Author Archives: Ai-Ling Wu

Superflat Adds Complex Layers of Meaning to the “Flattened Surface”

Ai-Ling Wu


Abstract

My final paper will study the Superflat art movement which is a node in the network of Japan’s culture, economy, social changes and art interaction with artists around the world. I will focus on artworks and idea of Takashi Murakami, the founder of Superflat while comparing it to other Superflat artists such as Chiho Aoshima, Yoshitomo Nara and Aya Takano, etc. Superflat, a term coined by artist Takashi Murakami to denote his anime-inspired style of art, is used by other artists in Asia and abroad. Combining the flatness of commercial graphic design and the hyper-sexualised cartoon characters of Japanese comics with the aesthetic concerns of fine art, Superflat’s influence is wide-sweeping. The symbolic and capital consumption of Edo is my research method to analyze the relationship and dialogues among different Superflat artists. Besides, the paper will apply the institutional and social network to discuss how Murakami and Superflat art movement interact with western art world and consumerism.

Introduction

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami first organised an exhibition for PARCO department store museums in Tokyo and Nagoya in 2000, he coined the term “Superflat.” Murakami’s new term described a specific type of Japanese contemporary art that compressed, or “flattened”, various types of graphic design, fine arts and pop culture (Hunter, 2001). The Superflat Manifesto from Murakami Takashi can further illustrate the concept of the Superfalt art movement, “The world of the future might be like Japan is today – Superflat. Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional. It is particularly apparent in the arts that this sensibility has been flowing steadily beneath the surface of Japanese history. Today, the sensibility is most present in Japanese games and anime, which have become powerful parts of world culture.”

What is Superflat? Anime, manga and fine art

Combining a Pop aesthetic with the Japanese kawaii (cute) culture, Superflat overtly references the flatness and two-dimensionality of Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comics). While much of the work in “Superflat” trades on the tensions build onto adolescent sexuality by either sublimation (for example, Nara’s children) or heightening eroticism to the point of the ridiculous (as in Murakamai’s My Lonesome Cowboy), there is little of the violent pornography that characterizes much of the manga being produced outside of the brackets of fine art. Murakami also combined the traditional Japanese art into Superflat. He claimed “much of the work on display is the result of an evolutionary process of formal and spatial reduction that fins its roots in eighteenth and nineteenth century Ukiyo-e prints, such as Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji’” (Cooper, 2001). On one hand, Superflat critiques and oppose the pedagogical hegemony of Western aesthetics, with its emphasis on Renaissance perspectival space, in modern Japanese art education (Cooper, 2001). On the other hand, Murakami has integrated the language of the Abstract Expressionism in many of his paintings, working below the surface, giving it new depth (Gioni, 2012). Superflat as a movement also concerned with mass consumerism and dissemination. It conceals a double meaning: according to Hunter Drohojowska-Philp who is an art critic,  Superflat also stood for “the shallow emptiness of […] consumer culture.”

Takashi Murakami, ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm.

WWII influence on Superflat

The artist combined this tradition of two-dimensionality with his youthful preoccupation with the bombings of Japan during the Second World War. Murakami states that the relationship between war and art is a predominant concern in his work (Awad, 2014). Second World War is a crucial framing device in Superflat. It has great influence on Japanses culture since it is a chronological moment for a fracture between young and old (Cooper, 2001).

Flower Superflat, a famous example of Superflat art by Murakami, which shows that Japan is becoming a nation like all the others. Represented in the identical flowers, Japan is slowly becoming an indistinguishable flower in a bouquet, losing all the colors and qualities that made her unique, thus losing her individuality. The consumer culture and lack of traditional values and morals does not make Japan stand out from the other countries anymore. The country is becoming “super flat.”

flower-superflat

Takashi Murakami, Flower Superflat, 2004, Lithograph, 68.4×68.4cm. 

Who are Japan’s Superflat artists?

The group exhibition “Superflat,” held at MoCA Gallery, California, in 2001 included the following Japanese artists, designers, and cartoonists who either influenced or became known as Superflat artists: Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshima and Aya Takano.

In addition, Murakami runs Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd, an art production company promoting the movement. In Tokyo, he has started a twice- yearly art fair called GESAI  that seeks to foster up and coming talent in Japan. Their work is not limited to paintings or digital prints. For instance, Chiho Aoshima’s work has lent itself to mural design. Her work can be seen on the walls of the 14th Street-Union Square subway station in New York City, and on display in the Gloucester Road Tube Station in London.

city-glow

Chiho Aoshima, City Glow

Research questions

•What are the dialogues among Superflat artists? What characteristics do they share in common? What differentiates them?

•How does Superflat interact with the western art world and consumerism in the institutional and social network?

Symbolic and Capital Value of Edo in Superflat

Edo is a critical element in the works of Superflat artists such as Murakami Takashima and Nara Yoshimoto. Superflat artists consumed the semiotic value of Edo when they create artistic works. For example, Murakami links contemporary anime and manga-influence art to the works of Edo-period artists Kano Sansetsua and Katsushika Hokusai. Nara applies ukiyo-e art form in the Edo period into his drawings. The paper will use semiotic consumption of Edo to analyze the dialogues among different Superflat artists.

What is Edo?

There was an Ego boom in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. It caught people’s popular imagination in television, literature, manga and in critical theory. (Steinberg, 2004).

“Edo was the site of the lost-but-not-forgotten authentic Japan, the pre-Western ‘outside’ of modernity. It was also, conversely, the precursor and reflection ofJapan’s consumerist, postmodern present” (Harootunian, 2000). Edo represents Japanese uniqueness and acts like an “outsider” of modernity in Japan. It also can be recognized as the precursor and reflection of Japan’s consumerist and postmodern present (Steinberg, 2004). We can situate Murakami’s exhibition in the phenomenon Edo boom. In its first manifestation in the Parco Galleries of Tokyo and Nagoya (spring and summer 2000), and in its later manifestations at the MOCA in Los Angeles (January to May 2001), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis Quly to October 2001) and the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle (November 2001 to March 2002), the ‘Superflat’ gathered various contemporary Japanese artists, most of whose works have some relation to contemporary mass culture-whether in the form of fashion, manga (comics), anime (animation), figurines or video games. Besides the connection to the mass culture, these artists showed the flatness and the art form from Edo-period painters, such as Kano Sansetsu and Ito Jakuchia, and woodblock artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (Steinberg, 2004). Superflat as an art movement links the past with the present with the future.

Nara and Murakami’s Comsumption of Edo

Nara Yoshimoto is a contemporary of Takashi Murakami within Japan’s Neo-Pop and Superflat movement, having been influenced by popular culture from both the East and West. In fact, in terms of their age and popularity, Nara and Murakami are more like partners than mere contemporaries. They had discussion at conference and created a website together and sell both individual and their collaborative merchandise in the Narakami General Store (Steinberg, 2004). However, regarding the relation between the art and Japan, Nara differs from Murakami considerably. Nara claims that his works are influenced more by children’s book worldwide than the anime, manga or hihonga (Japanese traditional painting) while Murakami maintains a cozy relationship with the concept of a Japanese aesthetics. According to Nara, his work depict the universal childhood that cannot be recuperated by either nation or culture. “So for me. Western and Eastern Art Histories are no more than relics of the past. We probably need some other name for what is now ongoing in the world. For my own works too, it would seen incomplete to represent on in the context of Japan and Asia, but of course they cannot be discussed in terms of the West either” (Nara, 2000).

Nara is renowned for the punk-kid figure with oversized heads and glaring eyes in his paintings. These figures sometimes are grimacing, bloody or threatening which are filled with sadness and anger. Another characteristic of Nara’s work is emphsizing on figure and rejection of background. The characteristic is derived from the ukiyo-e print which is the representative art form of the Edo period. The paper will discuss how Nara composite Edo in the Slash with a Knife in his book Ukiyo (published in 1999) by erasing any complexity, dimensionality or depth present in the original work work Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Great Wave) from the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji collection by Hokusai.

%e5%b1%8f%e5%b9%95%e5%bf%ab%e7%85%a7-2017-05-13-%e4%b8%8b%e5%8d%885-02-57

Nara Yoshitomo Slash with a Knife, courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

the-great-wave

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), c. 1830-32, polychrome woodblock print;

Nara erases depth by painting over the original painting with white paint and by integrating his figures into the original ukiyo-e. He paints over the creases in the waves and the distant Mount Fuji with white and turns the giant wave in the foreground in the foreground into the hair of a knife-wielding figure. Nara blurs the fine lines and the blocks of color that create a sense of spatial depth in the original work. He paints his punk figures on an uneven, splotchy yet uniplanar surface. He transforms the elements of Edo that attracts him into his own artistic work. This composition has been done through picking out elements from Edo database or Japanese cultural encyclopedia. “What animated Nara’s work on the prints is a logic of consumption of database, a logic that can be re-articulated in terms of the visual logic or operation of compositing” (Steinberg, 2004).

This consumption of Edo elements also appears in Murakami’s work Mt. Fuji and Manji Fuji. In this painting, two Murakami’s cartoon characters stand on the tree with the outline of Mount Fuji in the background. The Mount Fuji and the tree are drawn in a traditional style while the characters and the top-left writing are composed in color and a digital style that is contemporary and distinctively Murakami. Although there are two different styles in this painting, they are not conflicting. Murakami avoided the dimensions among different objects in his painting but added more complexity to the layers of the contemporary and the traditional. As in Nara’s works, the characters are not simply positioned on top of the original works but are drawn into it.

takashi-murakami-manji-fuji

Murakami Takashi Manji Fuji © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd/All rights reserved.

Both of the cases from Nara and Murakami consume the symbolic value of Edo. They select different elements from Edo database and create a new work by remediation. Nara and Murakami are not drawing Edo into their present but rather is drawing their present through Edo. The capital value of Edo can be displayed in the nationalistic appeal to Japanese tradition , or a unique Japanese sensibility, which is a marketing strategy, a selling point. The consumption of Edo database can be an effective strategy when artistic works are promoted in the international art market.

Superflat’s Interaction with Western Art World and Consumerism

The development of Superflat has a strong relationship with the pop art movement in western art world.  Murakami said, “I could not survive in Japan, so that’s why I first had to move to New York — the capital of the art market and of the art everything. Things turned out well, I was lucky, and ever since I have been trying to learn how to exist within the market and the museum and the critical industry. I am still trying to learn how they operate” (Gioni, 2012). The mass consumerism theme in Superflat is the central part of the Pop Art in the late 1950s and 1960s. The “Pop” was the most prominent style in America. The imagery of Pop Art was derived from commercial source, the mass media and everyday life. “In contrast to Abstract Expressionism—which viewed works of art as revelations of the artist’s inner, unconscious mind—the Pop artists strove for “objectivity” embodied by an imagery of objects” (Adams, 2011). Andy Warhol was the leading artist in the Pop Art movement. He turned himself into a work of Pop Art and became the central figure of a controversial cult with his flair for multimedia events and self promotion. Takashi Murakami is generally regarded as the “Japanese Andy Worhol” by thinking flat, championing mass media, breaking the boundaries between high and low art. Besides, it’s the repetition and interest in merging business and art along the lines of mass production that echoes with Warhol. Warhol would have loved Murakami’s cooperation with Louis Vuitton. However, there are some differences between Murakami and Warhol. In the context of contemporary Japanese art, Murakami demonstrates the mass customization over mass production, and the reincarnation of repetition as a type of uniqueness in art. In other words, Warhol transforms commercial goods into art while Murakami develops his art into a medium in consumerism. A short animated video Superflat Monogram in 2003 which was designed by Murakami for Louis Vuitton and their collaborative campaign can illustrate the relationship between Superflat and consumerism.

takashi_murakami_the_world_of_sphere

Takashi Murakami, ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm.

Murakami’s Superflat campaign for Louis Vuitton did not merely create obsession for the luxury brand’s graphic trademarks with a depthless visual field. It facilitated users to change from consuming to producing. For instance, users created countless Louis Vuitton desktops, wallpapers, screensavers and even the Louis Vuitton Facebook layout. These graphics, like Murakami’s Superflat, takes brand’s colorful monograms as the visual cue for a deliberately flat surface. “Indeed, such a depthless image with over- flowing Louis Vuitton icons, like Murakami’s superflat art, is the ideal format for any screen, from television to computer, from iPhone to iPad, whose ever flattened and enlarging surfaces are saturating our entire visual environment” (Li, 2012).

Superflat Monogram features a multicolor Panda with big staring eyes who guides a Japanese girl to fly in a space filled with LV brand’s multicolor monograms. There is a scene that the Japanese girl who stands in front of a Louis Vuitton store is “swallowed” by the Louis Vuitton Panda. Although this scene seems to suggest the loss of consumers’ identity when they consume luxury goods, the anxiety is dissolved by the subsequent cheerful journey. The girl is lead into a fantasy space flooded with loads of Louis Vuitton monograms. The dreamland of Louis Vuitton is visualized as a Superflat style which is flat and depthless. Although the girl who can symbolize a shopper or a consumer is freed when she fly in the fantasy land, her figure is often “prisoned” on the depthless surface within a certain frame such as a shopping window, a cellphone or a screen. Murakami’s Superflat provides the audience with a cheerful but deeply alarming scenario about our obsession with the “flattened surface”.

Conclusion

The paper analyzes the common point between Takashi Murakami and Nara Yoshimoto is that both of them consume the Edo database and incorporate the symbolic and capital value of Edo into their works. What differentiates Superflat artists is the distance between their works and the style from Japanese traditional art. For instance, Nara asserts that his works can not be appreciated and understood under certain culture. He wants to display the essence of art in his work which can be interpreted across the cultural boundary. Murakami benefits from the ideas of Pop Art in America and learns the operation in the market of western art world. He makes innovation in Superflat by integrating the uniqueness of Japanese art and mass media. It makes the western audience feel freshness and surprise when they are familiar with the Pop Art. After Murakami’s works have been well received by the western art world, he is able to bring the success back to Japan. His cooperation with luxury brand Louis Vuitton helped him accumulate capital to develop Japanese contemporary art and cultivate young artists. Although Superflat critique the superficiality in consumerism, it does not mean that Superflat would not have any collaboration with commercial world or entertainment world. Superflat has power to add complex layers to the flat and shallow commercial world through art works.

 

Bibliography

Cooper, Jacqueline. “Superflat.” New Art Examiner 64 (2001).

Gioni, Massimiliano1. “Takashi Murakami: SUPERFLAT to SUPERNATURAL.” Flash Art International, vol. 45, no. 284, May/Jun2012, pp. 52-56.

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, 2001, Superflat http://www.artnet.com/magazine/features/drohojowska-philp/drohojowska-philp1-18-01.asp

Laurie Schneider Adams, 2011 A History of Western Art. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill

LI, JinYing. “From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls: Mobility and Multiplicity of an Animated Shopping Gaze.” Mechademia, vol. 7, no. 1, 2012, pp. 203-221.

Mary Awad, 2014, Superflat: The Aesthetic Reaction to Post-War Japan, https://the-artifice.com/superflat-japan/

Steinberg, Marc. “Otaku Consumption, Superflat Art and the Return to Edo.” Japan Forum, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 449-471

References

Murakami Paints Himself Warhol, 2009, Published – http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/murakami-paints-himself-warhol#_

Think Flat: The Art of Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami: Selections from the Freedman Family Collection and the BYU Museum of Art

http://moa.byu.edu/think-flat-the-art-of-andy-warhol-and-takashi-murakami/

Superflat — What’s inside a “flattened art world”?

Ai-Ling’s Final Paper Proposal


The world of the future might be like Japan is today – super flat.

Society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional. It is particularly apparent in the arts that this sensibility has been flowing steadily beneath the surface of Japanese history. Today, the sensibility is most present in Japanese games and anime, which have become powerful parts of world culture.

—— Murakami Takashi’s “The Super Flat Manifesto

 My final paper will study the Superflat art movement which is a node in the network of Japan’s culture, economy, social changes and art interaction with artists around the world. I will focus on artworks and idea of Takashi Murakami, the founder of Superflat while comparing it to other Superflat artists such as Chiho Aoshima, Yoshitomo Nara and Aya Takano, etc. Superflat, a term coined by artist Takashi Murakami to denote his anime-inspired style of art, is used by other artists in Asia and abroad. Combining the flatness of commercial graphic design and the hyper-sexualised cartoon characters of Japanese comics with the aesthetic concerns of fine art, Superflat’s influence is wide-sweeping.

What started Superflat?

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami first organised an exhibition for PARCO department store museums in Tokyo and Nagoya, he coined the term “Superflat.” Murakami’s new term described a specific type of Japanese contemporary art that compressed, or “flattened”, various types of graphic design, fine arts and pop culture.

What is Superflat? Anime, manga and fine art

Combining a Pop aesthetic with the Japanese kawaii (cute) culture, Superflat overtly references the flatness and two-dimensionality of Japanese anime (animation) and manga (comics). But the term also conceals a double meaning: according to Hunter Drohojowska-Philp who is an art critic,  Superflat also stood for “the shallow emptiness of […] consumer culture.” So in that sense, when Murakami created designs for Louis Vuitton, one has to wonder if he was embracing brand name consumerism or cynically commenting on the vapidity of it.

takashi_murakami_the_world_of_sphere

Takashi Murakami, ‘The World of Sphere’, (diptych), 2003, acrylic on canvas, 350 x 350 cm.

The artist combined this tradition of two-dimensionality with his youthful preoccupation with the bombings of Japan during the Second World War. Murakami states that the relationship between war and art is a predominant concern in his work. Flower Superflat, a famous example of Superflat art by Murakami, which shows that Japan is becoming a nation like all the others. Represented in the identical flowers, Japan is slowly becoming an indistinguishable flower in a bouquet, losing all the colors and qualities that made her unique, thus losing her individuality. The consumer culture and lack of traditional values and morals does not make Japan stand out from the other countries anymore. The country is becoming “super flat.”

flower-superflat

Takashi Murakami, Flower Superflat, 2004, Lithograph, 68.4×68.4cm. 

Who are Japan’s Superflat artists?

The group exhibition “Superflat,” held at MoCA Gallery, California, in 2001 included the following Japanese artists, designers, and cartoonists who either influenced or became known as Superflat artists:

  • Takashi Murakami
  • Yoshitomo Nara
  • Chiho Aoshima
  • Aya Takano

In addition, Murakami runs Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd, an art production company promoting the movement. In Tokyo, he has started a twice- yearly art fair called GESAI  that seeks to foster up and coming talent in Japan. Their work is not limited to paintings or digital prints. For instance, Chiho Aoshima’s work has lent itself to mural design. Her work can be seen on the walls of the 14th Street-Union Square subway station in New York City, and on display in the Gloucester Road Tube Station in London.

city-glow

Chiho Aoshima, City Glow

Research questions

  • What are the dialogues among Superflat artists? What characteristics do they share in common? What differentiates them?
  • As an example of the effect of Murakami’s discursive dominance over conversations of Japanese art in North America, my paper will study how Superflat influences the perception of Japanese contemporary in the United States. How Superflat art creates a new identity of Japan?
  • Why Superflat is important for today’s art world?

Bibliography so far

  1. Looser, Thomas. “Superflat and the Layers of Image and History in 1990s Japan.” Mechademia 1.1 (2006): 92-109.
  2. Lisica, Cindy. Multiple Dimensions of the Superflat: The Work of Takashi Murakami, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2005.
  3. Cooper, Jacqueline. “Superflat.” New Art Examiner 64 (2001).
  4. Gioni, Massimiliano1. “Takashi Murakami: SUPERFLAT to SUPERNATURAL.” Flash Art International, vol. 45, no. 284, May/Jun2012, pp. 52-56.
  5. Steinberg, Marc A. Emerging from Flatness: Murakami Takashi and Superflat Aesthetics, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2002.
  6. LI, JINYING. “From Superflat Windows to Facebook Walls: Mobility and Multiplicity of an Animated Shopping Gaze.” Mechademia, vol. 7, no. 1, 2012, pp. 203-221.
  7. STEINBERG, MARC. “Otaku Consumption, Superflat Art and the Return to Edo.” Japan Forum, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 449-471, doi:10.1080/0955580042000257927.
  8. Raymond, Andrew Colin. Re-evaluating Murakami’s Superflat: toward a contextualized interpretation of contemporary Japanese art. Diss. 2015.
  9. (Book) Favell, Adrian. Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art, 1990-2011. Blue Kingfisher, Hong Kong, 2011.

What have we lost when we “take a picture”?

By Ai-Ling Wu


“Taking a picture” has become one of the critical approach for us to interpret or record the reality in the digital age. Whether a memorable journey, a birthday party or other important moments in our real life are transformed to digital information, pixels and codes on a 2D screen which “can be moved around the world at high speed, it is a quantifiable, it is a commodity that can be traded in and it is separable from its instantiation in a medium (it is detachable from its substrates)” (Lister, 2013). The photography is the medium during this transformation. Is it only a technology which allows us to perceive, document or present our real life more conveniently? It’s definitely not. “Traditionally, photography has been studied as one of a number of kinds of object, each in relative isolation: most frequently as a form of visual representation, but also as a technology of mass reproduction and hence sociological significance, or as an object of social and anthropological interest” (Lister, 2013). Next, I’m going to discuss the “true value” behind the photography by analyzing three photographs from different social context. More importantly, I want to think about what have lost during the evolution among these three photographs.

lady-of-shallot

The Lady of Shalott by Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901). 1861. Albumen print from two negatives, 12 x 10 in. (30.4 x 50.8 cm.). Unsigned. The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas (ace. no.964:057:068)

ophelia

Ophelia (1852) by John Millais

Since the early 16th century, camera obscura, the predecessor of photography, has been used by artists to project a 3-D view of the world onto flat surfaces for tracing, thus helping them master the difficulties of perspective and proportion (Buckingham, 2004). The photography technology served as a “secret tool” to improve the presentation of paintings at the beginning. However, it became a composition of art works in the 19th century. The Lady of Shalott (1861) by Henry Peach Robinson in this week’s reading is a great example to illustrate how an artist incorporated the photography in the painting and created a composite picture. The photograph is unique for it is the only known photograph that illustrates this subject so popular in painting and book illustration. The photograph “borrows from both Tennyson’s poem and Millais’ painting of Ophelia from Hamlet. Many of his photographs were multiple prints. He would first sketch the picture he wanted to make – just like a painter – then separately photograph the individual components. Finally he would combine the cut-out figures, masks, and backgrounds and make one large contact print” (Buckingham, 2004).

The Lady of Shalott is a representative work of composite photography in Victorian Times.  “Meanwhile, a whole industry was born, mass-producing photographic cards and prints, and manufacturing albums, frames, and cases. It was boom time for almost anyone who wanted to set up as a professional photographer” (Buckingham, 2017). Composite photography was derided as artificial on one hand and as a precursor to Dada photomontage. But it is important to understand this peculiar and particular method of literally “making” an image, in its own cultural context. Victorian composite photography has its charms and those charms, as dubious as they may seem today, and can be understood as a step towards the idea that a photograph could be a work of art. Besides, composite photography which assembled multiple photographs into one print, solved many of the problems that dogged wet plate photography with its inconveniently long exposures (Willette, 2015). In my opinion, it also can be recognized a predecessor of Photoshop which can combine parts of different images as a integral new picture.

kevin-carter-vulture-1024x682

Kevin Cater, The vulture and the little girl (1993) (Source from The Unsolicited Opinion)

The second photograph The vulture and the little girl (1993) is one of the most influential photojournalist photo in the 20th century. When this photograph capturing the suffering of the Sudanese famine was published in the New York Times on March 26, 1993, the reader reaction and not all positive. Some people said that Kevin Carter, the photojournalist who took this photo, was inhumane, that he should have dropped his camera to run to the little girl’s aid. The controversy only grew when, a few months later, he won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo. In July 1994 he took his own life, writing, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain. (Neal, 2017).

The socio-cultural functions of the photograph not only represent the fatal famine, cruel war and poverty in South Africa to the international world but also raised the debate over when photographers should intervene. This photograph is a very powerful medium for journalists to show the “truth” in our world. It is more powerful than hundreds and thousand of words which gets the audience to comprehend and see with their own eyes the dire situation that Africans are facing. Furthermore, it symbolized the social and political issues of Sudan. The civil war is mainly what was causing the severe starvation in Sudan, which is portrayed in the photo, since it was driving people away from their homes, which is where their food sources were  (Struck 1993). This single photo of one child does an excellent job of summarizing the immense distress the entire country was enduring. The photograph creates many dialogues with the audience. The harsh reality in the photograph stimulated the profound thinking of the audience about serious social, political and economic problems in South Africa and the ethical issue of photojournalism. Besides, the photograph may become a strong motivation for people who want to change the situation.

monet-2

La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume),1876, Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926),231.8 x 142.3 cm (91 1/4 x 56 in.), Oil on canvas 

The third photograph was taken by my iPhone when I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The large-scale painting and its Japanese elements caught my attention. ” Monet created a virtuoso display of brilliant color that is also a witty comment on the current Paris fad for all things Japanese” (La Japonaise). I post it on my WeChat Moment which can be seen by people who I know in my real life. The painting has been transformed into pixels and codes on my smartphone and transmitted to my friends. I added a filter to the picture and changed its exposure which are based on my own interpretation and aesthetic. The photography is more like a recreation of the original painting as well as a certification which showed that I have been to the museum and appreciated the Monet’s art works.

During the transformation and transmission, the real size and color of the painting have been lost and distorted. The time I spent on taking pictures may be more than the time which was spent on appreciating the original work. For the audience, the texture, size and the surroundings of the painting are lost we they see my digital picture. For me, I lost my attention to the original painting. “While we are clearly in a world where we can simulate and extend all older media through a single kind of machine, the computer and its software(s), we are surely a long way from being in a state where we have one metamedium” (Lister, 2013). The meta medium derives our feelings and senses of the reality to some extent. It can be applied to the former photograph I discussed. The viewer of the composite photography of The Lady of Shalott cannot willingly suspend disbelief and imagine that he or she sees the Lady on the river. Rather, the viewer sees a model lying in a boat merely pretending to be the Lady of Shalott. The photograph exemplifies the limitations of photography as an illustrative medium. The audience of the The vulture and the little girl can not have the same feeling as Kevin Cater who sees the scene with his own eyes.

Meanwhile, true value of photography can be displayed by these three photos. Photography is “‘one of the great emblematic artefacts of modernity’ (Tomlinson 2007: 73). It provides more possibilities for us to interpret and record reality. It allows us to create a imaginary world like Robinson does. It expands our horizons and preserve our moments permanently.

 

  1. The Lady of Shalott by Edmund Joseph Sullivan (1869-1933), http://www.victorianweb.org/photos/robinson/2.html
  2. Composite Photography in Victorian Times, , 2015, http://arthistoryunstuffed.com/composite-photography-in-victorian-times/
  3. Starving Child and Vulture | 100 Photographs | The Most Influential Images of All Timehttp://100photos.time.com/photos/kevin-carter-starving-child-vulture
  4. How Photojournalism Killed Kevin Carter, Leslie Maryann Neal on March 12, 2017http://all-that-is-interesting.com/kevin-carter
  5. Struck, D. (1993). A harvest of death: Famine stalks Sudan Civil war brings ‘nightmare’ for millions. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved February 21, 2012 from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1993-04-21/news/1993111111_1_southern-sudan-civil-war-happening-in-sudan
  6. Alan Buckingham, Photography. New York: DK, 2004. Excerpts.
  7. Martin Lister, ed. The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. 2nd ed. London; New York: Routledge, 2013.
  8. La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/la-japonaise-camille-monet-in-japanese-costume-33556
  9. Tomlinson, J. (2007) The Culture of Speed, London, Sage.

 

How do we interpret art through technological mediation in the digital era?

By Ai-Ling Wu


“We would never understand that things can speak to us about human beings if inanimate objects were not endowed with a kind of social soul. The manufactured and even standardized machine-object (the auto-mobile) can also vehiculate dreams, style, values, and the self-image of an era” (Debray, 2000).

Technology and machines no longer only serve human beings as tools. They are embedded with symbols, ideas and values in different social and historical context such as Gutenburg’s printing, Lautrec’s lithography and Daguerre’s photography. The argument that culture and technical media are interdependent can be applied to the interpretation of art and other cultural expression when they are mediated through technology in our digital era.

In the following paragraphs, I intend to discuss about how do we mediate art through technology which is based on the concepts and arguments of “mediology”, “technological reproducibility” and “Musée Imaginaire” in this week’s readings.

“Mediology is a synthesis and critique of received media and technology theory that opens up a larger network model of mediation by focusing on social, political, and economic institutions of transmission and the cultural embeddedness of all technologies” (Irvine, 2012). The term was first introduced in French as “médiologie” by the French intellectual Régis Debray. He argued that technology is a critical mediation in cultural transmission. Technology itself possesses the power of culture when they are analyzed in the political, economic and social network and organization. Take lithography as an example, it is a method of printing when we recognize it only as a “pure” technology. However, if we discuss it in the context of economy, lithography is economical method of distributing the print text and artworks which matched the idea of capitalism.  If we understand lithography in the social network, we can find that it closed the distance between the art and the audience, facilitated the poster art (such as Lautrec’s artworks), revolutionized the advertising industry. Besides, mass production and mass culture of art is one of the results of the development lithography. One-on-one matrix has been transformed to one-to-all relationship.

Technology transmits art and culture not only in the specific period in the history but also works as mediation across the time and space. Television is an epoch-making technological mediation which transmit our culture with diachronic signification. “Transmission is a duty, mission, obligation, in a word: culture” (Debray, 2000). Nam June Paik makes this transmission as a composition of his art work Elephant Cart.

elephant-cart-paik

Elephant Cart, Nam June Paik 1999-2001

Nam June Paik put many communication devices on a big cart with the sitting Buddha pulled by an elephant. “It seems that the cart filled with televisions and radios disseminates information along the direction where the elephant goes. This assemblage of old objects and new media makes the viewer to reflect back on the past days and to reconsider the ways of today’s communication” (Google Arts & Culture). Debray proposed tripartite signification of transmission: material, diachronic and political which can be applied to understand the Paik’s art work. Antique television sets, radios, telephones, gramophone speakers on the cart and Buddha sculpture can be recognized as material transmission. Television and radio as different technologies symbolizes the modern era while Buddha represents the tradition, making the audience relate the past with present. Paik endowed the television, radio and other technology with culture power in his art. “While a communication society will value the disposable, mutable and instantaneously accessible, the depth of time rounds out the things that are transmissible and gives them relief and dimension”(Debray. 2000). Moreover, the art work combined the cult value and exhibition value. 

“…for the first time in world history, technological reproducibility emancipates the work of art from its parasitic subservience to ritual” (Benjamin, 1936). This argument can be explained by the immersive experience Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuan which was hold by Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in 2012. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China (Mogao Caves). There are more than 700 caves at the site. Pure Land immerses visitors in a 360-degree panoramic projection theater that gives a true-to-life experience of being inside one of the caves (Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang).

In the ancient times, the cave paintings and architecture serving as aids to mediation as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment, as menemonic devices, and as teaching tools to inform those illiterate about Buddhist beliefs and stories. Nowadays, the cave paintings and sculpture are known as priceless art in the world. However, visitors are forbidden to take photos and the caves are closed to the public on a rotating basis to ensure their preservation. The VR technology provides a new approach for the audience to perceive the art of Mogao Caves. Although the technology deprives the authenticity and aura of these cave paintings and sculpture to some extent, it increases the participation of the audience who are unable to visit Mogao Caves. Besides, the audience can see dramatized details of the paintings, listen the sound of musical instruments in the painting and appreciate the dance animation which are not available even for visitors in Mogao caves. Apparently, the gallery and the creator Jeffrey Shaw, (dean of the School of Creative Media). Both of then added various layers of meaning to the art of paintings and sculpture. The technological mediation breaks the boundaries of space and time and the decreased the gap between the 2D and 3D. In political framework, the immersive experience which was made by gallery and art workers educated the public of the meaning and value of art.

pure-land-general-view-886

Different structure of National Gallery of Art (has a distance between me and art) and the Philips Collection (feel more familiar with art works).

In my opinion, the technological mediation in the digital era can help art institutions such as museums, galleries and exhibition to realize the idea of “Musée Imaginaire”. Technologies from books, television to the Internet “break” their walls and extend them to more artworks. More importantly, technology can provides historical and social background for the audience when they perceive artworks in these institutions. For instance, the videos which introduce the process of lithography in the Philipes Collection. Furthermore, “In the process they have lost their properties as objects; but, by the same token, they have gained something: the utmost significance as to style that they can possibly acquire” (Irvine).  Technological mediation makes contribution to the form of art token or styles. Google Art makes comparison among artworks around the world which can not be realized by any museum. Audience can perceive and understand the art systematically while losing some perception of artwork’s real size and texture. All in all, technological mediation creates more approaches, meanings and values for us to interpret art in the digital era. It does not break the art with the past. It may mean an unraveling of anterior tradition, but it also means the continuation and innovation.

 

Elephant Cart- Nam June Paik – Google Arts & Culture

Irvine, M. “Introduction to Mediology: An Overview of Theory and Method.” (2012).

Mogao Caves, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mogao_Caves

Martin Irvine, “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art“.

Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, http://www.asia.si.edu/events/pure-land.asp

Régis Debray, Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.)

 

What’s the meaning system behind the combination of lines, geometric figures and colors? -Ai-Ling

We are exposed to multiple symbols and signs when we read a book, see a picture or watch a video online. However, before learning about semiotics from this week’s readings, I have not dived deeper into various layers of the meaning behind the signs. Semiotics is a brand new world for me. It provides me with a new approach for understanding the interfaces between the audience and artifacts.

There are two models widely used by scholars in the field of semiotics. Firstly, Ferdinand de Saussure’s dyadic models which defined a sign as being composed of a “signifier” and a “signified”. Secondly, Charles Sander Peirce proposed a triadic model consisting of the represent amen, an interpretant and an object. I want to apply Peirce’s model to decode the Mondrian’s painting, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, as the physical interface to its meaning system.

mondrian-composition-red-blue-yellow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Piet Mondrian,Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1930), Oil on Canvas, w45 x h45 cm

The painting shown above was created by Mondrian in 1930 on a 46 x 46 cm canvas. This oil painting mainly consists of thick and thin lines, geometric figures, especially variations of squares and rectangles. Mondrian used red, white, blue and yellow as the colors for individual planes. These lines, geometric figures, and colors compose the representamen or “sign vehicle” with interpretable features. Besides, these are the most obvious signs which perceived by the audience at the first glance. Although this work of Mondrian is a painting, it does not like a “picture” or possesses any “likeness” to real-world things outside the painting which refers to a low iconic function. If the audience has little knowledge about the background information of the painting, the first interpretant will still remain on the concept of lines, geometric figures and four colors. It is also difficult for the audience to relate to the object in the real life. At this time, we can apply the dialogical thought in Peirce’s model to activate the audience’s conversation with the painting. “Peirce saw that interpretants are explicitly revealed when expressed in additional, ‘more developed’ signs, and thus interpretants generate further signs in sequences of understanding with increases in symbolic complexity.” (Irvine, 2017) Moreover, ” A genuine symbol is a symbol that has a general meaning” (Irvine). The following information about Mondrian’s background and art movement will stimulate the audience to perceive further signs which based on the first interpretant.

The background information helps the audience build the conventional and rule-governed meaning system of the painting. This painting is an indicative representation of the works during the decline of the de Stijl movement. It is one of the major modern movements which depends on a Neo-Plastic ideology of art. Mondrian found his own style in this movement and termed it as “Neoplasticism”. “This consisted of white ground, upon which he painted a grid of vertical and horizontal black lines and the three primary colors” (‘Piet Mondrian’, 1981). De Stijl was not a group of similar artists or stylistic techniques, nor was it a school devoted to art or design, but rather de Stijl was a “collective project or enterprise between 1917 and 1928″ (Paul, 1991). The basic principles that the de Stijl movement promoted were a “stripping down of the traditional forms…into simple ‘basic’ geometric components or ‘elements’; the composition from these separate ‘elements’ of formal configurations which are perceived as ‘wholes’ (Paul, 1991). This painting can be recognized as a “prototype” work of “Neoplasticism”. It exemplifies concepts, cultural meanings, and symbolic associations in collectively known instances.

The most distinctive figure in Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow is the large red square located in the top right corner. This piece also has a very distinctive, thick, and pronounced line separating a large white plane in the upper left corner into two individual planes. These two elements draw the viewer’s eye inward and then force the eye to proceed in a downward manner that allows the viewer to experience the painting first as individual elements and then as a whole. These signs have a dialogue with the philosophy of de Stijl: “single element, perceived as separate, and the configuration of elements, perceived as a whole” (Paul, 1991). Furthermore, the bright and distinctive colors reinforce the simplicity and abstraction of de Stijl ideology. The horizontal lines signify a sense of rest and repose, while the vertical lines communication a sense of height to the piece.  Working together as an overall piece, the lines together create a sense of stability and solidarity. “Mondrian sought to give expression to the ‘universal’ through the absolute harmony of the individual pictorial elements”(Google Art & Culture). In my opinion, this pursuit of universal and harmony may be explained by the Mondrian’s life experience during the WWI and the period in post-war Paris.

I want to point out that the picture of Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow in my post is the re-tokenization of the original painting. It changes the type of the painting’s symbolic form. Besides, some signs may be lost in this type such as the texture of brush stroke and actual size.

All in all, the signs of lines, geometric figures, and colors in this painting can work as interfaces that enable viewers to explore the meaning system behind the physical symbols, including de Stijl movement, simplicity, abstraction, the relationship between the segments and the wholeness and the “universal” feature. Moreover, the painting mainly focuses on symbolic sign function. The finite signs can generate infinite interpretation through conventional and collective meaning system. The Semiotics can be a powerful and practical tool for me when I study the interface of artifacts and conversation between art and the audience. I also benefit a lot from the semiotic method in investigating meaning and value of the painting independently from individual preferences.

 

References

Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow – Piet Mondrian – Google Arts & Culture
https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/composition-with-red-blue-and-yellow/xwERWaqDyIcZ9w

Irvine Martin. “Intro to the Grammar of Meaning Systems: Signs, Symbols, Semiosis.”

Irvine Martin 2017, Introduction to Visual Semiotics

Overy, Paul. De Stijl. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1991.

“Piet Mondrian”Tate gallery, published in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.532–3.