2020 - by John MacLean
Twenty one years ago a Japanese designer, Shigetaka Kurita, created a series of 176 colourful digital pictographs—just three millimetres high—to enhance the mobile phone texts developed by his employer, the Tokyo-based communications corporation DoCoMo. He called them ‘Emoji’. Fifteen years later MoMA, New York’s pre-eminent art museum, acquired his chunky, pixelated icons for their permanent collection.
Now Emoji are used daily by billions of people. They assist quick-fire communication, provide intonation and circumvent language barriers. But, more importantly, they are a way of inserting warmth and humour into often monotonously impersonal electronic communication. Kurita’s original vocabulary—which included an umbrella, a chair, a train, a shoe, scissors, a house and a light-bulb—has evolved into a panoply of more than 3,000 symbols and objects.
Pictographs (pictures which represent ideas) were central to the earliest forms of written communication. But by the 20th century words had prevailed over images except in isolated, primitive languages. Our ancient pictorial languages are now studied and revered but Emoji—admittedly not yet a language in themselves—are rarely given serious consideration. Indeed, when MoMA exhibited them in 2016, the art critic Jonathan Jones berated the institution as having descended into ‘just another postmodern emporium where every cultural spasm is given spurious value’.
Emoji hold lowly status in high culture. They are considered by many to be a bastardisation of written expression and an impediment to serious thought. Paradoxically, this is part of their appeal to me. Yes, they are clumsy, diminutive and simple but they can also be used in nimble, expansive and telling ways. In short, I feel they are underrated and overlooked.
We are all too familiar with the most frequently used Emoji—the beaming yellow face, the excruciated grimace, the sullen expression and so on—because they are embedded in the 21st-century zeitgeist. But scroll past these ubiquitous, yellow discs and you will find a trove of less emotive but, I would suggest, more potent pictographs. Hidden here are the outsider icons, those most difficult to make conversation with: the door, chair, map, box and book are examples. These interest me most because they are replete with the interpretive potential of their generality.
An apple, a candle, a hat, a bird, a mirror and a ribbon. In 1927 the surrealist René Magritte depicted these items in his undeniably Freudian painting, The Reckless Sleeper. And in 1967, after a ballsy return to figuration, artist Philip Guston began brushing pinky-blue, crude, cartoon-like objects into his ominous, existential mindscapes: a light-bulb, a pencil, a shoe, a cigarette, a bed, a clock.
Magritte and Guston both prove that representations of commonplace objects pose no obstacle to the creation of highly charged images. I think Magritte loaded his paintings with watches, windows, hats, eggs and bottles because they helped him express the unfathomable nature of his reality, his battle with reason and the perils he encountered in communication—whereas Guston’s feeling for the symbolic weight of the mundane revealed his sensitivity to ennui, the heft of existence and the crushing weight of time.
I love the visual vocabulary Guston created by painting the objects he was surrounded by in his studio. He had reached a point where he felt ‘sick and tired’ with art purity and wanted to tell stories.
It struck me that Emoji could be a means of making a series of funny-serious, semi-narrative picto-pictures of my own. But to do that I needed to help these snappy, fingertip icons break free from their daily confines. Discovering digitally enlargeable versions in 2019 provided the practical means for liberation. I could now reach into their domain, scoop them up, cut, resize then ‘Photoshop-drop’ them onto the semi-matt surfaces of my large-scale inkjet photographs—skewing their original intentions closer to my own in the process.
In the resulting series, Conversations, the lingua francas of photography and Emoji coalesce in flash-lit interior photographs of London. Here, Kurita’s familiar Japanese pictographs offer the viewer a pop point-of-reference and thus an easy route into my pictures. But they also enable me to fill the rooms I have photographed with readymade trees, mountains, waterfalls, planets, cities and factories—setting inviting, but incongruous, scenes that could not have come into existence any other way.
My careful selection of Emojis has been used conversely: not to speed up communication, but to slow down the reading of my photographs. The results, I hope, provide gambits for conversations on science, nature, philosophy, language and culture. An :explosion: lurks within a dark fireplace, implying theories of the origin of the universe; :dice: hide behind a wall, shyly offering a metaphor for chance and freewill; the red :round_push_pin: ponders its own nature and the nature of images (after being surprised by its own reflection in a mirror); a :ruler:, though it has no empirical length of its own, confidently gauges the size of a wooden box; a :glass_of_milk: tips over, yet confounds gravity and determinism: why does it not spill?
I also try, once again, to pull and push photography. This time playfully to draw attention to both the medium’s paper-thin illusion of truth and to the unconscious naivety required of us to ‘believe’ photographs. Thus, the picture plane of each hybrid image contains two different levels of clarity and reality: plebeian pictographs impudently jabbing at the surface credulity of each photograph. And in a follow-up to my previous project, Outthinking the Rectangle, the sanctity and seriousness of art and the art world are counterpunched with humour, faux-foolishness and irreverence.
Kurita privileged objects over faces with his nineties prototypes because he sought concise conveyance of information. I have incorporated Emojis into my photographs with something else in mind: that they do not quickly, or simply, disappear into meaning. Here they are cajoled into remaining elusively allusive and disruptive to the rhythm of their algorithm. If I have been successful, I have inserted warmer, less predictive, more eccentric human qualities into this cold collision of digital photography and pictography.
Nothing is final in my pictures, nothing is solved. Art is a strange way to try to connect with someone else. It is like a conversation between two people who will never meet. And as we all know, the best conversations are open-ended.