How’ve you been? Has it been a fresh start into a new year, or do you once again feel caught in a tornado of bad news and snackable-but-trivial content spilling from your screens? (I’m hoping for the former – but know it could very well be the latter!) Two years ago, at the start of what has turned into an ongoing world-wide mess, artist Simon Fujiwara embarked on a mission to make sense of it all. From a whirlwind of images and confusion came Who the Bær, a cartoon character with just the right quality for adapting to any political, social and cultural environment: they have no identity. This not only renders Who the perfect companion for a ride along social justice narratives – it also makes Fujiwara’s current installment of Who’s journey, now on view at the Esther Schipper gallery in Berlin, highly entertaining. We met with the artist to ask him about Who and have him guide us through the show.
Thanks for reading,
SIMON FUJIWARA ON CREATING A UNIVERSE OF CARTOONISH SIMPLICITY
Who the Bær lives in a world stripped of authenticity. A world gorging itself on an inexhaustible supply of expendable images – images of violence and beauty; doom and comedy; success and failure. (Everything that you might see, in other words, during an average doomscroll.) The creation of London-born, Berlin-based artist Simon Fujiwara, Who does not have a personality, let alone an opinion. In fact, they are devoid of any semblance of an identity. They have no race, gender, sexuality, or nationality. They do not contribute to the world of content around them. Instead, they consume, co-opt, and then move on with an audacious, insatiable amorality.
Who came to life in early 2020, during the pandemic’s first lockdown. As the world (and specifically, the Internet) reacted to its new realities, Fujiwara set about building an archive of the moment. The act of cataloging Instagram posts, memes, and topics du jour – and subsequently co-opting them for his growing ‘Who-niverse’ – became a kind of daily practice for the artist. With Who as his guide, nothing is off-limits, whether it be plastic surgery, Elon Musk, sexual fantasies, or the Queen.
After translating Who and their world to a site-specific show at Fondazione Prada in Milan last year – a show consisting of a cardboard bear-shaped labyrinth filled with drawings, animations, and sculptures – Fujiwara is continuing his character’s journey with his second solo show at the Esther Shipper gallery in Berlin. Once Upon A Who? expands upon Fujiwara’s project through stop-motion animation, animatronic sculptures, and imitations of ancient artifacts spread across several themed rooms. The exhibition also marks the debut of Fujiwara’s Whotique: a boutique offering apparel, housewares, and posters produced in collaboration with Highsnobiety, and pulled from the off-kilter world of Who the Bær. With its myriad cultural references – from Hockney to The Wizard of Oz – Once Upon A Who? is at once both critique and guilt-free nostalgia, leaving its audience with an ironically refreshing reminder of the value of real things, in a real space.
You’ve created a kind of language for this world, full of word play. And yet the starting point is the hand-drawn character of Who. What came first? The language – the concept – or the drawing?
When I look at it now it’s overwhelming, because it began in a very humble way – with drawing and collaging – and has formed into this whole world that seems to have been constructed very intentionally and has an authority to it – almost like a Disney-verse. However, in the process of developing Who, I was full of questions and insecurities – there were so many decisions to make and ways the work could turn out. One thing that guided me was that, as I worked, a logic started to emerge, one that was uniquely “Who.” And so I found Who resolving a lot of questions for me, setting me into a process that at times was just about reacting – to the image I was working with, or to what Who the Baer wanted from that image. Sometimes when I drew, I would find myself making the work to satisfy my petty vanities, and then when it got too clever or interesting or conceptual, the work went in the trash, because Who doesn’t want that. It became an affront to the Who-niverse.
…which is a universe of simplicity?
Yes, as well as a world of possibilities embodied through the character of Who – a character full of desire yet with seemingly no criticality. That kind of hedonistic energy is highly attractive as it taps into a fantasy today which is to be liberated from context, knowledge, guilt – from meaning. Who is not ‘stuck in their head’ like us, like me – they are in constant contact with the outside world, in fact they may not have an inner world. I use Who as a way to play, provoke, emote and question at a time when everything feels incredibly serious and important. But Who the Baer doesn’t really have to stand behind an argument because their argument is that they are an image – a total construct, a collage. Who is a kind of Frankenstein, and their sense of self is a series of jumbled-together images that comes together and falls apart constantly. I think that feels true to the human condition, somehow. Or at least it’s how I feel, often.
So Who is a fragmented collage of images assimilating yet more images from wider culture?
Everything is an image to Who, from politics to environmental catastrophe, and each image is something Who believes they can perform before trashing and moving on to the next identity. In this way, Who treats all images on the same level – as an outfit, as currency. It can be an image of the royal family, of war, or of gender roles. It could be a David Hockney or a tote bag – everything is consumed by Who on the same level. For a while I have been playing with the theory of the world as a cartoon. The idea that, despite how complex and confusing things are becoming, we opt constantly for a hyper-simplified way of engaging with the world, and perhaps we can’t experience it any other way. From our politicians to our bodies, everything is becoming a picture of itself as we funnel it all through social media. Who is my answer to this world. Who is philosophically void, and at the same time feels to me very truthful. This terrifies me – isn’t this a terrifying thought?
As you describe, Who is just ‘performing’ identity all the time, and yet they never seem to achieve a sense of self. Do you think that Who is the perfect – or the worst – avatar to navigate this world with its constant stream of pictures?
Sometimes I think of Who as the court jester or the literary fool in a Shakespeare play. The character that is presented as an idiot – half of what they say is rubbish and the other half is absolute, pure truth. Those characters are always killed in plays; it’s as if the world can’t tolerate that much truth, or that it’s too dangerous to speak it. Is Who a good avatar, or not? I don’t even know. Who is almost like an algorithm with a face. Or like or a pretty vase covered in arsenic. There are all these contradictions with Who, and I’m always learning and I’m always discovering more. To me, this is just the beginning.
What do you think is the main takeaway from your show?
I keep thinking of the word ‘mourning.’ There are so many images in the show, but they’re all treated as trash in some ways, and as gold in other ways. I think of the word ‘mourning’ because I can see what happened to meaning in the last ten, fifteen years. How meaning – and its relationship with aesthetics – broke apart and that link is probably not going to come back, at least not in the way we knew it. I think this show is a lot about mourning which in turn evokes nostalgia, which starts to feel dangerous. It’s a love letter to that time when things were meaningful. It’s the bell toll claiming that it’s gone, and that makes us melancholic. I think Who might be about coming to terms with this new reality that we don’t quite want to believe exists.
Who’s story started in Milan, with your show at Fondazione Prada. And this show is a continuation of that – but it is not the end. Where is Who going to go next?
On one level, Who is just a daily practice for me. By that I mean Who is a lens through which to experience the world, and I draw almost every day through Who. I don’t know when that’s going to stop, perhaps when I stop discovering new things through Who, but I can’t imagine how that is possible as Who is all about looking out at the world. That’s infinite, isn’t it?
Who could also find themselves on a very ambitious path – I mean, for cartoon characters the sky is the limit. Look at Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh. Along with Hello Kitty, Pooh is one of the highest-grossing media franchises of the century. Why? Why do people invest financially and emotionally in these characters? Kitty doesn’t speak, so I get that. They are pliable, they can become mascots, or vessels for our desires. When I daydream of Who the Baer being a mascot for our times, I don’t think it would be so bad. At least Who is not pure entertainment, they give back to you – they create thinking. I want Who to leave you feeling fuller than when you were before you encountered them, which is ironic as they are in some ways just a cute void
Editor: Hans Bussert (V.i.S.d.P.)
Art Director: Enver Hadzijaj
Copy Editor: Redfern Jon Barrett
Special Thanks: Sami Emory
© 2022 EX LIBRIS Hans Bussert
Potsdamer Strasse 97, 10785 Berlin