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The Surrealist Roots of the “Vaporwave” Genre

The aesthetic niche combining electronic music and digital art finds an ancestor in Surrealism, particularly in the self-taught French painter Yves Tanguy.

Yves Tanguy, “La Journée bleue” (1937) at the Tate Modern, London (photograph by Gautier Poupeau via Flickr)

Born on the internet almost 10 years ago as a sarcastic joke about the fetishization of the 1980s, vaporwave survived until 2020 as an aesthetic niche merging electronic music and digital art. At the core of it, there is a deep understanding of what it means to use and remix contents (sounds or pictures), to produce something that is diluted, slowed down, educated. It is an aesthetic that exists only by virtue of what the public remembers about a future that the past promised was to come. Cropped anime girls and 16-bit Nintendo video games backgrounds refer to Japan at the height of its economic and cultural power during the 1980s when a new generation of Western kids got in contact with an exotic new aesthetic.

Vaporwave is about failed promises and decadent shiny futures. You don’t enjoy it as such, but rather is a song you play in background while writing (as I am doing now) or a picture you find after scrolling your tumblr homepage for 20 minutes. It’s a glimpse into what people believed computer art could become 30 years ago — with a bitter twist. You feel melancholic after being in contact with it but you don’t know why, as if it was a dream.

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The feeling of unease and a suspension of reality in vaporwave finds a not-so-surprising ancestor in Surrealism, the interwar art movement that explored the unconscious to unlock the inner power of imagination in between. Among the artists included in that movement , Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) is certainly the painter whose work most influenced the aesthetic of the group and indirectly affected vaporwave art.

Son of a sea captain, Tanguy spent many summers of his childhood on the gray coasts in Brittany. After losing his father and older brother in the first World War, he didn’t follow the maritime tradition of the family and instead lived a bohemian life in Paris. It was there that the view of a painting by Giorgio De Chirico led him to become a painter at the age of 23, without any prior traditional training. Nonetheless, his style became flawless, extraordinarily detailed. One year after beginning his artistic career, he was introduced to Surrealist poet André Breton who, according to a London Bulletin reporter, enjoyed his paintings so much that he defined Surrealism as “the appearance of Yves Tanguy, crowned with the big emerald bird of Paradise.”

Yves Tanguy, “Mama, Papa Is Wounded!” (1927) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (photograph by Art is a Word via Flickr)

Most of his paintings feature groups of bone-like organic shapes adrift on a desolate, gray plain. These forms don’t recall any real objects and appear instead as genuine, unfiltered products of the mind. Although they are sometimes represented as connected to each other by taut twine, no communication takes place in these paintings. Tanguy’s interest in psychology, and Carl Jung’s theories in particular, led him to paint the backgrounds and shadows first, before adding the shapes.

These organic forms exist not to represent something else but, in a way, recall the low-res imagery of first personal computers, the very same technology that obsesses the vaporwave aesthetic. Tanguy’s shapes are signs that became significant just by virtue of being, not because they refer to something else. Tropical plants, ancient Roman sculptures and 3-D rendered objects, the tropes of vaporwave, have all been emptied of their significance after being discretized a thousand times by popular culture.

In the digital realm, it doesn’t matter whether rendered objects are supposed to represent a dolphin or a palm tree, because they are all the same: empty vessels made of zeros and ones. They have a value by virtue of being open to interpretation and remixing. In a similar fashion, Tanguy’s shapes lost their connection to real objects to gain a new role and significance; they cast shadows on empty landscapes that few can understand but that nonetheless were generated by a human mind.

Yves Tanguy, “Le mobilier du temps” (1939) Museum of Modern Art, New York (photo by Gautier Poupeau via Flickr)

Tanguy was a survivor living among survivors in a city, Paris, that defined modernity itself. His art reflected a melancholic mood that wasn’t shadowed by the funny hairstyle and party tricks that made him famous among his art circles. As he made his paintings, mass produced imagery was becoming more and more common in Europe. There is a certain sorrow in his work, as if reality went adrift on the coast of his mind and stayed until it became just the shadow of what it was.

Vaporwave looks at reality with a similar grief in a time — the early 2000s — when the internet was changing forever. Facebook and Twitter were becoming what seemed to be the only online platforms where people could fully express themselves in the digital realm. Websites such as Tumblr were perceived as the last defense for creatives and artists who wanted to upload, download, remix any contents they desired without being engulfed by marketing-driven algorithms and mechanisms.

Both Tanguy’s art and vaporwave aesthetic reflect a sorrow for what could happen in the future if the past didn’t take place. To look at those desolate landscapes means to stare into the void left by a present that is not what they promised us would be.

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