We just dropped a collaborative Who the Bær? collection with Simon Fujiwara. See the full release here.
Who is Who the Bær? Who is you. Who is me. Who is anybody. Who a manifestation of our digital anxiety. An oddity. A commodity A Bær-shaped mascot for Whosnobiety.
Who is printed onto hoodies and t-shirts, a Bær with a signature, elongated tongue, perked-up ears, and blue jeans plastered over Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas paintings. It is a capsule collection obsessively asking that one-word question of “who,” but there are no answers hidden in the stitching. No hints typed onto the care tag. There are no answers anywhere, because for it’s creator, the British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara, the answer was never the point. As the old adage goes, “It’s about the journey, not the destination,” because Who is more than just another piece of art in the award-winning artist’s oeuvre.
Free of gender, sexuality, personality, or history, Who is a conduit for making sense of the sea of trash Fujiwara feels we’re wading through. Much like the very real, very mangled mass of plastic twice the size of Texas floating between Hawaii and California, our habitual overproduction online has resulted in a digital trash island so massive and all-encompassing that we can’t even begin to grasp it’s scale. It’s contents are pictures and tweets and voices and all manner of things we engage with every day. “We're born into a world where everything is trash; that meaning has been turned only into marketing,” he explains over an early morning Zoom call. “Feelings and emotions have been sold and traded and everything is a transaction.”
Our island of waste is influencer sponcon stuck to unfiltered photo dumps stuck to the hundreds of images and videos we mindlessly scroll through and forget about as soon as we close the app. “All we can do is shrug and go, ‘This is gross,’ and then carry on clicking, he says with a sigh. “It feels like there aren't any other options.” Our social media apps have offered a sprawling sea of content rendered meaningless through abundance for years, but until the pandemic shut the world down, it was easy to get lost in the waves.
“Until the lockdown, everyone was running around like headless chickens, doing what they've been doing for the last 10 years,” he recalls. As the global pandemic forced Fujiwara to hole up in his Berlin studio and connect solely through the internet, his imagination drifted as he wondered what this new reality would bring. Without galleries and museums, the only outlet for connection to the wider world came through our screens.
“I was bombarded with these [phone-screen] sized images all day about the total collapse of the world order and the rearrangement of gender identity and racial identity and institutions, all through images. I thought, “What effect are these images having on me, on my body, on my psyche? How am I processing them?’” The solution – a certain Bær with blue jeans, big ears, a pink tongue, and a yellow heart – began as simple charcoal sketches. “I thought drawing was a regressive act, in a way. That was what we were all doing. We were making our banana bread and drawing beautiful pictures in charcoal.” As many, many loaves of banana bread were baked and eaten, Who was just a doodle on paper. “Once upon a time, Who was just a head,” reads their first Instagram post.
As a head became a body and a body became a character, Fujiwara finally found a means of exploring what it means to be alive today. Freed from the constraints of being human, Who can be “the ultimate picture.” They exist “between a subject and a symbol, between an object and a person.” They are both a filter superimposed onto any person or period or object necessary and a protective barrier from the “grotesque,” marketing-filled world of images we inhabit. “If I can use all of these images and I can filter them through Who, for a brief second, at least for myself and maybe for an audience, it can feel like there's some harmony,” he explains. It’s this obsession with imagery that has driven the 39-year-old artist since his childhood.
Long before social media, Fujiwara recalls “desperately cutting images out of the magazines, doing what Instagram is now. That obsession with image was already planted.” It’s this early fascination with imagery that allowed the artist time to think deeply about questions many are only just starting to interrogate in themselves — and to pour those questions of authenticity into his art. “That really philosophical question of how to make a self today is at the core of Who. We have this ability to live in a world of pictures and not even remember what we've looked at, [but] at the same time, we’re seeking something more, but we don't know what that is.”
There is a very human tension that tugs at the need to be seen while simultaneously feeling trapped in the grind of digital exploitation, but without a human identity, Who is freed from this tension. Who feels like an answer to the question of what would happen if we could stop fighting and learn to love the digital noise. It’s an idea borne out of Fujiwara’s own fascination with the German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project.
Written from 1927 through 1940, the text includes a character who wanders the streets of Paris looking at billboards and believing every word they say. “I think of Who in relation to that [character], as someone who goes through the picture world and goes, ‘There's value in that picture, because I'm going to consume it. It's not going to consume me. I'm going to consume it.’”
In a way, Who is also a wanderer, floating through the world as they consume wave after wave of imagery. Fujiwara has brought Who to Milan’s Fondazione Prada, where an installation of cardboard and recycled materials weaved through the museum’s ground floor. For months, audiences got to know Who through a patchwork of drawings, sculptures, animations, and collages — and Fujiwara was able to finally see the reaction his little Bær had on strangers. By stuffing his complicated, existentially draining thoughts on identity into Who’s disarmingly cute exterior, Fujiwara noted that it was easier for people to emote over this cartoon than for themselves. This point was only strengthened as Who’s roving journey brought them to Geneva’s 21st Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement by way of a stop-motion film titled Once Upon a Who?
For five minutes, Who traverses time and space in a storybook-style journey to the center of the question of identity. As Who tries on a literal and figurative conveyor belt of identities, Fujiwara narrates the action with a poem inspired by the Dada art movement of the early 20th century. The art style — focused on humor and irrationalism — was the only logical inspiration for the artist as he wrote the poem. By casting a hyper-focus on the absurd, he explains, it became possible to “undermine it all or to untrash yourself, to take some power in it.”
In the film, everything from colonialism and environmental collapse to sexual-longing-by-way-of-Grindr are filtered through Who. Everything that is figuratively and literally plaguing society are seen through the cuddly Who, enabling audience to respond with a new emotional depth. Call it the “Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Arms of an Angel’ soundtracking animal cruelty videos” effect, but there is something about seeing Who suffer that plucks at entirely new emotional chords. “We can emote over a cartoon more than for ourselves,” Fujiwara notes. “We'll go online and be like, ‘Yes, I will degrade myself. I'll humiliate myself. I will beg for whatever short-term pleasure I can get.’ That can be sex or a shopping experience or whatever it is we do online, and then when we see a cartoon doing the same thing, we're like, ‘How can you do this to yourself? You poor thing.’”
With the exhibitions in Milan and Geneva, Who has become a powerful mirror wielded by Fujiwara to examine the terrible ills facing the world. They have been a dedicated sifter on the trash island, sorting meaning from the meaningless. Plastering Who’s likeness on everything from t-shirts and towels to lighters and umbrellas may feel like a concussive swerve away from the topics Who has explored thus far, but for Fujiwara, it’s an answer to a problem he’s grappled with over the course of his career. “I've always had an existential, philosophical problem, which is, how can I make products when I'm talking about this problem of over consumption? Or of trash or value or all of these things.” Yet, the artist has always sold merchandise — and so has any working artist who has made a sale. “These [pieces of art] are sold in shops. They're just called galleries,” he argues. “There's a whole different value system to do that.”
The artist knows that a “Whotique” stuffed with Who-branded merchandise won’t solve “any kind of real, global issues,” but at least he can “make merchandise that knows its merchandise.” With Whosnobiety, Fujiwara hopes to connect to an audience “hungry for something that is self-reflective and intellectually rich, even if presented in a simple way.”
One aspect of that has been making sure to convey some situational awareness onto the Bær. “I like the idea that Who is always in panic when they find themselves on merchandise.” Head in their hands, tongue unfurled and dripping down the fabric, Who is rendered in an endless scream. As if to say that in our overcommecialized world, you either die trying to find meaning on trash island or live long enough to see yourself become merchandise. Who was born out of a desire to find meaning in the trash we’re wading through, but maybe one day, Who will be the trash island itself. A colossal mound of mugs and towels and lighters and who knows what else.
That’s the thing about Who. Unburdened by identity, the blue jeans-wearing, yellow-hearted avatar can be whatever they need to be. A coffee mug or a VR experience or some other shape we can’t even imagine. Who is Who the Bær? Who is our trash island king. Who is everything.