Exonemo: User Does Not Exist

Artist duo Exonemo formed in 1996 by AKAIWA Yae and SEMBO Kensuke in Japan. Their artworks are humorous and innovative explorations of the intersection between physical and digital culture. They are also founders of IDPW, an internet art collective that organizes gatherings such as The Internet Yami-Ichi a real world flea market for “Internet-ish” things, and the Internet Bedroom, an online sleepover. They are currently based in New York and are members of New Inc. I've known Exonemo for a few years now and met them through curator and friend Eri Takane. 

In July 2015 I organized “Memory Burn”, a group exhibition featuring a work from Exonemo’s "Body Paint" series. During the process of organizing the exhibition we had a few different interesting experiences in fabricating the piece. Now, several works from the "Body Paint" series are on view at NTT-ICC in the exhibition, "Open Space 2016: Media Conscious", I stopped by the museum recently to view the exhibition and the series. 

"Body Paint" is a series in which hand-painted LCD screens play video of performers in matching body-paint. The figures assimilate with the painted screens, expressionless and still, they blankly stare outward. A metaphor for our symbiosis with screen-based technology, we the living exist within our luminous devices. Heavy "Body Paint", is the new extension of the series featuring jars of acrylic paint instead of performers.

Exonemo Body Paint

In July, the piece “Body Paint – 46inch/Male/White” was fabricated at bitforms gallery in New York. Our first goal was to find a monitor that worked well with a media player and acrylic paint. The first test monitor we had, which was big and bulky, had a charming early 2000s aesthetic, but a strange aspect ratio. This meant our media player couldn’t work properly with the device. Once we determined a new screen, our next consideration would be the flatness between the edges of the frame and screen, and if the screen had any protective glass. These issues would impact the illusion of the piece. For example, if a screen had a large frame or layer of glass it would create a gap between the video and acrylic paint, meaning the figure would not merge properly with the screen. The issue of having glass on a screen is why you will likely never see any artworks from the "Body Paint" series presented on a Mac or iPad. Luckily the second screen we obtained was flat, lightweight, and had removeable glass. 

Creating the right flatness between the video and the acrylic paint is kind of a reversal of (or play on) the trompe l’oeil effect. The monitor itself is three-dimensional and sculptural, but the video is flat, and thus the performer merges into the object. In painting the screen, there is also a transformation of the monitor into an art object, compared to viewing it in a commercial retail store. There is something to be appreciated in viewing the impasto layering of the acrylic paint that also brings out the shape of the monitor. In these considerations, there is a dialogue between the two-dimensional (flat) and the three-dimensional (sculptural). Perhaps this also connects to the 3D physical world of our bodies and flesh and the 2D world of screens and virtuality. In the artwork, the body [monitor] is tactile, and the spirit [video] is ephemeral - the performer in a sense is an apparition stuck within the playback of the machine. 

In one sense, the artwork can come off as eerie or ghastly. It reminds me of old cartoons in haunted houses where a painting has eye holes cut out so a monster or creep can watch houseguests. This might be a worthwhile note, as the piece is watching over us, or staring past us with a vacant expression. At the same time, in Exonemo’s presentation of the piece, with bright light reflecting upon it to show the details of the paint, becomes alluring and captivating, a strange portraiture of our identities in a technological world. 

Another consideration might be when someone becomes trapped in a mirror, forever looking out on the world. We might also think of Dorian Gray, where a double life or immortality is in reach - in the contemporary sense through our virtual identities and technological prosthesis. This sense of immortality is also connected to the real challenge of preserving this artwork. From a conservation standpoint, the life of the work is quite fragile. If the screen breaks, the media file gets corrupted, or something else, the original piece is likely not going to be resurrected. Which, perhaps to the chagrin of museums, collectors, or conservators, is part of the poetry of the artwork.

Body Paint Series

In Tokyo, at at the NTT-ICC, it was interesting to see another version of the white screen, alongside the new series "Heavy Body Paint". When considering the "Body Paint" series which features performers merged with monitors, there is a quick relation to the person and device. We record ourselves and hold onto our memories via screens, hardware, software, and so forth. The new series, "Heavy Body Paint" perhaps adds more dialogue with objects and materiality. As Exonemo notes, “the human body motif is replaced by paint jars themselves.” The human figure becomes so abstracted that it becomes the paint itself. The slight movements of the paint jar in the video are remnants or traces of the performer’s body and the artist’s hand.

“Deliberately retaining the physicality of hand-held ‘camera shake’ in the footage, the bottle subtly trembles in contrast to the fixed texture of the paint, creating a fascinating visual stereo effect. Additionally, the footage in this series was shot and presented in 4K (3,840 × 2,160 pixels), a quadrupling of resolution from the previous series, bringing a more visceral sense of texture in the footage, and serving to further blur the border between the world in the monitor and world outside of it. It is a work with a strange existence, wandering between painting and video, apparent significance and insignificance in which viewers often lose a sense of what they are looking at.”

There is also a humorous element to viewing the new series. The art object becomes a recording or an encapsulation of the very thing that was used to create it. The work documents itself and crystallizes what the series is about. If we document ourselves so much, or move so far into our devices, at which point do we decide we are the device? And when we die do we continue to exist as this document? Our bodies are our containers, but we also imbue objects and materials with our identity and spirit. When we think of the afterlife or ghosts, we picture them haunting objects like a chair or a door. Here, perhaps there is also something to be said that we inhabit our devices and technologies in a ghostly manner even while living, and they also possess us.

Some Notes About Bread:

Although I have not seen it in person, I have taken a great interest in Exonemo’s artwork "Bread (not in time)", which was shown temporarily at NTT-ICC, and can be thought of as part of the "Body Paint" series (or dialogue). Originally Heavy "Body Paint" arrived late to the museum. This can cause a big headache to museum staff, but life happens. Despite this, it brought about a rare opportunity to see how Exonemo would handle such a situation. 

The bread, as Exonemo explains, comes from a Japanese expression (often found in manga or anime) to describe lateness. It is a quick solution for hungry students trying to get to school on time. The work is humorous to see in the museum environment. It appears perhaps at first as a conceptual art piece meant to be taken very seriously, but it is really just a temporary placeholder of the "Heavy Body Paint" series. Here the screen is the bread, and the jelly the acrylic paint. In a way the bread becomes a scarecrow or sketch of the series. Ironically as well, in religious symbolism or iconography, bread serves as a substitute or representation of life and the physical body.