Carla Gannis: The Garden of Emoji Delights
Report from… Chicago
Carla Gannis: The Garden of Emoji Delights at Kasia Kay Art Projects
October 17 to November 15, 2014
215 N Aberdeen St
Chicago, 312 944 0408
In 2010, the Library of Congress admitted a new translation of Moby-Dick to share shelf space with the Russian, German, and Chinese versions already archived. Titled Emoji Dick, the project took Melville’s great novel and re-composed it line by line with the mobile-based iconography system called emoji. “A boggy, soggy squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted,” for instance, translates thus:That the book is considered a translation indicates that emoji constitute their own visual language. Concocted in Japan in the mid-1990s and comprised of a good number of Japan-specific cultural signifiers, emoji crept into American SMS and social media communication primarily by way of Apple’s inclusion of an emoji keyboard in 2009. In the years that followed, the graphic symbols became so ubiquitous that such a thing as Emoji Dick could come into existence.
The large scale digital print by Carla Gannis, Garden of Emoji Delights, can now be added to the ranks of canon-referencing emoji artwork. On exhibition at Kasia Kay Art Projects in Chicago’s West Loop, the triptych print is the same dimensions as the Garden of Earthly Delight by Hieronymus Bosch, dominating its wall at seven feet tall by 13 feet wide. The work is a figure-for-figure remake of Bosch’s fever-dream painting, using thousands of the Apple iOS version emoji at all different scales and arrangements. Gannis uses a few different strategies for her translating, sometimes capitalizing on direct swaps of emoji for image, other times opting for creative substitution to get the passage across. A good deal of original design went into many of the forms as well, with Gannis imagining and composing profile views of some of the faces, emoji-yellow bodies to attach below the chins, and a number of the animals and architectures of Bosch’s world.
The Garden of Earthly Delight, art historically speaking, is famously confounding. Of the many divergent interpretations of the painting — none of which has ever gained ground as a dominant model for understanding the work — Erwin Panofsky probably sums it up best, closing his monograph on Early Netherlandish painting with what amounts to the German art historian version of – ¯\_(?)_/¯ – the shrug emoticon:
“In spite of all the ingenious, erudite and in part extremely useful research devoted to the task of ‘decoding Jerome Bosch,’ I cannot help feeling that the real secret of his magnificent nightmares and daydreams has still to be disclosed. We have bored a few holes through the door of the locked room; but somehow we do not seem to have discovered the key…”
By selecting this painting as the reference for her own work, Gannis suggests a parallel between the openness of the referent and the openness of emoji as a signifying medium.
Gannis’s creation is undeniably enjoyable to wade into, though perhaps only if you have a version of Bosch’s original on hand for immediate comparison and assuming that you are already fluent in emoji usage. The threat of simple reference-pleasure implicit in the “new media one-liner” or nmol hangs over the work and is exacerbated by an exhibition text by Sabin Bors that drops strained, overreaching commentary such as “the Emoji promiscuity of happy sinners translates our growing inability to relate to one another.” Bors finds in the Emoji Garden a critique of “our society” and its trappings of social isolation and consumerism. Evoking the Superflat theory of Takashi Murakami, Bors reads the Emoji Garden’s orgiastic visuals as a condemnation of surface, excess, and “emotional obscurity.”
Yet Superflat, as laid out in Murakami’s Superflat Manifesto and related writings, is a full-throated embrace of both consumerism and surface. For Murakami, the relations of surfaces that characterize Japanese visual culture illuminate fundamentally Japanese forms of art and subjectivity historically rooted in the commercial visuality of the Edo period. Given the Japanese origin of the emoji glyph set, it feels important to underscore this misreading of Superflat as a theory that is expressly critical of global consumerism. It’s critical, but critical of a homogenized Western-driven conception of art, visual culture, and subject position.
What Gannis shows us, of course, is that whatever culturally specific origin these glyphs hold, their capacity as emotive and communicative signs comes from their cultural flexibility. Rather than pointing out that Americans have become techno-emotional mutes, Gannis’s Garden shows how emoji circulate as agreed-upon signifiers beyond one-to-one meanings. The humor in Emoji Garden derives from our shared ability to read, for instance, the peach emoji as a nude figure’s backside or the bull’s eye emoji as a weird kind of barbed fruit. Emoji usage is predicated on an agreement to interpret the pictographs loosely, to construct meaning on the level of peer groups who use and agree upon shared meanings over time.
Ultimately, the dependence on canonical works of art and literature to scaffold emoji-as-art may be a hindrance to the impact works like Garden of Emoji Delight and Emoji Dick can have. The sculpture that accompanies the Emoji Garden at Kasia Kay — a gray 3D-printed Sphinx-ish creature drawn from the emoji version of Bosch’s painting — comes off as a side note, but its obliqueness to both Bosch and emoji make its weird hybridity all the more compelling. Compared to The Garden of Emoji Delights, which for all of its playful detail reveals itself fairly immediately, the sculpture carries more mystery and potential, channeling and innovating within the disgusting and ecstatic spirit of Bosch’s painting without being chained to it.
Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting. Harper & Row, New York, 1972 (1953), 357-358]