- Pop Culture Icons: Religious Inflections of the Character Toy in Taiwan
The figure of the religious icon has played a prominent role in theories of modern consumer culture. In European theory, the icon is often invoked as a metaphor for various ambivalent losses that accompany the spread of capitalism, what Max Weber called disenchantment, the replacement of the divine with the secular as the anchor of meaning. Walter Benjamin’s thesis that the aura of the work of art is lost in mechanical reproduction is based on the comparison of mass culture images with religious art and artifacts. Perhaps the theorist who makes the comparison between consumer culture images and religious icons most explicitly is Jean Baudrillard. In an early passage in his famous essay on “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard asks:
What becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? . . . It can be seen that the iconoclasts, who are often accused of despising and denying images, were in fact the ones who accorded them their actual worth, unlike the iconolaters, who saw in them only reflections and were content to venerate God at one remove. But the converse can also be said, namely that the iconolaters possessed the most modern and adventurous minds, since, underneath the idea of the apparition of God [End Page 200] in the mirror of images, they already enacted his death and his disappearance in the epiphany of his representations.1
Although there are certainly other traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the idea of the icon as an “apparition” reflects what Alfred Gell identifies as the triumph of Protestant anti-mimesis ideology in the West.2 For Benjamin and Baudrillard, the Real has the qualities of the God of Abraham —nonhuman, unique, indivisible, and unrepresentable. As simulacra embody the opposite of the qualities of the divine, their mimesis and multiplication thus lead to an increased sense of unreality in the contemporary world.
In Taiwan as well, the image of the religious icon has become a powerful trope for the multiple transformations of late capitalism. Taiwanese artist Yang Maolin gave this trope concrete form in his sculpture series “Ceremonies before Rewarding: Inviting the Immortals III” (2003, Feng Shen zhi Qian Xi— Qing Zhong Xian III) and “Canonization of the Gods—the Pure Land of Maha” (2006, Feng Shen Yan Yi—Ma Ha—Ji Le Shijie). The pieces are of hand-carved wood and cast bronze, and they look, from a distance, like classical Buddhist icons—figures seated in lotus position, reclining, or in martial stances, some overarched by halos spiked with stylized flames. But up close, the figures in the center are revealed to be characters from popular Japanese anime or from the Walt Disney repertoire—in other words, the sculptures’ forms conflate Buddhist godicons with the mass-produced plastic “character toys” sold in stationery and toy stores throughout East Asia.
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Yang Maolin’s literalization of the trope of the “pop culture icon” might easily be read as an absurdist critique of contemporary culture’s secularization and commercialization. Yang, however, claims that he does not see his statues in this way:
Since 1996, I have incorporated cartoon and animation characters into my art. You could say that, within my work, they are the most meaningful images. In the earliest period, I thought about discourse from the angle of “the penetration and influence of colonial culture vs. the creation and establishment of subjective culture.” I used these images of “foreign culture” and “subculture” as a [End Page 201] metaphor for the so-called “immortals” in traditional folk culture. Some people thought this type of comparison had a satirical flavor; they thought I “maintained an allegorical, critical attitude towards hybrid culture.” . . . Not only do I not maintain an allegorical, critical attitude toward hybrid culture, to the contrary, I see hybrid, bastardized culture as a beautiful contingency, something worthy of praise and promotion. . . . When I look at these adorable, familiar cartoon characters in such otherworldly, transcendent attitudes, solemnly making the hand gestures...