classical opera, the original. According to some serious classical purist critics on Il Divo, Il Divo “highlights the dangers of the whole idea of crossover music” as they attract “more young audiences to the lite, fake version of opera,” which confuses them about what real opera is or causes them to perhaps ignore the opera (Ginsberg, 2006). This perspective regards operatic pop as a depthless, superficial simulacrum of classical opera that has the possibility of becoming truth in its own right: the hyperreal.


Although hybridity has become an increasingly widely acknowledged aesthetic and ethical standard in our culture, art, and society, some people reject it because they fear that something is lost in the blending of previously distinct traditions. In the case of the hybrid of the ‘high’ culture from traditional, classical, and privileged groups of people and popular, mainstream ‘low’ culture, many people still try to secure the alleged prestigious status and esteem of the high culture. As demonstrated in my analysis on the current resistance toward operatic pop, such efforts are presented as the residual distinctions between ‘authentic’ and ‘non-authentic’ art, fine art and entertainment or commercial art, and the real and the non-real or simulacrum. This illustrates how diverse or even opposing values, ideologies, and interests are shaping and constituting our art and cultural movements and discourses, with none of them being the absolute dominant cultural force.


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Ginsberg, David. Il Divo: Simon Says Opera, but the Ear Says Awful. The           Washington Post. Feb. 5, 2006. <>

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Capturing time: reproduciblity, the real, and photography

Capturing time: reproduciblity, the real, and photography

Vittoria Somaschini


Sally Mann, Family Pictures, #3


As we have worked through various themes throughout the course of the semester that encompassed varying art movements such as pop art and postmodernism, concepts of appropriation, remix culture, and globalization, one of the topics that I have been most drawn to is photography, and questions of its ability to capture and reproduce moments in time and history. Photography literally means to draw with light from the Greek, photo meaning light and graph, meaning to draw. The photograph initially developed on monochrome plates using a variety of noxious chemicals to produce the image and as it has moved forward with technological, it went from black and white to color, and now to the wild world of digital image production.

Around 1800, the first attempts of photography are recorded as Thomas Wedgewood discovers the camera obscura, however, it is not until 1827 that the first recorded photograph comes into existence by French inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The inception of the photograph began as a method to capture moments of culture importance in a person’s life, such as birth, marriage, and death. Much in the way traditional painted portrait sought to capture similar moments, the photograph was able to do so in a fair quicker and easier way. It’s popularity rose in the mid-1800’s and its uses moved from strictly capturing families but also as a mode to capture history. Technological advances brought he advent of digital photography in 1969 at AT&T Bell Labs, however, it was not until 1975 that Kodak develops it’s Bayer filter. We see kodak as the front runner of photography, as they release campaigns to encourage users to produce “Kodak moments”. In 1992, the first digital photo, by Tim Berners-Lee was published to the internet, and since there has been a clear movement to archive photographs and make them all digital, both out of preservation, and out of the goal of sharing.  Moving forward into the age of the digital, the photograph has made leaps and bounds as companies such as Sony in the 1980’s released the first handheld personal camera, as that the act of photographing the world was no longer a form of art but rather part of the mundane. Today, they are ever more present as most handheld devices – outside of the actual digital camera – such as a mobile phone or even the iPod come equipped with cameras. .

I would like to continue exploring photography and examine photographs and their relation to reality, time, and reproducibility in the digital era. If we look at a photographer such as Hiroshi Sugimoto, what do his photographs tell us about the ability of the very medium to capture a moment of time? Do high levels of aperture equate a photo that captures reality or is it a question of traditional versus non-digital photography as we see with Sally Mann? Does living in the digital age redefine what it means to produce and  reproduce an image? Can a digital image be reproduced as it’s ‘original’ version is merely a copy?  Do the codes of the image move forward or have cyclical nature looking backwards in history to reproduce a forgotten moment?

To work through some of these questions, I will be using the work of theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Andre Bazin, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Some of the photographers that I will be examining include Sally Mann, Robert Mapplethorpe, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jimmy Nelson, and Judith Joy Ross. These photographers have been selected because of their focus on portraits as their subject matters. Each of these photographers examines different modes of meaning that is coded within their images, however, if placed together the photographs are still a collection of portraits that capture the venerability of the human subject mediated by the lens.

Theorists, Photographers, and their work

In Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Statement on Photography, he offers a thought that, “the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which – in visual terms – questions and decided simultaneously”(Cartier-Brennson, 1). If we accept this is as the true manifestation of the camera, perhaps then, this is why we as viewers its believe that even staged photos are in fact spontaneous moments that the photographer has captured and that they  encompass a larger reality.  A juxtaposition exists when we examine traditional photographic methods and digital photography the product of both changes the moment in history as one that captures a singular moment to one that captures hundreds of frames. Capturing frame upon frame offers the photographer and the audience what could be considered raw moments of spontaneity, as multiple frames give the photographer the freedom to play with the very form of capturing an image, whereas traditional photographic methods must be staged to some degree, as there is only one frame in which the photograph can be captured. The digital medium gives a photographer the infinite ability to capture moments in time and history, whereas traditional mediums of photography are limited to number of frames and thus give the photographer a finite ability to capture the same moments in time and history.

Sally Mann, and Judith Joy Ross work with non-digital modes of photography or as some would consider them “traditional” modes of capturing images. Mann works with plates, and Ross works with silver prints and an 8×10 -view camera. Their work captures different sorts of codes, embedded in their subject matter, which in both the case of Mann and Ross, it is the act of capturing portraits.  The wet plates and the use of an 8×10 camera equate a new mode of understanding the codes within these photographs. Some of Mann’s photography projects read as antique, while others still have a sense of capturing real moments in a specific historical moment, such as those of her children at the lake house. The photographs of both Mann and Ross capture the venerability of portrait work and a nostalgia of a historical moment that can no longer exist as time as moved forward. Those of Ross similarly capture what read as raw moments of human vulnerability. These images are staged moments, as Mann and Ross  are attempting to capture a moment in a specific history, but rather becomes the driving factor of their work as it commands what reality they are able to capture and produce.



Judith Joy Ross

Simulacra, likeness or similarity, is fundamental as we examine photography, as the photograph is capturing the likeness of reality. In Baudrillard’s work, Simulacra and Simulation, he examines the way through which simulacra effects representations of reality. He states, “therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the ‘imaginary’” (Baudrillard, 4). A component of simulacra and its direct application in photography is the coding through which we are socialized to understand that the photograph is not merely a likeness of reality, but a manifestation of the real through a particular medium. Portraiture and images such as Sugimoto’s capture the simulacra of reality, and yet convey a particular moment of reality in time and history.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photography has varying motifs that deal with questions of introspection such as capturing the horizon, or taxonomic scenes at the American Natural History Museum in New York City. However, some of his most captivating images are part of a photo series through which he examines time. Sugimoto captures time by taking a photo of a film, a series of captured moving images, by setting a high aperture through the entire duration. I chose to include this set of work, as I find that it represents a portrait of modern America as the Mecca of Hollywood culture. Aperture is a technique throughout which the lens is opened  or closed to adjust the amount of light that enters the camera, which affects the depth of field of an image as well. A crucial part of understanding Sugimoto’s photographs of the cinema is the fact that he does not give the audience the name of the feature film that he has captured, but rather simply the location and year in which it captured, so as to say that the subject is irrelevant, and that the image instead reflects the movement of time.


Robert Mapplethorpe, much like Sugimoto, composes introspective photographs that capture time and history. His images depict moments within life, often with shock value, as the premise behind his work is to question time. His series of photos that capture naked human bodies display the symmetry within nature and much like those of flowers they capture specific moments of physical perfection. His photographs serve as proof of the fleeting nature of humanity, the enduring nature of culture, and display much like the work of Mann, and Ross, the vulnerability of the human condition.



Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait 1988

Similarly to Mann and Ross, the subject of Mapplethorpe’s work is portraiture. He worked with celebrities as a method of capturing the cultural and historical moment of the seventies and eighties. One of his most recognized images is a self portrait, that Mapplethorpe captured at the end of his life, as he was staring death in the face. In spite of the fact that the reader through codes, and the photographer through acknowledging that this photo is in fact staged, it is able to capture an instance of raw reality. The contrast of a living person and the silver skull topping Mapplethorpe’s cane, is vivid, as Mapplethorpe actually resembles the skull because of how gaunt and sickly he appears. The image becomes a striking moment of mortality, capturing how fleeting life can be.

Mapplethorpe’s self portrait much like the photographs of Mann and Nelson address questions of the codes of reality. Do the codes of the image move forward or have cyclical nature looking backwards in history to reproduce a forgotten moment? Do we see this with portraits such as the work of Sally Mann, the Family of Mann or photo projects such as Jim Nelson’s Before They Pass? Do these codes carry through because we are enculturated into them to understand them as moment of reality rather than posed moments? To answer these  questions of the ways in which we understand images through socialization and  the process of enculturation, we must first examine the semiotics and the cultural encyclopedia that code photographs as well as other forms of art. Borrowing from semiotics, we can turn to the work of Umberto Eco, the prominent Italian linguist, as he states,

When a text is produced not for a single addressee but for a community of readers – the author knows that he or she will be interpreted not according to his or her intentions but according to a complex strategy of interactions which also involve the readers, along with their competence in language as a social treasury…. I mean by social treasury not only a given language as a set of grammatical rules, but also the whole encyclopedia that the performances of that language have implemented, namely the cultural conventions that that language has produced and the very history of the previous interpretations of many texts, comprehending the text that the reader is in the course of reading. (Eco, 67-68).

Examining a photo project, such as Jimmy Nelsons’ work in Before They Pass, uses this understanding of the cultural encyclopedia to code the images that he produces as they have specific meaning within the cultural encyclopedia both for the author and the reader. His work exposes the reader to a set of documentary like photographs of indigenous tribe members across the globe. Nelson chose to place his subjects in poses that mimic past anthropological photos taken of tribes during the turn of the century, as the use of photography in anthropology became a vastly important part of ethnographic research around 1860. By placing his subjects in these poses, there is a nod to the past, while looking forward. It has a jarring affect because the viewer is able to make reference to images that they have been previously exposed to, as there are semiotic signs coded in these images.


Jim Nelson, Vantu #8

In Nelson’s image of a group of Vantu men, appear to be walking in traditional garb either to or from a hunt. The photograph captures cultural tradition within the Vantu tribe, but it is also able to carry forward the traditions that still exist outside of these remote tribes, such as gendered roles and the meanings of masculinity. Furthermore, these images tap into a deeper cultural encyclopedia and knowledge of a moment in prehistoric time in which all of humanity lived as hunter-gathers.  Although the reader can confirm that image appears posed  – as much of Nelson’s work though documentary in nature, is but a staged recreation of traditions for the sake of documentation – the image is loaded with codes of the real.


The photograph in the post-digital world continues to serve the same function as it was originally intended for, as it captures the simulacra of reality to preserve moments in time and history, whether these moments are introspective in the case of Mapplethorpe and Sugimoto, or simply a mode to capture humanity in the case of Ross and Mann. As the digital continues to become more and more expansive as the main mode of capturing images, it will redefine the reality of the image in its literal production and what it reproduces.


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