“The sale of cartoon characters created by professional designers for use in comic strips, television shows, and films is a common feature of Japan’s animation industry. French artists Pierre Huyghe and Phillipe Parreno purchased such a cartoon—the figure of a young girl—for use in their own work, thereby giving this ready made character a new life within a specifically fine art context. In this exhibition, Huyghe presented a short, animated film that resulted from this purchase. A meditation on the fragile boundary between reality and representation, No Ghost just a Shell “Two minutes out of Time” features a monologue, delivered by the cartoon girl, on her condition as a “virtual” image.”
“Trust the French to turn a playful jeux into a complex semiotic/legal/existential/moral/cultural conundrum by enlisting – purchasing, actually – a female tabula rasa. In No Ghost Just a Shell (the title refers to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 Japanese animated film Ghost in a Shell, based on the original manga by Masamune Shirow), the blank slate is a bland, commercially produced cartoon drawing of a wide-eyed, elf-eared, prepubescent girl whose only distinguishing characteristic is her undeveloped potential.
“In 1999, the French artists Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno found her image in the catalogue of Kworks, a Japanese agency that develops manga figures for animated films, comic strips, advertising, and video games. The prices of these images depend on the complexity of their character traits. The copyright for this one – a nondescript, expendable, empty vessel ripe for exploitation – was cheap: a mere $428 for her digital file.
“Parreno and Huyghe bought this cipher, named her Annlee (aka AnnLee, or Ann Lee), gave her a cosmetic makeover, and, with Anna-Lena Vaney, set up a state-of-the-art video animation facility for her in Paris. They started filling her in, so to speak, and ï¿½ expanding the French Surrealist tradition of the “exquisite corpse” – they lent her free of charge to other artists they commissioned to do likewise.
“Since Annlee’s life expectancy had been short to begin with, the artists were arguably doing her a favor. Thanks to her new handlers she acquired an identity, multiple identities, in fact, and a voice, several voices. She achieved something approaching self-consciousness. Her existence was prolonged; she’d have experiences her original creators had never dreamed of for her. With so many artists animating her, investing her with various virtual inner and outer lives and a wardrobe of personalities, she’d gained quasi-celebrity status, maybe even a kind of immortality.
“In its three years of operation, the Annlee industry produced animated videos by Huyghe and Parreno as well as Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Francois Curlet, Melik Ohanian, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Other artists and writers who participated in the project include Joe Scanlan, Douglas Gordon, Sylvie Fleury, Molly Nesbitt, Catryn Davis, Angela Bulloch and the actress Catherine Deneuve. (A catalogue documents all the work.)
“Following this flurry of intense artistic activity, Huyghe and Parreno pulled the plug on Annlee. She’d been through enough; no other artists, or anyone else – especially the entertainment industry via television products, video games, advertising, press, and publishing – would be allowed to exploit her image ever again for any purpose. They would give Annlee back to herself.
“The legal document which transfers Annlee’s copyright to a foundation that belongs solely to her is, in effect, her death warrant. Paradoxically, it also gives her her freedom since “The acquisition of ANNLEE is part of an artistic project that consists in liberating a fictional character from the realm of representation.” “Give me liberty and give me death” could be her epitaph.
“An Annlee extravaganza, showing all the works associated with the Annlee figure, was presented at the Kunsthalle Zurich in Switzerland last Fall. In December 2002, Huyghe and Parreno staged her apotheosis at the Miami Basel Art Fair, where Annlee literally went out in a blaze of glory: a firework display emblazoning her waiflike melancholy face across the night sky.”
One Million Kingdoms, 2001, is the most recent in a series of animated films in which a Japanese anime character, the brooding young girl AnnLee, is inserted into various dramas. Here she is dropped into a lunar landscape that is mapped out and developed in correspondence with the rises and falls of the narrator’s voice – tinny, at times labored – digitally derived from a recording of Neil Armstrong. The stories of the first moon landing, in 1969, and of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth have been conflated here in a conspiracy theory of the faked and the fantastic. Armstrong’s first words – It’s a lie – prompt AnnLee, as she moves from place to place on a constantly fluctuating terrain, in which mountains, craters, ridges, and outcroppings rise and fall according to the intonations of the narrator’s voice. His words blur the fictional and factual, using language that derives from distinct genres and centuries—Verne’s work of fiction and Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s presumably true transmissions of their experience during the landing of Apollo 11’s lunar module. Thus the landscape of AnnLee is a shifting terrain determined by utterances, which chart both the real and the imaginary. Art Torrents
“The artists translated her static image into a computer model, redrew her slightly, and made her the open-source, freeware starlet of a time-limited, collaborative enterprise: No Ghost Just a Shell, un film d’imaginaire, 1999-2002. (The physical home for the Annlee project is a production facility in Paris, coordinated by the fortuitously named artist Anna-Lena Vaney.) “No Ghost” is, of course, an unveiled reference to the classic 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell. It’s 2029: Major Motoko Kusanagi is a typically hypersensualized cyborg reconstruction retaining only half her original human brain (in train-spotting otaku circles, her age is said to be thirty-something, though her robot body replicates a twenty-year-old). She faces off against Project 2501, aka the Puppet Master, a secret, government-spawned Web crawler. When that batch of bad code generates its own sentience and tries to escape the Net by merging with Major Motoko (the genie needs a bottle), she suffers a very human crisis that casts into doub t her place on the man/machine spectrum. Clearly, if she can be overwritten by alien software, she’s not human; the only thing that makes her feel like a woman is being treated like one by others.
“Isn’t Annlee wonderful?” Marian Goodman asked, after I saw Ann in one of many identical video avatars. “She looks sad,” I said. “Yes, but she could also be made to seem gay.” Seem is the operative word here, for anime is tragic at its root. In it, Japan (the ubiquity of the art gives license to generalize) is seeking that HAL-out-of-control frisson that is probably some pop-psychological balm for a shame-based culture in which abasement–deflation, the novelty of layoffs, geopolitical irrelevance–has become common. Takashi Murakami made this point in a recent essay: “Behind the flashy titillation of anime lies the shadow of Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. The world of anime is a world of impotence.”
“And in that world, no one is more impotent than our little Ann, the virtual walk-on, born to be lost in the crowd. Huyghe acknowledges that Ann was not a perfect blank when he found her. “There is something in this sign that has to do with melancholia,” he said. “Something in her eyes?” Tasked, imagining in those exaggerated pools hints of Bome collectibles or echoes of the malevolent sprites of Yoshitomo Nara, or the conflicted sensualisms of Major Motoko herself. Doesn’t Ann embody some flicker of those catalysts for a thousand parallel reveries on a crowded evening train out of Shinjuku? Huyghe would have none of that: “The thought never crossed our minds,” he said, laughing. “Don’t make it romantic.”