Daniel's Value and Ideas #53: LOLing in a Material World - FAD Magazine

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Daniel’s Value and Ideas #53: LOLing in a Material World

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Only three weeks ago, I joked that 2015 would see the advent of something I dubbed ‘Emoji expressionism’. It was a cruel quip about the absurdity of both new media art and artworld jargon, but little did I know that it was in fact a tongue-in-cheek prediction of things to come.

Emoji expressionism was defined as a form of ‘representational expressionism that makes no distinction between the mental states denoted by emojis and those felt by living, sentient human beings’. It was meant to capture the sense that, in its obsession with the internet, new media art is rapidly losing its sense of humanity. Now rapper and all-round artworld sensation Yung Jake has actually made portraits of celebrities entirely out of emojis, using a paintbrush tool called emoji.ink. So far he has done Larry David, Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus, and some other people you might recognise. Fortunately these abominations are currently confined to his Twitter feed and his tumblr, but it’s only a matter of time until a cool LA gallery snaps them up. So long as there is blood in the water, eventually there will be sharks.

Yung Jake, a graduate of CalArts, started out as a rapper before turning seriously to art, where he has made some interesting moves. He first caused a stir with E.m-bed.de/d, an interactive HTML5 video, but has recently had a show at Steve Turner Contemporary, LA, featuring seemingly blank screens that on closer inspection reveal drawings. It’s supposed to be a comment on the fact that we never see the computer screen as a screen, whatever that is supposed to mean and assuming that we need such a comment to be made. The work is crass, ugly, obvious and almost completely unnecessary, doing little to further the goals of art or society. Essentially, he was the Miley Cyrus of art before Miley Cyrus became the Miley Cyrus of art.

Digital art is interesting in the material world of the art market because it is ethereal and yet must have some physical realisation in order to be experienced. The market, as well as the viewing public, is yet to develop an official line on how to deal with digital art as it becomes increasingly popular. The interesting thing about this current intervention is that emojis, as components of digital artworks, are not only immaterial, they are also schematic representations of real things, namely human emotions. Yung Jake has taken an aspect of the material world and dematerialised it on two levels, leaving us two horrifying steps removed from humanity – this is not just a digital representation of Kim Kardashian’s smile, it is a digital representation mediated by the conventions of the emoji.

Although digital art is nothing new, Yung Jake’s innovations in emoji expressionism and blank screen drawings bring new light to the perfectly acceptable idea that art does not need to be made of anything at all. The materiality of artworks is interesting at the level of phenomenology, whereby the identity of materials is the explanation for certain experiential precepts, but in the age of emoji expressionism, our material interests are immediately thwarted. The emoji is an intangible representation of something that is in the first place only tangible by its contingent expression in a human action. Yung Jake is following in the tradition of Martin Creed by making art that contains the whole of humanity in something that consists of almost nothing at all.

Yung Jake is defiantly LOLing at the material world by demonstrating how the core goals of art – meaning and expression – can be rendered in a digital format that has no necessary recourse to any physical instantiation. Although the resultant artwork is aesthetically vapid, emoji expressionism is a sobering reminder that art still has a few tricks up its sleeve in the age of its rampant commodity fetishism. New media art has, then, finally achieved the discrete charm of a simulacrum of the highest order: a digital copy of emotions of which there is no original. It’s almost as if Yung Jake looked into Kim Kardashian’s soul and made the perfect portrait of a hyper-reality that is nothing more than the rotten simulation of its carefully constructed persona. Not a bad effort for something that just started out as a LOL.

Words: Daniel Barnes



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