A Brief History of Emoji Art, All the Way to Hollywood

17th Jan 2018
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Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller) and Hi-5 (voiced by James Corden) in “The Emoji Movie.”CreditSony Pictures Animation/Sony Pictures Animation, via Associated Press

The Emoji Movie” is the apotheosis of Hollywood’s consumerist blockbuster trend, where the smartphone is recast as a playground, and tech companies spin their products into sparking baubles to sell to children. In the film, three emoji characters chase their dreams while sailing down Spotify streams, scaling a level of Candy Crush and ascending into the cloud through every child’s most beloved app, Dropbox.

The movie cements emoji’s place as defining symbols of global capitalism — a form of expression that transcends language barriers and lends a gloss of emotional affect to our cold, unfeeling devices. But before emoji went Hollywood, plugged-in artists were leveraging them in their work to invoke the wonders and hazards of the digital era. Here are landmark moments in emojified art.

‘Emoji Dick’

“Emoji Dick” translated “Moby Dick”CreditFred Benenson

In 2010, Japanese emoji hadn’t even made their way to American smartphone keyboards, but Fred Benenson was already working on an all-emoji translation of “Moby-Dick.” “Emoji Dick” was both crowdfunded (on Kickstarter) and crowdsourced — the translations were performed by hundreds of workers recruited from Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online jobs marketplace.

It’s safe to say that “Emoji Dick” does not rival the original. “Call me Ishmael” comes out as a telephone emoji, a man emoji, a boat emoji, a whale emoji and, finally, the O.K. hand emoji, as if to say, “Just deal with it.” But the translation made its mark as an experiment in digital language and labor. The Library of Congress acquired it in 2013.

‘Book From the Ground’

From “Book From the Ground.”CreditXu Bing

“Twenty years ago I made ‘Book From the Sky,’ a book of illegible Chinese characters that no one could read,” the artist Xu Bing wrote in 2012. “Now I have created ‘Book From the Ground,’ a book that anyone can read.” A decade in the making, “Book From the Ground” constructs a day in the life of a modern white-collar worker, Mr. Black, entirely in pictograms. The book is written in rudimentary emoji but also in symbols from online maps, company logos and musical scores.

It’s part art project, part novel; opening the book is a transformative mental exercise that lies somewhere between reading and seeing. And unlike “Emoji Dick,” with its literal, even mechanical translation style, “Book From the Ground” achieves a poetry through symbol that is instantly legible to audiences around the world.

‘Boring Angel’ Video

“Boring Angel,” a 2013 track by the experimental electronic artist Oneohtrix Point Never, marries the sounds of computing with the sweeping emotional resonance of chamber music. The song’s music video, created by the internet artist John Michael Boling, achieves a similar effect, using digital ephemera in the service of timeless storytelling.

Mr. Boling presents a blank white screen featuring just one small, ever-shifting emoji character, which flits across the keyboard to convey an entire lifetime in just over four minutes. We experience heartbreak (a pattern of broken heart emoji, sobbing face emoji, wine emoji and cigarette emoji); addiction (a sequence featuring the Magic 8 Ball emoji, pill emoji and syringe emoji); death (the skull emoji appears); and, finally, the hopeful hint of an afterlife (it all ends on the prayer-hands emoji).

‘Garden of Emoji Delights’

The “Garden of Earthly Delights,” the famous triptych from the Renaissance painter Hieronymous Bosch, depicts humanity at points of creation, civilization and damnation. Carla Gannis’s animated collage layers hundreds of emoji over Bosch’s work, updating the narrative for the digital (and nuclear) age. Bosch’s already absurdist symbols are pushed to the height of consumerist excess: The nude figures of Adam and Eve are outfitted in graphic, smiley-face prints; Jesus flashes a peace sign emoji; and, near the end, a great explosion nukes Eden (fire emoji), sending civilization back to a state of nature (tree emoji) and making hell freeze over (snowflake emoji). The piece is on display in “Bunker,” a digital art exhibition at Sotheby’s.

The Original Emoji

The original set of 176 emojis, designed for a Japanese mobile provider and acquired by the Museum of Modern Art.CreditShigetaka Kurita/Museum of Modern Art

Emoji themselves are intriguing design objects, embedded with clues to the culture in which they are created and shared. Last year, the Museum of Modern Art acquired the very first set of emoji characters. Designed by Shigetaka Kurita for a Japanese mobile provider, the set of 176 emoji — each was constructed in a 12-by-12-pixel frame and cast originally in black and white — first hit cellphones in 1999. His designs are a mash-up of the creative and the consumerist, taking cues from manga and corporate advertising.



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