The Relation Between Humans and Society

By Yumi Gohda.

Astrup Fearnley Museet holds the exhibition Dan Colen - Works from the Astrup Fearnley Collection. Colen is known as an artist who spreads various kinds of social aspects such as politics and economy though his art works. In this exhibition, he expresses the beginning of 21st century which the people living in the Lower East Side of New York face. He especially focuses on realism in the American society, and throughout his work, he tries to raise one simple, yet eternal question for them what reality is. In order to express this question to the public, he uses a wide range of methods, such as paintings, movies, sculptures and photographs. The utmost trait of his works is that he uses rather unorthodox materials such as lemon juice, chewing gum, bird droppings and flowers. This new approach does not simply mean that he is trying to open up a new path of art. His true intends are that people will re-acknowledge who they and their society are through his works. It will make it possible for people to understand what reality and fantasy are, what the relationship between humans and society is, and what abstraction really means.

Colen emphasizes on the balance between reality and fantasy. In this exhibition, for instance, cartoon characters from Walt Disney is used as a part of his works. In the exhibition hall, there are three cartoon characters and one naked man that seem to be completely exhausted by breaking through the wall, and nearby, curved out in the exhibition hall, are big halls wall shaped like people and other cartoon characters. Only after seeing them did people understand what the shape on the wall means. (Livin and Dyin, 2013) (image 1). When you face these big holes, you will have to choose how to view the rest of his work in the exhibit. For instance, you could continue through these wholes, or go through the path from the entrance in order.

People get a lot of information from cartoons and obtain them as knowledge according to how the cartoon world works. Surprisingly, fiction world often makes it possible for humans to understand reality. For instance, the Ghibli amine film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) warns how nuclear weapons and environmental destruction affect the earth’s future. As you go through this exhibition, you will be able to understand how reality and fiction have a certain togetherness, and cannot be separated into two different worlds. In other words, humans can reconsider their own existence through the fiction world.

Colen’s approach in using new materials is the perfect way to express American society at the beginning of the 21st century. The Whole Enchilada, 2010-2011 (image 2) expresses the broken pole and the American national flag with its poll broken, all dirty lying on the ground. Despite the importance of the Star and Stripes, this work gives out the message that the flag no longer has the meaning what it used to. From this work, I feel the arrival of a new atmosphere in the American society, which makes people reconsider what American society is like. This national flag expresses their feelings such as anxiety and hope towards the new American society.

Looking at Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover (Another Country) 2010, (image 3) it might appear as an abstract painting, painted with oil. However, if you look closely, you will notice that chewing gum is used as the material for this work. Using chewing gum has an important meaning because it reflects the vanity of the American society. People just chew without qualifying it as something meaningful. He contextualizes people’s agony, confusion and discovery with such new materials. Therefore, people can feel the atmosphere of the new era which he confronted. To me, looking at this work, I felt the shadow of the mass consumption society. This work also gives people a new category of art expressing art, which may widen the possibility in abstract art.

Through this exhibition, you can notice that humans are greatly influenced by theories, information and stereotypes which remains deep-rooted in society. His thought of the strong relationship between reality and fiction can be discovered in Japan where there is a deep animation culture, known as ‘Anime’. Therefore, I think Japanese people can find some connections to their own thought and fiction world. His challenge toward art using lemon juice, chewing gum, bird droppings and flowers as materials represents that each person has a different point of view. He may try to tell people the importance of accepting individuals in the American society so-called “Salad Bowl”. To me, this exhibition tells the message that humans should understand themselves as a unique existence. At the same time, I realize the value of togetherness with fantasy, which help us to recollect invisible importance things in our life.


Dan Colen - Works from the Astrup Fearnley Collection. Exhibition wall text, Astrup Fearnley Museet, 2018.


All photos by Yumi Gohda.