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Noma Bar’s Minimalist Vector Portraits of Cultural Icons

What Shakespeare’s unanswered questions have to do with Einstein’s unkempt hair and Britpop.

Israeli illustrator Noma Bar, he of Negative Space fame, is a longtime Brain Pickings favorite. Turns out, our friends at Mark Batty (previously) have had a soft spot for him for a while as well. In 2007, they released a fantastic volume of Bar’s most iconic negative space portraits of cultural icons. Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar features over 50 minimalist vector illustrations that encapsulate, with brilliant subtlety and visual eloquence, the essence of famous politicians, philosophers and pop culture legends — a masterpiece of capturing character and sentiment with uncanny precision.

The book is divided into four parts — Cultural Icons, Hollywood Heads, Political Figures, Britpop Stars, and The Musicians — with an introduction by Steven Heller. (Previously: I II III.) Though the captions for each image leave much to be desired in tone and style, they do give an appropriate context of allusions and symbolism, making Bar’s creative feats all the more palpable.

CULTURAL ICONS
Albert Einstein
Commissioned by The Economist for a cover story about 100 years of Einstein. Though the illustration was never printed, Bar considers this a perfect example of combining two icons, which results in something that is ‘almost like a logo.’ Einstein’s famously unkempt hair and the atomic symbol, with the molecules as eyes, for this famous face.
William Shakespeare
The first face Bar ever published, a full page for Time Out London related to a feature article about a BBC program called ‘The Search for Shakespeare.’

[‘The Search for Shakespeare’] revolved around new biographical discoveries and all the questions these raised. I received this commission about 5 hours before a flight to Italy. All of a sudden the question mark idea linked the theme of the program to one of the most significant philosophical questions of all time: To be or not to be? I chose ‘to be’ and sent the final portrait off about two hours after receiving the assignment.” ~ Noma Bar

Harry Potter
We’ve all been exposed to the Harry Potter hype. The success of this image is how it speaks directly to the fictional Harry Potter story, as well as the reality of this multi-million dollar industry. The centerpiece of the illustration is the wand, which evokes fanciful magic, as well as the almighty dollar.
HOLLYWOOD HEADS
Woody Allen
This illustration was done for an article about Woody Allen’s Film Match Point, which was shot in London. Bar’s use of London architectural landmarks for the legend’s already iconic face is a unique and effective touch. Nicknamed the gherkin, for its resemblance to a pickle, this noticeable Norman Foster building replaces Allen’s nose, the Tate Modern forms an eyebrow over one of the skyline’s newest structural icons, the London Eye.
Bill Murray
As Bar started work on Bill Murray, he was pleased to discover that in profile, Murray’s face created a ghoulish figure in the negative space. The Ghostbusters icon for an eye is a rather obvious, but effective choice.
John Travolta + Samuel L. Jackson
Two faces may not be better than one, but they are harder to draw. Illustrating a duo like these two Pulp Fiction characters is a challenge for Barr because he still needs to render them as a single connected unit. Clearly, in this example, Bar conjoins the two with the gun. Travolta’s mouth, Jackson’s eyebrow and nose.
Charlie Chaplin
When Bar works with black and white, he relies on negative space to ‘create forms that allow elements to float.’ Here, Bar uses one of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous on-screen moments to define his face, though there are few actual lines . Inspired by Chaplin’s shoe-eating scene in The Gold Rush, Bar turns a shoelace sum spaghetti strand into Chaplin’s eye and nose; the shoe works double duty as both moustache and mouth.
POLITICAL FIGURES
Joseph Stalin
The hammer and sickle get rearranged into Joseph Stalin’s nose and mouth. That these two icons can be taken out of context, but remain in context in that they possess such associative power that the viewer will know who this feature face is, bolsters the effectiveness of Bar’s approach to illustration.
Nelson Mandela
Many of Bar’s subjects become his subjects because of dubious behavior. Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid activism, however, i s a story of incredible strength in the ace of imprisonment and injustice that concluded with triumph. Mandela was South Africa’s first president to be voted into office in a representative democratic election. Mandela figuratively broke the shackles that imprisoned him for 27 years, and it is this strength that Bar celebrates with this illustration.

Adolf Hitler
This portrait of Hitler accompanied James Delingpole’s article ‘Mein Kash: Milking the Third Reich,’ written for Esquire UK. The piece examined the publishing trend to release books about Hitler (which number close to 1,000 on Amazon). For such an article, Bar’s choice to convert the moustache into a barcode was spot-on.

Margaret Thatcher
The smoking torch that defines Margaret Thatcher’s face in this illustration remarks on the fading political power of her Conservative Party, descended from the Tory Party. Equally adored and maligned as England’s Prime Minister from `975 to 1990, the end of her tenure was spurred by internal struggle within the party. In assessing her legacy, Bar appropriated the old Tory logo to give a visual representation of flagging power. The old Tory logo was a flaming torch, while Bar’s interpretation smolders.
Kim Jong-Il
Known the world over for his cavalier rhetoric about North Korea’s nuclear capability, missile contrails make for the glasses of Kim Jong-Il. Commissioned by the Guardian, Bar was under a deadline, and to this day when he looks at this illustration, he wishes he had had the time to use only one missile. Be that as it may, the illustration works, as it looks like Kim and also incorporates what he is known for, weaponry and antagonizing the United States.
BRITPOP STARS
Ricky Gervais
Through his roles in shows like The Office and Extras, Ricky Gervais, for Bar, embodies the black humor of ‘loser culture.’ Using smiley faces in a truly ironic fashion, Bar provides a portrait of a ‘contemporary, classic sad clown.’
Jamie Oliver
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has probably spent as much time on TV and book tours as in the kitchen. An advocate of simple, healthy home cooking, a mortar for a mouth and a pestle for a nose make this face recognizable.
David Beckham
These days, the dollar sign would be just as appropriate for David Beckham’s face as the British pound symbol. The soccer star and money -making machine that is Beckham now spans across the Atlantic Ocean, all the way to Los Angeles. We’ll see if one man can make Americans soccer fans, but even if he can’t, he’ll still be rich.
THE MUSICIANS
Michael Jackson
Over the years, Michael Jackson has made headlines for an array of reasons, from number one hits to run-ins with the law. Here, Bar riffs on Jackson’s purported pedophilic tendencies, by placing an image of a young child in the pop star’s face. Jackson has never been found guilty of these accusations in a court of law, though the media frenzy that surrounded the case seems to have made the eccentric icon that much more reclusive.
Bob Dylan
A true cultural icon, Bob Dylan is no stranger to being interpreted. Bar keeps this one simple, using three of Dylan’s tools of the trade: musical notations, guitar, harmonica. That Bar can invest such age and mystery into a face that is primarily white negative space is yet another example of his ability to see subjects as more than just people — they are their careers.

Delightful and timeless, Guess Who? captures some of modernity’s most famous and infamous characters through the eyes of one of the most original artists of our time.

BP

A Field Guide to the North American Family: A Meditation on Humanness

A poetic reflection on the human condition, or what fiscal responsibility has to do with freedom.

It doesn’t take long to realize fiction isn’t exactly a fixture on Brain Pickings. But A Field Guide to the North American Family, the literary debut of Garth Risk Hallberg, is a genre-bender that makes it delightfully uncomfortable to classify it as strict fiction. Through 63 interlinked fictional vignettes, each accompanied by a visual interpretation by a different artist, Hallberg tells the story of two struggling suburban Long Island neighbor families, the Hungates and the Harrisons, who are forced to adapt to a new reality when the patriarch of one family dies unexpectedly — but he uses the allegory of their specific circumstances to explore general, universally human concepts like love, happiness, belonging, freedom, and a wealth more, with equal parts poetic contemplation and ironic humor. Part photoessay, part Choose Your Own Adventure novel, part meditation on human nature, it’s a fine piece of literary innovation rare to come by and bound to stick around, the kind of book you keep returning to over and over again until it begins to feel like an intimate part of your own family.

Each double-page spread covers a specific facet of the human condition — from mortgage to mythology to midlife crisis — and features a short, poignant textual vignette on the left, with a cleverly captioned image on the right, treating each phenomenon as the subject of a National Geographic nature documentary for an effect that’s both humorous and deeply human.

Optimism
Optimism lives so long as to seem, to the human observer, practically immortal — but unlike that of other creatures, the development of Optimism proceeds in reverse. That is, Optimism is enormous at birth, and gradually shrinks to its microscopic adult size.’
Adulthood
Adulthood can be distinguished from Maturity by its tendency to cling to the chrysalis. On occasion, Adulthood has even been known to disappear back into Adolescence following an unsettling foray out into the world.’
Midlife Crisis
‘An erratic Maturity pattern characterizes the Midlife Crisis: it may remain a manageable size for years, only to reach its full stature in a few turbulent days.’
Holiday
Holiday may be observed as many as eight times a year. A peaceable creature, it abhors confrontation; all conflicts within the pack are settled via high-frequency communications inaudible to the human ear.’
Depression
‘Having evolved from a ruminant species known as Melancholia, Depression now dominates the animal kingdom. Its explosive growth curve remains unaccounted for, but some Family-watchers have pointed to a concurrent surge in Search for Meaning.’
Divorce
‘Due to a growth curve similar to that of Depression, a robust Divorce population has become common wherever Love dwells in large numbers.’
Boredom
‘Once thought to be nonexistent where Entertainment was present, this harmless parasite is now known to be present, to some degree, in every ecosystem.’
Love
‘Though hardly the most visible member of its kingdom, Love has never been as endangered as alarmists would have us believe. Without it, new research confirms, the entire Family would cease to function.’
Sibling Rivalry
‘The Sibling Rivalry hunts in groups of two or more. With its tremendous longevity, it may hibernate for years between periods of activity. This Rivalry, like species on other continents, tends to lose some of its vitality with age.’
Grief
‘Slow to adapt to the ecological upheavals of the American century, Grief now thrives only in isolation. The study of Grief is further complicated by its nocturnal Habits, and by the fact that no Grief is like any other.’

Almost as interesting and thought-provoking as the book itself is Hallberg’s discussion of the economics of Amazon reviews over on Slate, triggered by his discovery of a strange subculture of power-reviewers through the Amazon page of his own book, namely one Grady Harp.

A Field Guide to the North American Family comes from Mark Batty Publisher, the latest chapter of our love affair with the indie powerhouse.

BP

Book of Ice: DJ Spooky’s Cross-Disciplinary Antarctica Project

What emancipated penguins have to do with digital archives, propaganda art and the future of remix culture.

Antarctica is a strange kind of no man’s land — a territory owned by no single country, with no government, formally uninhabited and hardy inhabitable, and yet of endless allure to researchers, explorers, artists and curious minds from all over the world. It’s also the closest thing we have to a geological clock, its ice sheath reflecting the transformation of our atmosphere and climate with striking precision. In 2007, fascinated by the enigmatic continent’s peculiarities, artist, thinker and musician Paul D. Miller — whose investigation of remix culture and collaborative creation you might recall — traveled to Antarctica to shoot a film about the sound of ice. That was the start of Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica — a larger multimedia project aiming to capture a dynamic portrait of this rapidly changing microcosm. The project’s latest incarnation, The Book of Ice, arrives this month — a poignant reflection on humanity’s relationship with the frozen neverland and climate change at large, by way of poetic visual and textual meditations ranging from archival images of historic exploration on the continent (including these rare photos of the first Australian expedition in 1911) to maps to timelines to hypothetical propaganda art for an imaginary Antarctica liberation movement.

Perhaps most compellingly, the project is a living testament to cross-disciplinary creativity, touching on disciplines as diverse as history, information visualization, music composition, propaganda art, media theory and more, with influences as varied as Emory Douglas, Rodchenko, Mirko Illic and Alex Steinweiss.

Today, I sit down with DJ Spooky to chat about the creative impetus behind the project, its most compelling insights, and the longer-term vision for Antarctica’s future.

q1

How did the idea for The Book of Ice, and the larger project to which it belongs, first emerge?

The Book of Ice started as graphic design music scores taken from my Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica project. I wanted to fine-tune the book as an extension of some of my obsessions with climate change. The first soundtrack and symphony written about Antarctica was by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1948, but other composers — Handel’s 1717 AD composition entitled simply “Water Music” or John Luther Adams Arctic compositions, or even more close to home John Cage’s 1936 first composition for turntables “Imaginary Landscape,” Charles Ives “Central Park in The Dark,” or Cornelius Cardew’s graphic design scores — are all influences.

I guess you could say The Book of Ice is an inter-connected, hyper-expandable/scalable museum/gallery show, book, and symphony. Simple!

q2

Antarctica – a place that no one owns, with no government or law, yet belonging to everyone – seems to be a beautiful metaphor for remix culture. Given your background, was this in any way part of the allure? How did you incorporate your work on and beliefs about remix culture into the Antarctica project?

I wanted to show the Utopian/Dystopian aspects of how graphic design interacts with geopolitics and propaganda. Me, Shep Fairey (an old friend) and Steve Heller spoke at Phaidon books a little while ago about this, from the beginnings of “The War on Terror” you can go back to stuff like DW Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and other texts that give people a feigned sense of oppression. My Antarctica remix project would have to include how people despoil the planet, our “commons” and what if people started to say everyone has a right to clean air and water, to having food untainted by mercury or nuclear isotopes?

q3

What has been the most startling, unexpected insight that emerged for the creative process on the project?

I guess I always naively think that if you put information in front of people, they’ll get it. They don’t. This project is Utopian in that it seems like the bleedingly obvious fact that our species might not get out of this century in too good condition is being ignored. Ice sheets are melting. Water is scarce. Global weather patterns are the most complex phenomena we’ve encountered.

Adam Smith wrote, ‘all money is a matter of belief.’ The realm of the possible is always greater than the realm of the real. I try to navigate between the two: that’s art.

q4

Can, and should, Antarctica liberate itself from the rest of the world? If so, how?

The title for the Manifesto for a People’s Republic of Antarctica comes from a science fiction book of the same title by John Calvin Batchelor. OK: nation state rises from the ruins of world geopolitics. Check. Environmental collapse, even though we know we can do better and avoid it. Check. Dumb politicians run all major nation states into the ground. Check. It’s great material for propaganda prints, but it could just as easily be a video game like Vice City or Halo. People like to have ‘narrative,’ so I thought, let’s give them something different. It would be cool to have Antarctica as strictly a “commons.”

q5

What’s next for the project, and for you as an artist and explorer?

Part 2 to the The Book of Ice / Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica goes in two different directions. I’m setting up a contemporary art center in the South Pacific in the island nation of Vanuatu.

And I’m writing a group of compositions about the North Pole. Both are in development now. One of the first media spoofs of the 20th century was when Frederick A. Cook, a Brooklyn milkman who, made a film that claimed he was the first person to discover the North Pole and a fake story got put on the front of every major newspaper. There’s something very Orson Welles to that idea. I found the film, remixed it as a component of the Antarctica project DVD. You can see all of this and the material used to generate the compositions as extensions of my obsession with sampling. It’s just taken me a little further into the realm of info-aesthetics.

After all, I can basically just say music for me isn’t just music. It’s information.

The Book of Ice comes from Mark Batty Publisher and is the kind of cross-disciplinary gem we love to love.

BP

Fuzz & Fur: Japan’s Peculiar Subculture of Fur-Suit Mascots

What ancient Japanese castles have to do with costumed gadget-sellers and the legacy of anime.

It’s no secret I have a soft spot for children’s books, especially ones with a grownup spin. So I love Fuzz & Fur: Japan’s Costumed Characters — a quirky compendium of Japanese fur-suit mascots by Tokyo-based designer and illustrator duo Edward and John Harrison. The costumes, known as kigurumi in Japan, have been used to promote anything from bridges and castles to water purification plants to the police to, most notably, prefectures.

Illustrator Jun Miura eventually coined a new word, Yuru-kyara, to classify this new breed of characters — from Yuru, which means “loose” or “weak,” and kyara, the word for “character,” to describe the mascots as somewhat imperfect or non-serious, an eerie intersection of the age-old Japanese love of anime and contemporary marketing tactics.

Fuzz & Fur features photographs of over 100 kigurumi, each profiled with text that explains the mascot’s origins, its likes and dislikes, and its unique personality.

Arukuma
A kigurumi into kigurumi, this green bear loves to collect hats. Each one reflects one of Nagano’s many specialities, his collection includes a chestnut, persimmon, mushroom, lettuce, soba and wine. Arukuma, quite possibly the cutest kigurumi is the mascot for East Japan Railway and wants tourists to explore the beautiful outdoors of Nagano. His name combines the words ‘aruku’ (‘walk’) and ‘kuma’ (‘bear’).
Hikonyan
The mascot for Hikone Castle is probably the most famous yuru-kyara EVER. People travel to the castle not to see the beautiful grounds or explore the castle, but to meet the samurai cat Hikonyan, who visits the castle four times a week. His name combines Hikone and nyan, the Japanese onomatopoeia for a cat’s meow. The cute cat wears a ‘kabuto’ (samurai helmet) with huge horns similar to the one Ii Naokatsu wore in battle. Ii Naokatsu was a Japanese daimyo during the Edo period who completed the construction of the castle and also said to have escaped being struck by lightning thanks to a beckoning cat.
Ikubee
‘Ikubee’ is ‘lets go’ in the dialect of Aomori and the name of The Aomori Destination Campaign’s mascot. The large blue fairy supposedly travelled all over Japan before finally settling down in his favorite prefecture. He’s modelled on the letter ‘A’ which of course stands for Aomori. He’s the colour blue because the first kanji in Aomori means blue and on his head is an apple blossom illustrating the flower symbol of the prefecture.
Sasebo Burger Boy
After WWII the American Navy took over parts of the base in Sasebo, Nagasaki. Soon after, enterprising Sasebo citizens started making and selling burgers to cater to the appetites of the American sailors stationed there. With its long tradition of homemade burgers Sasebo has become famous all over Japan. Takashi Yanase the king of characters famed for creating Anpanman designed the mascot.
Kunio
Even the ski resorts in Japan get in on the kigurumi action. Kunio a seasoned skier is the mascot for Kunizakai Kougen snow park a resort in Takashima, Shiga. Kunio started working in one of the restaurants but was quickly promoted to become the mascot for the resort. His interests include, snowboarding, ice cream and girls (in that order).

Fuzz & Fur comes from — naturally — my friends at Mark Batty Publisher and does for kigurumi what Drainspotting did for Japan’s peculiar culture of storm drain graffiti.

Images and captions by Edward Harrison

BP

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