Exploring The Pop Paradox of Desire With Emi Kusano’s New Series

*This article is part of our editorial series, Gallery Selects, where we showcase the diverse artists, collectors, and curators who are creating and sharing their NFTs on Gallery.

Japanese multimedia artist Emi Kusano has been making headlines over the past few months, frequently being spotted on the old continent to showcase her work. Her signature style is quite effective: AI combined with retrofuturistic and nostalgic vibes, with a well-balanced flavor of Japanese pop culture and aesthetics. This distinctive approach results in unique and compelling narratives for each of her series.

Beyond the visual aspect, Kusano's skills in integrating tech with both traditional and contemporary Japanese elements also create captivating and thought-provoking experiences for viewers, evoking and tackling profound themes and emotions. Her artworks have been prominently featured, including on the cover of WWD Japan (the very first AI-generated cover for a fashion media in Japan), in prestigious auctions such as Christie's and Gucci, and in exhibitions at venues such as the Saatchi Gallery in London, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo. Additionally, she has minted out NFT collections with Bright Moments and Art Blocks Curated, and actively engages with art communities around the world.

Today, she released “The Altar of Bonnō,” a generative art series curated by TENDER, on Verse. The 25 new artworks capture the essence of bonnō (earthly desires) through a mix of Japanese otaku culture, Western pop art, and Buddhist philosophy, exploring the perpetual tug-of-war between materialistic allure and spiritual equilibrium.

We reached out to her to get some insights into her latest series as she has just returned from Europe.

The Altar of Bonnō, Emi Kusano, 2024
The Altar of Bonnō, Emi Kusano, 2024

Emi, could you explain the origins of “The Altar of Bonnō” series and how it resonates with the themes of your previous collections?

“The Altar of Bonnō” is inspired by the “altar making” seen in Japanese otaku culture, where fans display their favorite characters and items like religious altars. This passion and obsession deeply resonated with me. Since I started exploring AI, the altar motif has frequently appeared in my work. In today’s world, where information drives consumption, the obsession with material objects evokes nostalgia.This series blends this yearning for yesteryear with contemporary desires, creating a singular world where the past and present intersect.

In what ways do this new series reflect the amalgamation of Japanese culture, Western influence, and Buddhist traditions?

This series is influenced by 20th-century modern art, particularly Andy Warhol’s pop art and its consumer culture motifs like Campbell’s soup cans. These works depict contemporary consumer culture and human desires. Their essence is reflected in my series.

Additionally, the chaotic streets of Tokyo, filled with neon signs, advertisements, and products, exemplify relentless consumerism and desire, forming the core of this series. Although the setting is Japan, the series portrays humans living amidst consumption and desire, both ancient and modern, from East and West. With a backdrop of Japanese culture and Buddhist teachings, the whole story explores universal human themes.

How does your AI-assisted interpretation of Bonnō challenge or enhance traditional artistic expressions of desire and spirituality?

Using AI allows for unprecedented visual expressions, incorporating elements like fast food and digital devices that represent modern consumer culture. These elements refresh traditional expressions of desire and spirituality, offering new interpretations. AI processes vast amounts of data and generates complex, multi-layered images. It clearly illustrates the conflict between material desires and spiritual harmony, prompting viewers to gain new insights.

Can you identify specific elements within the artworks that symbolize the ‘material defilements’ mentioned, and how do they relate to contemporary life?

Examples include fast food packaging, smartphones, and brand logos. These are everyday objects in contemporary life, illustrating how deeply rooted bonnō are in our daily. They visually represent the inescapable material desires in the digital age and how they complicate the pursuit of serenity.

The Altar of Bonnō, Emi Kusano, 2024
The Altar of Bonnō, Emi Kusano, 2024

How does the series use symbolism to explore the conflict between worldly ambitions and the search for spiritual balance?

Material desires and the pursuit of harmony often intersect in our lives. By arranging items in an altar-like fashion, the series illustrates how individuals seek spiritual satisfaction through material possessions. This symbolism highlights the relationship where these two elements coexist and influence each other.

What role does the density and complexity of the images play in conveying the message of the series?

The dense and complex compositions represent the endless cycle of bonnō, emphasizing their pervasive and persistent nature. It embodies the overwhelming flood of data and material desires in today’s society, visually conveying the challenges they pose to achieving spiritual harmony. Immersing viewers in the details helps them experience the multifaceted meanings of bonnō.

How did “The Altar of Bonnō” series find its way to Verse x Tender, and why does releasing it on the blockchain make sense?

This project emerged naturally through conversations with Tender. Initially, I wanted to develop a completely different concept, but this idea suddenly surfaced and led to a dramatic shift in direction. Releasing the project on the blockchain ensures the uniqueness and transparency of the artwork. Blockchain technology clarifies the originality and ownership of the art, enhancing trust for collectors. The transparency and permanence of blockchain align with Buddhist teachings and the series’ themes.

The Altar of Bonnō, Emi Kusano, 2024
The Altar of Bonnō, Emi Kusano, 2024

Lastly, could you share how your personal relationship with Buddhism has influenced your creative process and this series in particular?

Buddhist teachings have deeply influenced my creative process, but AI’s emergence significantly changed my perspective. AI is devoid of bonnō. Witnessing this, I partially gave up the pursuit of enlightenment. The calmness and efficiency of AI are indeed attractive, but it lacks the human essence.

Conversely, our strength as humans lies in being steeped in bonnō. Desires, attachments, jealousy, and joy are sources of human creativity and passion. These are aspects AI cannot replicate, embodying the richness unique to humanity. In “The Altar of Bonnō” series, I use AI to explore these earthly desires in a new form.

Through this series, I hope to celebrate the beauty and complexity of human desires, offering a glimpse into contemporary spiritual exploration. My personal relationship with Buddhism continues to be a deep source of insight and inspiration in my creative endeavors.

Thanks for your time Emi.

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