The exhibition, stamped with the character and concrete syntax of public spaces, takes as its starting point the recent proliferation and prominence of pictorial language and the slow erasure of text-based communication via our digital devices, and explores how the ambiguity of these has enabled them to take on a range of culturally specific meanings and spaces beyond their intended use. The exhibition ‘Analogue LOL’, developed through discussion between curator Victor Wang and artist Michael Dean, is centred on the construction of common spaces and the evolution of language, specifically through the acronym LOL (laughing out loud), and its recent development into the emoji officially known as ‘Face with Tears of Joy’. Somewhere between picture and word, in 2015 this emoticon became the first pictograph to be named ‘word of the year’ by Oxford Dictionaries, signalling a shift in the application, use and reception of language towards a ‘post-text’ form of communication.
Like bamboo scaffolds encasing an online chat room, or new ‘free speech zone’, these parallel shifts in image communication and the public sphere are highlighted throughout the exhibition. For example, the materials used by Dean to sculpt and support the acronym LOL – itself a unique blend of communication constructed by recomposing words into a type of sculpted articulation – also references the historical significance of steel and concrete for construction and the development of common spaces: materials that were born in a specific era and from distinct modernising ideas of accessibility and shared dialogue. Dean then moulds these fundamental developments in the urban and social landscape onto the rapid advancement of technological communication. The characteristics and materials of construction are incorporated into an interweaving of the analogue and the digital, a repositioning of social life and public communication that allows chat room to become public domain, plaza to become dance floor, letter to become symbol, and image to become word, through the expanded use of modified logograms (a sign or character representing a word or phrase), emoticons and emojis.
Dean is a writer and artist who captures the conflicted nature of the English linguistic system that is shaped by the lips of many, and addresses the limitation of the very flat, curved 2D ink planes that shape its form. Writing, for Dean, is imbued with cul-de-sacs of meaning: he questions how ‘such a flat thing (as writing), can have the meaning of a rainbow, but its body is just ink and bones’. The layout of the exhibition begins with a single page: blank, with slightly curved edges, its flat white face becoming the unmarked vinyl floor of the ShanghART gallery, and Dean’s re-appropriated law enforcement tape regulating the assembly of LOLs occupying the gallery.
Dean’s work is often described as sculpture, but it is not sculpture in a traditional sense. Dean traces the restlessness of inner-city living and the human emotions that spring from its cracked concrete surfaces. Each of Dean’s artworks and exhibitions, including this one, begins with words and letters. However, these words and emotions have shed their skin, distorted by misuse and rearrangement, much like the posture of a minimum-wage employee moulded by the unrestrained hands of the city. In several works we see the tensions of family dynamics played out in the configuration and demeanour of Dean’s acronym-based sculptures. Who can laugh? Who is laughing at whom? What's so funny? Transformed from ink and lead, these charged emotions are cast and moulded from the same construction materials that were used to redevelop Shanghai’s West Bund, and that connect the joints of the city, and its public spaces to its hosts. With a genuinely personal touch, these related units of work include bike locks, stickers, security tape and cast hands and fingers of Dean’s own family, playing on notions of intention and reception. Just as Dean’s use of opaque imagery withholds and obscures meaning, so too do these fists, palms, and fingers, that can be read either as peace signs or as two-fingered salutes, depending on their direction.
With its torn pages and poured coloured concrete, the exhibition opens up a space between language, social space and the pictorial transformation of both, using the architecture of LOL and the visual field of construction to amass an unregulated gathering of speech and laughter which both intrudes on and slows down the rapid abstracting of language and space. Image-based emotions in the twenty-first century provide the foundation for an international written and visual mode of expression that has inevitably complicated the divide between text-based communication and image language. However, the diffusion of the communication technology explored in the exhibition can be further mapped through the concept of the ‘post-emotion’ and ‘post-text’, as developed through discussion between artist and curator. The ‘post-emotion’ is a cloud of emotional technologies. It encapsulates the transformation of human expression occurring in both the virtual and the physical socio-technological networks: mouth, phone, paper and screen. Just as Dean follows the anatomical growth of the city, its cellular institutions and optical instruments, the ‘post-emotion’ and ‘post-text’ tracks the evolution of language and expression within the expanding economy of time, and its ever-increasing scarcity. From speech to text and acronym, from emoticons to Emojis and online likes and shares, the ‘post-emotion’ opens up the structure of communication and language while increasing its ambiguity.