Simon Fujiwara, Once Upon a Who? Esther Schipper, Berlin
Simon Fujiwara, Once Upon a Who?
Esther Schipper is pleased to present Once Upon a Who?, Simon Fujiwara’s second solo exhibition with the gallery. On view will be multiple new works from the artist’s Who the Bær project presented in a highly inventive range of media ranging from collage, drawing and sculpture to stop-motion animation and animatronic sculpture. In addition, Fujiwara is presenting a Whotique in the Esther Schipper Bookstore, a boutique devoted to merchandise from the world of Who, in collaboration with Highsnobiety.
A large-scale immersive exhibition, Once Upon a Who? highlights the multifaceted development of the original cartoon figure, which Fujiwara created in Spring 2020 and first presented at the Fondazione Prada in Milan in summer of that year. Staged within an exhibition design resembling a museum with different rooms devoted to different chapters of their development, visitors encounter Who the Bær: a bear that seemingly has no race, gender, sexuality or nationality.
In the first room of Fujiwara’s Once Upon a Who?, a stop-motion animation presented in a blue carpeted environment with colorful plush seating, introduces the central themes of the exhibition and the Who the Bær character. Among them are the origin story of the figure and the significance of the characteristics Who has been given; the processes of identity formation, especially regarding gender and race; the effects of mass media, social media, dating apps, and celebrity culture on those processes; as well as cultural appropriation, colonialism and the controversies around stolen artifacts and art.
Once Upon a Who? introduces the central themes of the artist's Who the Bær project. Screened as part of a custom-made environment, the stop-motion animation presents Who, the original cartoon figure created by Fujiwara. Created in a process of stop-motion–placing the cut-out elements from one frame to the next to create the illusion of movement–Once Upon a Who? recalls early film animation, yet also addresses topical issues relating to the contemporary digital media.
The simply executed but visually striking animation is accompanied by a soundtrack that includes a text, performed by the artist: intoning the poem-like verses, at times with a humorous undertone, at times even half-singing, the artist highlights the mock pathos of his tale.
In the subsequent rooms, these topics unfold in a series of specifically themed spaces. Who’s negotiation of identity is explored in two sections through collages and modified images and objects that combine traditional and contemporary representations of feminine and masculine stereotypes.
Constantly encountering and performing different identities, we watch Who the Bær as they try, fail, and try again to enact, perform or embody the various lifestyles and identity choices on offer, mostly online. Seen through the distorted lens of a cartoon character, Who the Bær offers a tender but at times disturbing, dada-esque response to a contemporary society possessed with spectacle and identity performance. Nostalgia, anxiety, an inability to commit and a longing for authenticity mark the journey of Who the Baer, a story that seemingly oscillates between the extremes of joy, hedonism and melancholy and loneliness.
Framed in pink and blue, these twenty works on paper center on Who’s exploration of a gendered identity, in this case by adapting representations of women and men, their anatomy or paraphernalia of motherhood or fatherhood, traditional gender roles, pairing found images or diagrams with drawing in charcoal, pastel and/or pencil. Some works also draw on art historical references, depicting famous sculptures such as Michelangelo's David or the so-called Venus of Willendorf.
The two-part collage entitled Who's Transformation? (Butterfly Catcher I), draws on the association of butterflies with transformation and reinvention. Simon Fujiwara's cartoon figure Who the Bær is depicted as butterfly enthusiast with a small net trying to catch specimen. The delicate butterflies are made from small pieces of metal, fragments from cans of energy drinks. Each butterfly is labelled with a qualifying category, suggesting Who is not only trying to catch the insects but also pursuing their search for identity and self.
The sculptural video installation Who’s Childhood? projects an animation depicting a revisionist history of Who's infancy and childhood. Housed in a cartoonish sculptural projector, the home-movie style animation parodies tropes of childhood nostalgia and authenticity. The association with home movies is reinforced by the animation's soundtrack featuring the low hum of a rattling film projector.
Twenty framed works on paper accompany the sculptural video installation, hung on a wall painted in cream with a blue stripe, drawing on the imagery of the animation. Focusing on images of parenthood and childhood, the drawings superimpose the cartoon figure's silhouette on found imagery.
Return to Who? (from the collection of Humboldt Who) presents a sculpture of an African mask inside a museum-like display case. The work draws on the controversy surrounding the contextualization and ownership of art, artifacts and ritual objects removed by colonizing powers. More specifically, the title refers to Berlin's recently inaugurated Humboldt Forum, named for the 18th century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Housing the collections of African and Asian works formerly exhibited in the Ethnographic Museum, the opening of the Humboldt Forum has renewed the debated about restitution of works to the countries from which they were taken.
Two collages accompany the object in the vitrine. One depicts the outside of the Berliner Schloss, which houses the Humboldt Forum. Recently finished, the reconstruction, with an exact replica of the facade of the historical castle which had been destroyed in 1945 by Allied bombing. The images is paired with a view of the newly installed ethnographic collection. The second framed collage pictures the modern atrium inside the Berliner Schloss and below the image of a work from the collection of Asian art, the sculpture of a processional bull Nandi (Shiva’s mount) dated to the 19th–20th century.
Voodoo Who? (from the collection of Humboldt Who) presents a sculpture of an African mask inside a museum-like display case. The work draws on the controversy surrounding the contextualization and ownership of art, artifacts and ritual objects removed by colonizing powers. More specifically, the title refers to Berlin's recently inaugurated Humboldt Forum, named for the 18th century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859). Housing the collections of African and Asian works formerly exhibited in the Ethnographic Museum, the opening of the Humboldt Forum has renewed the debated about restitution of works to the countries from which they were taken.
Fujiwara's object with nails emulates mystical statuettes made by the Kongo people of the Congo region, a so-called nkisi n'kondi. When an agreement was reached, both sides would swear an oath before the nkisi n'kondi and drive iron blades or nails into it to seal the oath. In this way the figure's supernatural powers could be called upon to punish those who broke the agreement. Many nkondi were publicly held and were used to affirm oaths, or to protect villages and other locations from witches or evildoers.
Who Discovered Whotankhamun? I draws on the well-known images of Egyptian mummies. Constructed from cardboard and repurposed sections from packaging, this sarcophagus however is especially shaped to hold Fujiwara's cartoon-figure Who: the top has a doubled curve to accommodate its ears. Inside a mummy-like construction—a skeleton with loosely wrapped cloth and the characteristic long pink tongue—is seen clutching a teddy bear. Other objects wedged below the figure are a honey pot, glue, and a can of energy drink—some of Who's favorite things—evoking the Egyptian custom of including funerary goods to use in a future existence.
The accompanying collages take the form of a catalogue or photo album: one image depicts the title page, the other two page spread, presumably from the inside of the book, bookmarked by a pink tail band, in reference to Who's omnipresent pink tongue. Drawing on the tipped-in images, the outline of Who has been added to historical photographs of Howard Carter, who in 1922 discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun, a photo of the actress Elizabeth Taylor with her then-husband Senator John Warner in 1976 at an early blockbuster exhibition of Egyptian art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the image of an Egyptian statuette depicting the god of mummification Anubis and one of the mummified head of Tutankhamun.
Who's Modernized (Small Beast) is from Simon Fujiwara's series recreating iconic art works by modern and contemporary artists through the perspective of his cartoon figure Who the Bær. The sculpture draws on Alexander Calder's metal sculptures. Iconic and enormously popular, Calder's works range from the miniature to the monumental. Fujiwara has modified the characteristic shapes found in Calder, as well as adding a pink element, representing Who's uncontrollable tongue, and, similar to the elder artist's early work, introducing abstracted figurative elements in which one can recognize Who with his raised hands in a gesture of exasperation.
Double Tongue Pokey Poke for Who? I is from Simon Fujiwara's series recreating iconic art works by modern and contemporary artists through the perspective of his cartoon figure Who the Bær.
The work draws on Conceptual artist Bruce Nauman's 1985 wall-mounted neon Double Poke in the Eye II. While Nauman's work depicts two facing heads with four pointing hands that are alternatively illuminated, giving the impression of poking the eye of their opposite. Fujiwara's emulation substitutes the characteristic double-eared silhouette of his cartoon figure Who the Bær for the two bald heads and Who's characteristic long tongue for the hands of Nauman's source.
Who's Guitar? (Winter, 2021) is from Simon Fujiwara's series recreating iconic art works by modern and contemporary artists through the perspective of his cartoon figure Who the Bær. The guitar refers to Pablo Picasso's groundbreaking sculpture of a guitar from 1912, also made from cardboard and string. With its title, the work refers to the customary dating of works from this period of Picasso's oeuvre: Guitar Paris, October-December 1912. Who's Guitar? (Winter, 2021) is housed in a plexiglass showcase, emphasizing the museum-like quality of Fujiwara's emulated works presented as part of his "Whoseum."
Who's Only Whoman? is an interactive animatronic sculpture. Drawing on the figure of the Tin Man, a character in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, based on L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's fantasy novel, a silver figure stands on top of a white box. Once activated, a song is heard: "I wish I had a heart" performed by the character in the film. The lyrics are echoed by a robotic voice with a short delay and with several changes, adapting the text to the perspective of Who the Bær. Thus, while the original song refers to "a man being an empty kettle" or wanting to "become kinda human," the modified text speaks of a bear and becoming "whoman." In a similar adaptation, female and male voices alternate.
In addition to the soundtrack, the program animates parts of the figure: a giant turning key on its left side, and a detached arm placed on the figures right on the white box that functions as a pedestal, begin to move. In the course of the song, the torso of the figure opens and a brief animation plays on a small screen housed inside the chest cavity. Below the screen, equipped itself with door-like panels that open, a small merry-go-round turns, with flags representing icons from social media apps.
The outside of the robot has a child-like DIY sensibility that evokes the anachronistic aesthetic of The Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man, even as the box housing the animatronics draws on contemporary technology. While a circular window in its front, gives a view of the inside of the pedestal with illuminated technical equipment, the outside of the white box is ornamented with drawings that recall the waves of a cardiogram and diagrams of cybernetic circuitry. Recessed numbers and question marks are distributed over the box.
In addition to the main exhibition, Simon Fujiwara will present the first Whotique at Esther Schipper Bookstore. Continuing the collaboration with Highsnobiety initiated for Art Basel Miami Beach, the Whotique – a boutique devoted to merchandise from the world of Who – will present a series of Who the Bær related apparel, houseware, and posters that offer gallery visitors the chance to own a piece of the “Whoniverse.”