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TOKYO — Scrolling through your Facebook feed, you notice that a man you met several years ago and never contacted again has died in a freak skiing accident. But, your friend has been promoted. You feel guilty and happy. In a different browser — a 4chan thread — a Charmander with a Hitler mustache comes out of nowhere (why are you there in the first place?). There remains that email to respond to, as well. You’ve minimized it so it’s out of sight, but it’s not out of mind.
Kazuki Umezawa, also known as Umelabo, has made a series of “internet landscapes” that vividly captures the schizophrenic experience of the internet. Sprawling, printed collages of found images are coupled with his own designs and occasionally overlaid with layers of paint. Each work presents a dense, meaningless barrage of visual information — for example, chocolate cookies, feeds, threads, disembodied legs, mushrooms, icons, anime characters, fractals, shrines — condensing years’ worth of browsing history into a single frame. Amid this chaos, the specificity of individual images, moments, places, and persons drops away to reveal expansive, jagged shapes, especially when viewed from a distance. Hyper Landscape, currently at the Watari-Um museum in Tokyo, surveys Umezawa’s career to date, with work ranging from early sketches to recent collages. It also provides a window into the rise of online otaku communities in Japan (a term that translates loosely as “nerd” and indicates obsessive interest in media such as manga and anime).
Umezawa’s work combines his fine arts education with the creative practices of such otaku communities. Born in 1985 in Saitama to an artistic family (his father studied copper-plate printing and his mother studied design), he resolved to become an artist in middle school and entered a special art track in high school, drawing manga in his spare time. While enrolled in the Musashino Art University’s Imaging Arts and Sciences program, he experimented with a variety of mediums and forms, including intricate miniature drawings reminiscent of the artist Manabu Ikeda, as well as sculpture and animation.
His college years, from 2005 to 2008, coincided with the proliferation of the internet in Japan. (Mixi, the first social media site he began using in 2005, was founded in 1999.) The emergence of online otaku communities thus shaped his development. Pixiv, a platform that allows users to create and share fan art, was especially important: the aesthetic and experience of anonymous users interacting under various handles influenced his method of appropriating and collaging (via Photoshop) online images, and his adoption of the handle “Umelabo.” His 2008 final project for Musashino Art University, Proof of an Image, is his first fully realized internet landscape, representing the culmination of his search for a style. The piece spans over 24 feet horizontally and fuses analog and digital processes — the artist combined countless appropriated and self-made images, printed these composites onto A4-size sheets of paper, and then traced these onto plaster using pencil, colored pencil, acrylic and ink to form eight separate works. After that, he scanned these back into the computer and composited them on Photoshop to form one continuous shape, which he again printed and modified with pencil and acrylic. This continuous transfer of information between analog and digital mediums has become a staple of Umezawa’s artistic production. In an online statement about the work, he explains that he wanted to the fix the characters “that smile at you through the screen” in the weight and texture of the plaster — to bring these characters into physical “existence.”
Umezawa joined Chaos Lounge in 2009, a collective started by the artist Uso Fujishiro in 2008 (whom Umezawa met via Pixiv). The following year, the group teamed up with the critic and curator Yohei Kurose. Their collaborations directly extend the online otaku communities into the sphere of art.
If Chaos Lounge initially idealized the sense of collectivity and utopianism signified by the internet in the 2000s, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011 served as a wake-up call; within a year of issuing their 2010 manifesto decrying Japanese art’s failure to produce an innovative movement to follow Murakami’s Superflat, they had already changed focus and begun to criticize some in the otaku community for their evasive, apathetic attitude toward the disaster. This shift manifested in Umezawa’s individual work as well: the artist started overlaying his digital collages onto images of the impacted areas as a challenge to those who would seek to retreat further into a detached, digital realm (as seen, for instance, in his 2011 work “A Certain Mankind’s Super Landscape”).
Undergirding the artist’s image and character scavenging is the logic of the database. Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media and Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Database Animals, both published in 2001 on opposite sides of the world, offered conflicting visions of the influence of this database on contemporary culture. While both writers agree that the database, and, by extension, the internet has radically changed the way we consume media, Azuma’s argument is based primarily on his observations of otaku at a time when this once-subculture was becoming widely accepted in Japanese society. He argues that otakus’ consumption habits represented a complete rejection of social interaction in favor of immersion in a cocoon of endlessly customizable information. This tendency took concrete form in character databases, wherein users could store, shape, and merge different attributes to create their ideal avatar without a “story” or overarching narrative. These concepts provided Umezawa with a theoretical framework for his efforts to collect bits and pieces of characters and other images — his work “Glasya-Lavos,” a composite of countless fragments and attributes of characters, embodies the logic of the database.
Outside of Japan, Umezawa’s work will likely draw comparisons to Takashi Murakami’s; the latter first translated otaku culture into the international art world with his enormously successful Superflat style. The decisive difference between the two artists is the role of the internet in art production. Azuma discusses Murakami in Database Animals as removed from the contemporary database model of consumption that Umezawa so readily identifies with. Umezawa experienced a radical fragmentation of identity through his online, collaborative efforts to create and disseminate fan art, and this practice is reflected in the logic of his landscapes. In addition, he is far less interested than Murakami in defining a “Japanese” aesthetic, or speaking on behalf of Japan to the West. This reticence explains, at least in part, why he has had difficulty breaking into the international art market that feeds on Japonism. While his work references the entrance of otaku subculture into Japanese fine art via Murakami, Makoto Aida, and Yoshitomo Nara in the 1990s, Umezawa has grown up in a world where otaku culture is increasingly global and can no longer easily be circumscribed within Japan. Chaos Lounge leader Yohei Kurose, for example, explains his landscapes as a hybrid between Robert Rauschenberg’s Combine paintings and the GUI (graphic-user-interface), which reconstructs digitized information in a familiar, manipulable format for use on computers, smartphones, and other such devices.
Questions of copyright and authorship inevitably arise in discussions of Umezawa’s art. While Chaos Lounge and Umezawa have at times appropriated images, like Disney characters, and been criticized for doing so, the artist’s internet landscapes are so dense with information that appropriated items are often buried inside the expanse, rather than emphasized for easy identification — and thus consumption. His internet landscapes have the potential to speak to viewers all over the world struggling to wade through ever-increasing amounts of online propaganda. This becomes increasingly clear with the artist’s turn towards using actual images documenting the 2011 earthquake’s continuing impact on the Tohoku region. The American alt-right’s frequent appropriation of Japanese pop culture to further a racist agenda on 4chan (which derives from the Japanese site 2chan) also forms a strange link with his work — although the possibility of the alt-right’s identification with his landscapes ironically undermines their fragile, collective self-image. Umezawa’s art cannot be contained within the borders of any nation. It represents a global, decentralized network. Far from utopian, his landscapes force us to consider the world outside refracted back to us through a warped lens.
Hyper Landscape continues at the Watari-Um Museum (3-7-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan) through December 2.