Ana Teixeira Pinto Your work The Happy Museum (2016) for the 9th Berlin Biennale presents a vision of Germany that is inclusive, tolerant and multicultural. I couldn’t help thinking how remote this vision of Germany feels at the moment.
Simon Fujiwara The Happy Museum was developed in collaboration with my brother, Daniel. As a 'happiness economist', Daniel’s job is to turn the complex factors that contribute to a society’s well-being into data. Such data influences companies, governments and NGOs to promote policies that will create more well-being. The objects, artefacts and performances are literal materializations of data on the well-being of today’s Berliners. In speaking to my brother, security, safety and trustworthiness came up as key values for the well-being of Berliners I was interested in asking: What are the conflicts that occur when local conditions of happiness exist in a globalized world? The past is a safe place to look – but while one can have informed opinions about past events, it's much harder to pull off in the present.
ATP Is happiness a thing of the past?
SF Every object in the show was about the present, and the way we view the recent or distant past. While many of the objects sought to create an immediate and physical sense of happiness in the viewer – say, the sugary smell of the giant gingerbread plinth – others looked to harsh current realities. For instance, the Kinder chocolates included in the installation alluded to the far-right anti-immigration movement emerging in Germany. When Kinder recently used childhood photos of players in the German national football team, Pegida expressed outrage at the use of non-white children’s faces. Yet according to my brother, even the existence of extreme political groups can create happiness and well-being – in econometric terms. In our nebulous political climate the presence of an extreme party helps bring together an otherwise fractured majority from the center right to the far left creating a much sought-after sense of community. His economic field is so agile that it can encompass what may appear to us as counterintuitive, hazardous, radical and sometimes unspeakable ideas.
ATP You know happiness is, literally, tied to money: since capital has no natural unit of measurement, at the end of the day its value is determined by the way we fictionalize its commodities.
SF One of the objects in The Happy Museum is a multi-compartment, domestic trash separation unit of which there are over 200 varieties on the German market. I wanted an object that materialized the importance Germans place on personal ecological responsibility. This object, with its multiple recycling options, creates value by forming a connection between the individual and a larger global ecological landscape. These bins can cost up to €200, but they don’t suffer the negative connotations of a luxury good because they serve an altruistic goal. Since individuals don’t know what happens to the waste they separate – if it is indeed recycled or thrown into a landfill – they must trust that the authorities will uphold their expectations. In this way, trash units become vanity objects: they speak of their owners’ beliefs, lifestyle and values, displaying responsibility as a value without necessarily effecting it. I loved this contradiction and thought that the physical form of the trash bin manifested it: everything about its design is pragmatism and logic, yet when you see it on a plinth, abstracted from its context and purpose it looks impossibly strange and illogical.
ATP Is this a uniquely ‘German’ value?
SF I’m not saying German consumers are more or less deluded than any other country, but the values of clarity, honesty, trustworthiness and transparency play a greater role in influencing consumer decisions in Germany – even when it is based on an emotionally-induced faith of a nation’s self-image as trustworthy. The Volkswagen emissions scandal says it all. But my inclusion of the bin is not misanthropic towards German audiences – it makes us feel good to know these objects exist. The bin displays a society’s belief in doing good, a faith in something, even if that faith ultimately confirms the capitalist logic of creating ever more markets for things we might not actually need. I own one myself, although I'm not always consistent in how I use it.
ATP Your work seeks to narrativize value – are you attracted to narrative due to its ability to hold together opposite impulses?
SF I increasingly realize that my entire practice is in part a battle with my deeply conflicting feelings about narrative and perhaps even a desire to imagine a world in which it no longer exists. This is futile – we are biologically programmed to exist temporally, to be born and to die, to begin and end, and are thus bound to narrative. In my lifetime I have witnessed a huge shift in what I call ‘narrative ownership’ from the societal or governmental level to the individual – great changes in sexual and gender identity are indebted to the shift from a belief in a community to a belief in the individual. But I don't know if I believe, or even want to believe, in the individual as a concept. Something seems wrong, or maybe too right about it. The individual is a wonderful concept for capitalism because it seamlessly enforces all of the impulses that lead us to spend money, to be allowed to be less empathetic, less reliant on others and less complex, and I can’t quite reconcile myself with that reality.
ATP This ambivalent notion of the individual was the heart of The Humanizer, your recent project at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in which you made a Hollywood biopic based on the life of a historical Irish figure.
SF The Humanizer took the biography of a historically significant yet under-recognized Irish figure, Roger Casement, through the Hollywood machine in order to understand what is most marketable about him. As a kind of litmus test for current cultural values, I asked: How would a corporation tell his story to appeal to a mass audience? Casement’s biography is perfect Oscar biopic fodder, but too complex and contradictory for a two-hour movie that can function commercially. Casement, who was born in 1864, is known as the world’s first human rights campaigner. A very active homosexual (although not openly), he was knighted by the British government and later executed for committing treason. I approached Mike Lesslie – who works on screenplays for mega-budget Hollywood films – to help me boil down Casement’s life story into a script that could be plausibly filmed by a major studio. As I read the script, I was shocked by the liberal reorganization and fictionalization of much of his life. At the same time, in its new form I felt I could emotionally connect to Casement in a way that I couldn't before. I could visualize the film entirely, the sets, the props, the characters’ facial gestures even the camera movements, which made me understand how colonized my subconscious has been by Hollywood conventions. That’s why the work became a sound installation: I recorded the script with actors, added music and foley but no visuals, so that viewers imagine the entire movie based on other movies they have seen. The result was a highly banal and emotionally charged sound installation that leaves you at once exhilarated and empty – which for me is, often, the Hollywood experience. Without images, the human-less feeling of manipulation and absurdity was foregrounded and became the subject of the work. It was more 'Hollywood' than Hollywood, and my way of reversing its colonization process.
ATP Your earlier pieces worked with the performance-lecture format – did this also stem from the need to negotiate personal biography and collective history?
SF My early performances worked with personal narrative in an effort to undermine the banal racial and sexual notions I grew up with by over-identifying with them. I created myths about my origins or my formation as an artist that were often contradictory or fabricated, because I knew the power those narratives hold in the art world. By centering the concept of self-narration within my work I was not critiquing the power of narrative, but examining its power. It did lead to some early success in my career – it empowered me. However, those early works were never intended to confirm a ‘self’ or an ‘individuality’ which is perhaps the most marketable part of an artist – but to complicate it to the point where it is not longer clear where the self begins and ends. It was about liberating myself from my history by exploiting it beyond authenticity.
ATP The rubbish picker in The Happy Museum – a female interviewee and the only ‘foreign’ element in the work – seemed like a comment on the current conflation of life with lifestyle. It reminded me of how, today, Europeans are willing to let refugee families drown because we feel immigration threatens our lifestyle, the maintenance of which is seen as a question of survival.
SF Maria, the rubbish picker, confirms and subverts European clichés about people living in extreme conditions: she embodies what we would traditionally think of as a binary conflict. Tragedy versus joy, response as cynicism or compassion – I wanted to think about how our approach to philanthropy is still a one-way street. ‘Doing good’ is rewarded through the improvement we see in details and personal lives of recipients, yet they are to play their part or not be shown. Rarely does a subject in such situations get a chance to interview the philanthropists, filmmakers or audiences about how they feel about their lives, how ‘doing good’ affects them personally. Traditional documentary attempts to render the director’s hand invisible, to present a reality, as if it were unethical to demonstrate a personal position or opinion. Many films depicting rubbish pickers like Maria believe it would be crucial to show Maria in her work place, in her context, to show the mountains of stinking rubbish behind her as she is interviewed. I asked her where she would like to be interviewed and she said it was her dream to be in a bright, clean white television studio – the opposite of her daily context – so that is how we shot her. It comes across as a heavy directorial decision. But why is Maria less entitled, say, than a rich white lady to be presented in the way she wants to – because she is poor and has little agency over her life and destiny? We may actually be less comfortable considering our own realities than she is about hers.
ATP How did your interest in philanthropy begin?
SF After the Fukushima disaster I was invited by a philanthropic group to customize a Louis Vuitton handbag to contribute to an auction in Switzerland to raise money for the survivors. These conflations of high and low, disaster and celebration, poverty and wealth are more and more commonplace. Perhaps due to the way we consume so many registers of information simultaneously online there is a space opened up for activities that to me still seem deeply inappropriate.
ATP Your work often points to this slippage between iconophilia and iconoclasm – I’m thinking of the Merkel paintings Masks (Merkel) (2015–ongoing) for instance.
SF When I met Merkel’s makeup artist, I was fascinated to learn that she uses HD make up, an extremely fine powder that disappears under the gaze of HD camera lenses, making the subject appear natural. I thought this very fact was so telling of the leader who has created an image based on ‘normality’ and everydayness, always attempting to render invisible her immense power. I’m never interested in technology for the sake of its newness, but on how it impacts historic or traditional values that continue to have power. The Merkel paintings depict portions of the leader’s face massively enlarged – I was thinking of a modern day Turin shroud: an iconic record of the world’s most powerful woman. Each image is highly abstract yet, materially, that is as close to standing before the leader herself as most of us will ever come. The images are almost impossible to photograph, of course, as the powder all but disappears. I was asking myself, what is a political image today? For me, it was about creating an emotional, formal or purely experiential experience that may or may not have any meaning or substance. The emperor’s new clothes. It seemed relevant thinking about the world leaders we have, or might soon come into power.
ATP Did you end up doing the Louis Vuitton handbag?
SF I didn’t. Still, I’m tempted to make that customized handbag: just for myself.