Simon Fujiwara’s ‘Cartoonified’ Quest for Identity

At Fondazione Prada, the artist’s site-specific installation plays on puns and cultural icons to debate identify politics through the story of a cartoon bear called Who

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BY Ana Vukadin in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 02 JUN 21

Conceived during the first COVID-19 lockdown, ‘Who the Bær’, Simon Fujiwara’s current solo exhibition at Fondazione Prada, is the artist’s response to spending the past year living in a world almost entirely mediated by on-screen imagery. Overwhelmed by a period marked not only by the pandemic but also crucial social change, the artist sought refuge in drawing and collage, combining his own original characters with photographs and news stories culled from the internet – from Elon Musk’s space launch to the Black Lives Matter protests. In Milan, Fujiwara has extended this practice, creating a site-specific installation overflowing with collages, drawings, mixed-media sculptures and stop-motion animations dedicated to the adventures of an adorable cartoon bear that lends the exhibition its name.

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Simon Fujiwara, 'Who the Bær', 2021, exhibition view, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan

The result is a superbly entertaining, wildly inventive show, which sees viewers embark on a fairy-tale journey through a bear-shaped labyrinth made from cardboard. Split into five sections, the installation begins with Who’s inception and leads all the way to their apparent death. Who, we learn, has no clear race, gender or sexuality but, with the stubborn optimism of many a cartoon character, they relentlessly try on different identities, moving effortlessly from person to product. In the collage Becoming Who? (An Autobiography) (all works 2021), for instance, Fujiwara’s character taps into the cult-like status of former FLOTUS Michelle Obama by inserting their silhouette over Obama’s portrait on the cover of her best-selling book, Becoming (2018).

In an Instagram Live talk, given before the exhibition opened, Fujiwara described the feeling of living through the pandemic as a ‘collagistic experience’ that was like the ‘rupture in collage where two things that don’t belong together butt up against each other’. This experience is reflected not only in the artist’s choice of media but also in the diverse situations in which he locates Who, many of which riff on news events from the past year. In the section ‘Becoming Who?’, our protagonist humorously grapples with questions of gender, as seen in Who’s a Man?, a set of 14 drawings that includes a darkly comic image of Who lying in bed reading up on hypermasculinity, air bubbles of illustrations and cut-out bullet points like ‘the belief that violence is manly’ floating above their head.

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Simon Fujiwara, Who's a Man? (detail), 2021, installation view, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan

As Who navigates the online world in their quest for an identity, they are repeatedly drawn to cultural icons. In The Story of Who? (Mummy, Daddy, Home & Car), for example, Who temporarily appropriates tech guru Musk and his partner, singer Grimes, as family members. Made up of two collages, the first piece features cut-outs of the couple and babies, childish drawings of trees and flying bees amidst the headline: ‘Breaking news: Elon Musk and Grimes will raise their child ‘Gender Neutral’ and call it X Æ A-12’; the second illustrates Who’s dream eco-home. Elsewhere, climate-change activist Greta Thunberg is recast as Who: Fujiwara overlays a piece of tracing paper featuring a sketch of the bear sporting Thunberg’s signature braid onto the original photograph. As Fujiwara said on Instagram, in a ‘cartoonified’ media landscape where information has to ‘fight to get through the noise’, even something as important as climate change must be reducible to a single, iconic image to survive.

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Simon Fujiwara, 'Who the Bær', 2021, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan

Throughout Who’s various iterations, the artist uses humour and irreverence – the show is full of visual puns and wordplay – to keep each new adventure entertaining and to cut through the polarizing nature of current debates on identity politics. By showing us the world via Who’s simplistic lens, Fujiwara exposes the dangers of ignoring nuance when grappling with the complex questions of our time.

Simon Fujiwara's ‘Who the Bær’ is on view at Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy, until 27 September

Main image and thumbnail: Simon Fujiwara, 'Who the Bær', 2021, exhibition view, Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy. Courtesy: the artist and Fondazione Prada, Milan

Ana Vukadin is a writer, translator and editor who lives in Jesi, Italy.

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