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WHO THE BÆR — SIMON FUJIWARA’S PLAYFUL EXISTENTIALISM
AT FONDAZIONE PRADA, MILANO
Words by Riccardo Conti
The British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara, born in London in 1982, lives and works in Berlin where he explores a heterogeneous artistic practice that includes complex performances, sculpture, film, painting and video installations. For the past two decades he has dealt with themes of contemporary individuality, identity construction and our complex quest as a society for fantastical and authentic realities, while also exploring the paradoxical nature between the two.
Stemming from his own biography, Fujiwara’s reflections have extended to the analysis of famous historical figures and alternative, imaginary visions of historical regimes, archeology, economics and the prevailing domination of social networks today. Each time the concern for self-representation and the question of identity plays a key role in the process that accompanies each of his exhibition, and such is the case with ‘Who The Bær’; a the site-specific project conceived for the Podium of the Fondazione Prada in Milan. At Prada, the artist introduces the visitors into the world of Who the Bær, or simply ‘Who’; an imaginary bear with no defined gender. Fujiwara has developed the bear-as-protagonist after being inspired by the ‘Sun bear’ (Helarctos malayanus), a curious long-tongued bear species which he has transformed into a Disney-like cartoon.
The path conceived by Fujiwara for this exhibition is a fascinating cardboard labyrinth where the audience participates in the creation of the character at every corner as ‘Who’ does not have an identity yet — ‘Who’ only knows that they are an image that must adapt to the contemporary context online and offline, making their way through sex, politics, religion and everything else that defines who they are.
In conversation with Riccardo Conti, Simon Fujiwara deconstructs the characteristics of his ironic yet profound reflection that accompanies the genesis of ‘Who’.
How did you discover the Sun bear and why did you choose it as your inspiration?
I was looking for an origin story for the bear, so it was kind of like designing in reverse. You know, it’s like when you hear about these kinds of famous Pixar characters, all the Winnie-the-Pooh’s or other historic characters and there’s always an origin story: like the writer discovered this bear in the zoo or something like that. So I wanted to create that origin story because I felt it was very much part of the question of creating your own identity: making your own family. So I was looking for a bear that was somehow ethnically related to me. It’s an Asian bear, it’s small, it’s endangered and it has this ridiculous tongue. I loved the idea of an animal that already looked like a cartoon… and that’s how it came into existence.
The concept of marketing is a reoccurring factor in your aesthetics and how you approach projects, including earlier works such as Joanne. Do you feel that marketing is a relevant tool that influences the behaviour of newer generations, in order to promote self-identity through pictures?
I think marketing is a part of it, but I think the thing I’m more interested in is the relationship with the image. So the idea that people, especially the younger generations being much more aware of the power of an image is true, because images now have value. You know, for example people know that if you are posting something on Instagram, you can make money from this. It’s like a commodity. An image was never really a commodity when I was growing up. As an artist I guess I’m interested in our relationship with pictures; what does it mean for a society to have turned all images into capital? And what does that mean for me, making images? And what does it mean for society when every image has capital? And I think we’re seeing this in a way where there is a question of cultural appropriation in the ownership of images for example. It’s really tied to capitalism, and there are many other expressions of it, but that’s one of them. And then I wonder about the effect that has on people. When images are so dominant people start to adapt themselves and see themselves in them, because ultimately, it’s a mirror.
Therefore, does the project show how we are evolving in a virtual environment where everything is an image?
That’s what I’m interested in, the effect on how we change and adapt to an image. It’s always been there, but now there are more images every day in our environment. And if you take all of the digital images, there is some kind of crazy fact that the physical planet could be covered twice a day with the images that we take. So I’m interested in the kind of impact this is having on us. With Who, it’s a really like a clear visual theory where you see how the images are affecting the bear. They change. They are adaptive.
Moreover, it seems to suggest that adapting to this world means to predict what is ‘correct’ based on algorithms and trends. It means to predict the taste of the audience, as the ability to perform better in this digital environment.
That’s the ‘Who’ world. I mean: it’s a world where everything is made for ‘Who’ or for someone, but we don’t know who that person is! It’s an imaginary person, we’re always trying to produce for this ‘imaginary’ person, to predict, like you say… and then we all become imaginary, virtual people.
In the last year more than ever…
Maybe that’s ok, maybe we were meant to be imaginary!
Glenn O’Brien tweeted in 2013 that “The wizard of Oz the Great and terrible, not the great and powerful. Focus groups destroy language.” Do you think that the global standardization of the marketing and communication is impoverishing artistic expression?
I mean… not for me, because I can make Who the Bær out of this! It’s inspiring because it’s where this project comes from: this very question and the tension of losing authenticity, of a unified language of all viewers visiting the exhibition. They can understand it because it’s from the perspective of nobody. So for me, the concept is emancipating, liberating but also terrifying.
So is there a kind of ‘double feeling’ in approaching the world and how marketing and communication have shaped it today?
It’s here, and I want to look at it, and I want to take it apart and I want to play with it. It’s nobody’s world, but I want to make it my world.
In your career, you have alluded to several female figures, from Angela Merkel to Marie Antoinette, Anne Frank (Hope House, 2017) and even your former art teacher (Joanne, 2016–2018), yet this particular project seems to aim at overcoming gender boundaries.
Women have been objectified for much of our history as property. Therefore, I’m interested in this question of humans and objectification. Women have also been depicted by men a lot, so it’s just always been interesting for me to look at the many kinds of ways in which this expression of Marie Antoinette in the 18th century is looked at today, how this ownership has expressed itself as a relationship. It’s a clear case study of how humans use other humans, create images or objectify them. But of course, men are now also much more diversified: they’re also self-objectifying, men’s bodies have become a market as well. With women, this is a kind of clear way of tracking that message somehow. It’s also a more emotional experience for the audience when they see it, there’s so much interest in an icon such as Marie Antoinette, for example.
In some of your previous interviews, you used the expression ‘post meaning’ to describe your work. However, contemporary art, including your work, have a lot to do with the meaning of things, history and society.
I have always wondered what ‘meaning’ means, why do we value it so much as a society and what does that concept really offer us? What does meaning give you? It gives you a place in society, it gives you an identity, a reason to wake up, a connection with people, but those things also are violent. And that can also be exclusive: the concept of meaning excludes the concept of ‘no meaning.’
Therefore, I’m always in a conflict about the value of meaning, and meaning in the most clear sense is like a dictatorship. But everything means something really clear, right? And we’re so worried about losing meaning today, like authenticity, truth and humanity and how that kind of connects with aesthetics. If things don’t look like they ‘should’, then everything is confusing. It’s confusing how meaningless aesthetics can be, and I wonder if it’s just a kind of fun game I played in my head like: what if meaning was just a historical period for humans and there’ll be another period where we don’t have meaning?
Speaking of references – the architectural display of the exhibition reminds me of certain cardboard experiments by architects such as Shigeru Ban and Frank Gehry. Did you approach this space using these references?
I like that the shapes felt like a Frank Gehry, but it’s made from cardboard and it’s a very fragile material, so it’s about the effect somehow of this exciting, iconic feeling, without the involvement of money or the labor, the same kind of labor as Gehry. And I felt like they had to feel like it was a spectacle somehow because Who the Bær is a spectacle, it’s a vision. It’s like it doesn’t exist at all. So Hence, all that exists is the effect of that.
So, are you suggesting that these references serve to impress the visitor and guide him into an ephemeral world?
Yes, it takes language to impress an audience today. Everything is embedded in language. Wwhen you notice some traits, you immediately recognize the language of Frank Gehry, but that’s also the language of Shigeru Ban and the language of Arte Povera or Richard Serra. Then, it’s also the “language” of homeless people, or the language of disaster architecture.
I was also thinking about the amount of cardboard boxes that have accumulated in our homes in a year of lockdown…
Yes. All of the prints on the cardboard walls and most of the material used was from boxes used to make the exhibition, because we had to order things on Amazon, like a lot of the materials from the glue to the screens you know because all the shops were closed. So everything would arrive in these boxes and then it became the face of the robot for example. So yes, it was mostly recycled stuff.
There was also this kind of upcycling process going on, that in some ways also reflects the section dedicated to the activism of the younger generations, with figures such as Greta Thunberg.…
It all happened organically. I mean, it was out of the circumstance of not having any shops to go to, then it was like well… it’s the end of the world, let’s just make everything by hand!
On a certain level you seem to suggest that the construction of a political, sexual, religious, or artistic identity is governed by the same rules as a product launch, such as a car or a snack. The story of Who the Bær, however, is both ironic and sad – there is a struggle of being ‘right’ for this world.
I’m not suggesting that, I think that the world is suggesting that. The world is constantly telling you this relates to that, you know? And everything is turned into a marketing strategy. I’m just responding to what I see. It’s exhausting to constantly critically fight something. I’m just saying: what if I just say ‘yes’ to everything? What if I can create some avatar? A position where you say “oh, you want to sell me that hybrid car? Okay, I’ll have it.” Well, but my question was “you want me to be a woman? OK, I’ll do that. You want me to be pregnant? You want me to buy this? I’ll have it”. But this is what it looks like – it kind of undermines the power of everything. There’s a are famous characters in Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk and it’s always been really inspiring to me. There are homeless people that live in the street, but they look at billboards and maybe dream that their life feels more beautiful when they see the billboard. They believe they’ve gone on a holiday, when they see the tropical. And I just think it’s kind of similar to Bær, where they don’t even need to have the thing. They can just picture it and imagine it, and they’ve consumed it. So in a way, it’s like a way to to deal with all of this in a humorous way, I guess.
I was thinking about the fact that the harmless figure of Winnie the Pooh has suddenly become controversial on the internet and in on social media networks today. For example, China has banned the cartoon because of its satirical association with Xi Jinpin. Did you think about this ambiguous representation of Winnie the Pooh while conceiving ‘Who’?
I think about all the cartoons, like mascots and symbols in general. A cartoon is interesting because it’s not just an image, it’s an image with subjectivity. It’s something between a product and a character. So with all cartoon characters, there is something political, but you don’t immediately think about it. Imagine one of our beloved cartoons changes it’s sexual orientation, or if one of these favourite characters turn out to be associated with white supremacists? We would feel confused, because they’re mascots and simplified symbols that are presented to us, characters that we can trade like cards.
Have you ever received a reaction from a viewer, or the public at one of your shows that has surprised you?
Things are often surprising, but one of the problems when you’re an artist is that you don’t see people reacting. It’s not like a movie theatre or a musical concert. Normally when people react, they are angry. When you experience their reaction,it’s normally either because they are angry, or they love it… and those reactions are not surprising because they are quite radical, or extreme. I think it’s successful when there’s a subtle, more complicated reaction. I think most people have some level of confusion, like: How do I react? What am I looking at? What is it saying? Do I trust my instincts? And so I get a lot of questions mostly and that’s why the work is there: to generate questions.
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