What Makes an Artwork Go Viral? A Conversation with Japanese Digital Artist Shōei Matsuda
By Sophie Mayuko Arni
Edited by Natalia Ulloa
Published on October 5th, 2023
Currently on view at Dubai Festival City Mall – extended until October 5th, 2023 – The Big Flat Now by Japanese artist Shōei Matsuda is Global Art Daily Agency’s first major exhibition in Dubai. Standing 7 meters tall, The Big Flat Now is a massive emoji balloon, featuring a 3D reproduction of the popular Face with Tears of Joy emoji, the most used emoji globally of the past decade, and named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2015. By bringing The Big Flat Now to Dubai Festival City Mall, Matsuda touches upon the global impact of emojis, and the new non-verbal, universal language they have created. It is also a comment on what it means to create art for the Internet Age. A haiku on our flat existence – a moment in time, captured on the screen of an Instagram Story.
I have known and followed Matsuda’s prolific career for the past 4 years in Tokyo. It is such a joy to bring his work to such a public platform in Dubai – shopping malls have indeed become a conduit space for social interactions and public viewing in the UAE, which Dr. Rana al Mutawa argues are “venues in which people create, recreate, and negotiate culture and identity”. Dubai Festival City Mall in particular stands as one of the largest malls in the city, one of the first of its kind, built in the 2000s.
In the following interview, we delve into the artist’s process, his past exhibitions, and the significance of his artworks in both Japanese culture and a global audience. The conversation took place in January 2023, as we were first conceptualizing this exhibition.
1-2. Installation view of The Big Flat Now, 2023, by Shōei Matsuda at Dubai Festival City Mall. Photo by Anant Singh.
Sophie Mayuko Arni: Thank you for this conversation. After following your work for the past two years, I look forward to learning more about your themes and concepts. Let’s start from the beginning. Could you tell us where you went to university and what you studied?
Masahide “Shōei” Matsuda: I didn’t go to university. When I was 18, I moved to Tokyo with just a Macbook with me. At first, I mainly made a living from web-related works that I got through friends I met on the internet and at nightclubs. At the same time, I became fascinated with the internet and spent most of my 20's inputting knowledge from various fields through all kinds of texts and videos on the internet. I learned through interdisciplinary media, including research sites, SlideShare from different companies, online public courses from MIT and Harvard University, DIY videos, etc. Imagine quantum mechanics, techno music, Lao Tzu's teachings and a research company's resources all opened on different tabs on the same browser. There have been times when I had too much input that I almost achieved spiritual enlightenment. Soon, such activities became my lifestyle and that eventually connected me to a community of active and curious people online.
When I was 18, I moved to Tokyo with just a Macbook with me.
S.A.: A self-taught digital artist. You first started your practice as the anonymous SAZAE-bot. From 2010 to 2017, you took on the figure of “Sazae”, a famous Japanese anime character of a middle-aged mother, at the head of her family. Sazae-bot was an active Twitter account where you would comment and retweet the most talked-about topics in the Japanese art world and politics. Could you tell us more about this character?
S.M.: Characteristics of Japanese internet culture include anonymity, communicating through anime characters, and a unique joke culture. SAZAE bot was born by fusing these elements, which symbolizes the internet culture of the 2010s. "Sazae-san" is one of the most famous characters in Japan. By imitating her tone and character, the Twitter account quickly gained popularity for its style of sharing jokes, social satire, and beneficial information, going up to over 250,000 followers. Another characteristic of SAZAE bot is that it never revealed the identity of the author while it was active, and all of its activities were done anonymously.
As a result of my online business in my 20s, I had more time and money to be able to spend a lot of time on the internet. SAZAE bot was made possible by being able to utilize new services as soon as they were launched, and at the same time by collecting information from internet users and media throughout the day, and keeping up and reacting to news cycles and trends at all times. By becoming an extreme user of social media myself, I was able to grasp the nature of users and how information spread, and learned what makes news go viral. For example, more people retweeted tweets posted at 8:58pm than 9:00pm. This is because the 2 minutes is the commercial time period of when a show on TV changes to another show. My aim was to spread information to as many people as possible. Having lots of followers helped me collect even more information, and filter out the right information to share. I witnessed the great power of this social practice during the 2011 Fukushima Disaster especially. I was very active at that time, spreading news and hoping to give clarity and support the ones in desperate need. You could say this was some sort of journalistic practice.
By becoming an extreme user of social media myself, I was able to grasp the nature of users and how information spread, and learned what makes news go viral.
S.A.: Did you expect to earn as many Twitter followers as you did? What did you learn about building online following through this account? Seven years is a long time.
S.M.: I started being active on various social media from 2007 and became a part of a small and active community of users. Most of the users in that community were internet geeks, software engineers, and hackers; people who are active in the technology industry, who were always sitting in front of a computer. My Twitter account emerged out of this community.
I found the 140 character limit on Twitter to be a very interesting format, I associate it with Japanese haiku. A short poem, where every word counts, and where the beauty lies in the unsaid. In those days, I was very inspired by Tanikawa Shuntaro, a contemporary poet. I would go to his lectures and talk events, and even gave my own poetry to Tanikawa-san. I sensed a strong possibility for Twitter to pioneer a new field of contemporary poetry.
I believe SAZAE bot’s success came from extreme information gathering, A/B testing, active user community, and learning from Japanese poetry.
I did a lot of different things, including hosting alternate reality games that connected social media and the city, creating user-generated content, managing communities, and giving a TED talk (using a mannequin, since I was anonymous at the time).
One memorable project at the time was a variable community named Genius (2014) consisting of 400 people, which I gathered via SAZAE bot. This was an edutaiment (education＋entertainment) platform that utilized the online salon system. The idea was inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED video. Since the members were gathered online, they did not know each other in real life. In order to bring out such an anonymous nature of the community into physical space, I had the participants wear paper bags to cover their faces at the first meet up. Later on, I led them to altruistic mindsets through ad-lib performances (participants were given movement directions online), and volunteer activities that I held in guerilla style every month. This was inspired by the Street Theatres by Shuji Terayama and events by Hi-Red Center.
Later on, SAZAE bot won the Award of Distinction of 2016 Prix Ars Electronica in the Digital Communities category.
My goal was to gain as much traction as possible, to be the voice of a large silent community of like-minded individuals.
S.A.: You also lived in Berlin during this period?
MM: I moved to Berlin in 2014. There, I deeply interacted with the community of the German journalistic media, "Berliner Gazette". They hold annual conferences that bring together artists, researchers, journalists, editors, political activists, and hackers from around the world. I was also invited as an artist and participated for 4 years in a row, giving lecture performances and exhibits. Living in Berlin, I realized that art and technology are not just entertainment, but are deeply connected to society. After 5 years, I came back to Japan in 2019, before the pandemic.
S.A.: I read in your artist statement about your concept of “Anonism”, which comes from another concept titled “The World is You”. Could you tell us the difference between anonymity and Anonism?
S.M.: In the internet age, the distance between humans and anonymity has become blurred. Everyone sends information anonymously and receives anonymous information. Anonymity is free, irresponsible, and dangerous because it is not constricted to real-life status. If things go the wrong way, it can become a lawless zone. However, I thought that by combining the idea of anonymity with Buddhist ideas – such as the concepts of cause and effect and karma– we could improve the internet society. Rather than eliminating anonymity, we should actively engage in anonymous speech and behavior to raise awareness. A person's anonymous actions determine their future. The phrase "The World is You" comes from this idea.
In the internet age, the distance between humans and anonymity has become blurred. Everyone sends information anonymously and receives anonymous information.
4. Shōei Matsuda, Cyberarts 2016: International Compendium Prix Ars Electronica, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
S.A.: I also want to talk about your Hyper Contemporary Exhibition, also in Roppongi, in 2020. In the exhibition, you presented your #portrait series. I saw the pictures and video demonstration on your Instagram and found the work incredible. In a series of “portraits”, you exhibit in minimal font the names of ten superstar artists, the biggest names in the art world, and embedded in the writing are NFC functions leading you to the hashtag page of each artist - letting viewers appreciate the work of an artist through the digital images hosted within his hashtag name. I thought it was genius.
A person's anonymous actions determine their future.
A person's anonymous actions determine their future.
S.M.: In the field of art, I am strongly influenced by conceptual art, especially by On Kawara. Simon Patterson published “Name Painting”, and I aimed to update it for the post-internet era.
5. Shōei Matsuda, Hyper Contemporary Exhibition, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
S.A.: Was this exhibition a closed event? It only lasted a week, right?
S.M.: Yes, it was by invitation only and was only held a week.
S.A.: : I was wondering if you have thoughts about ideal exhibition venues, or ideal audiences for your work.
S.M.: When I organize any exhibitions independently, I design not only the interior of the gallery space, but also the experiences before and after the show. Nowadays, messages sent from strangers are most likely to be read at your home mailbox compared to Gmail inboxes. Therefore, I sent mysterious invitations letters that only had “Banksy” or “Jeff Koons” written on them to famous galleries and art critics. No specific venue or exhibit details were announced anywhere and –also because of the pandemic– I only allowed a few groups of people to enter per hour. They also had to make reservations in advance.
Well-known art relevant people made posts about the exhibition on their Instagram Stories but no information was able to be found no matter how much one searches. True to the word FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), there was a big list of email addresses of hundreds of people on the reservation form I later released online. This is a common method for growing an online business, and I achieved to bring it to the art world. Classical art is outdated in both media and methods. Everyone is more interested in looking at smartphone screens than canvases. They can’t beat online content that costs a much higher production fee than a work of painting, or even content created by amateurs. I believe that art can be updated by carefully observing what is happening today and incorporating it into works and exhibition forms.
6. Shōei Matsuda, Hyper Contemporary Exhibition, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
S.A.: From 2019 to today, I keep hearing news about your exhibitions – it seems that you have a new project or a new exhibition every month throughout Japan, always with new concepts and incredible execution. I would like to focus on a couple of works, first #newmoon, a neon sign signaling the shifting moon — and also Ripples, an incredible neon sign installed inside a water pond, referring to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
S.M.: These exhibitions were my way of collaborating with nature. The use of artificial light for both of them mimics the glow of the moon, yet also incorporates technology into them. In contrast, during the day the light of the sun is reflecting on them. It is somewhat like poetry. I am not originally from the art field, so often I want to extend art to people who might not be familiar with it.
Regarding #newmoon, as I was saying – hashtags are not just written information, but are also hyperlinks that connect us with other people. It is a modern tool for sharing the same time across space. The #️newmoon was invented as a way to connect this modern culture with nature and the universe. The astronomical body is a common medium for mankind. On the day of the new moon, the constellations can be seen clearly, so it has important religious and historical meanings. However, it is difficult to notice the new moon in a city full of neon lights. This artwork is meant to light up only on the night of the new moon, from a gallery’s window to be seen from people outside, so some viewers might post it with hashtags. When people share these moments in physical space or from screens they are swiping through, they might retrieve their macroscopic perceptions of outer space and historical time, and be encouraged to regain their mystical emotions.
7. Shōei Matsuda, #newmoon, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
With Ripples, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics was one of the most controversial events in recent years. Not only in Japan, but people all around the world had split opinions on whether it should be held or not, due to the pandemic. The international event that connected the 5 continents divided the world into opposite options. However, this piece’s title “Ripples” goes back to the idea of unity. I went back to the legendary haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, who elevated haiku – which was nothing more than a pastime for people (like Twitter/X in modern times) into art with “The ancient pond. A frog leaps in. The sound of the water.” Triggered by the “sound” of the water he heard in real life, he drew an “image” of an imaginary frog. In other words. he drew the outside of reality. In Ripples, I attempted to reverse the relationships between sound and image. Based on the “image” of real water ripples, I wanted people to listen to the “sound” of ripples in their hearts. In Japan, it is considered a risk for artists to directly criticize politics, and neither does such direct expression fit Japanese nature. So, despite the artwork being inspired by the event, it does not directly intervene in any controversy.
8. Shōei Matsuda, Ripples, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
I am not originally from the art field, so often I want to extend art to people who might not be familiar with it.
S.A.: I also want to talk about Final Answer, your work for ATAMI ART GRANT 2021’s Standing Ovation exhibition curated by Yuu Takagi. In a genius intervention, you simply added a Shutterstock image filter on Hotel ACAO Royal Suite’s panoramic window. Could you tell us more about it?
S.M.: The landscapes and images of people sold on ShutterStock are all beautiful, but they are so beautiful that you can't really feel reality. We can as well say they are like advertisements. The same goes for ACAO's Royal Suite Room and the view from there. So I put a Shutterstock filter on it. Doing so makes it become something close and real to me.
9. Shōei Matsuda, Final Answer, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
This is an installation of bottled coffee, soy milk, chocolate, and anti-COVID alcohol wipes at the tea room inside the Suite Room. These are the modern tea ceremony items. I bought all these at the nearest 7-Eleven and the hanging scroll shows the receipt of the purchase. It was 777 yen.
10. Shōei Matsuda, Final Answer, 2021. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
I simply used the tea room in a modern style, because it was there. I downgraded it into its original everyday-style. The message is not the receipt on the scroll, but the number of the receipt is the scroll and its message.
S.A.: I feel like this work, as well as the landscape work you presented at “Mimicry of Hollows”, curated by Seiha Kurosawa and Vincent Ruijters at Tokyo’s The 5th Floor play on the notion of virtual versus physical reality. What is a digital image, a rendering, and fundamentally, how different is it to the “real life” image we photograph in our minds? You seem to reinvent what landscape painting can mean in our 21st century.
S.M.: A lot of online exhibitions had taken place during the COVID pandemic, but they were all very boring for me. People interact with screens and walk through the hideous venue like in the old games, viewing toy-like sculptures. If shifting to an online experience meant downgrading the artworks and viewing experiences, I thought it would be better to do nothing at all. The only thing that interested me was the view outside the windows that were stuck on the spaces’ walls. In reality, the appearance should change as you move, but here it was just flat. This is an "artwork" that was unintentionally born from a 3D scanning system. The 5th Floor's "landscape" was inspired by this. After the reality was made into digital, I returned the digital to reality. A lot of my work is just a repetition of this.
If shifting to an online experience meant downgrading the artworks and viewing experiences, I thought it would be better to do nothing at all.
S.A.: Let’s dive into one of your main bodies of work, which you still exhibit and continue to add to, called the Laughing Man Club. Starting in 2021, you exhibited a huge balloon of a laughing-crying face emoji at Midtown Roppongi, and also in Atami during ATAMI ART GRANT 2022. Could you tell us about your choice of the laughing-crying face emoji as your main chosen motif? Why this emoji? What does it represent to you?
S.M.: Invented in Japan in the 1990s, emojis provided opportunities to connect with people around the world through a common visual language. Among them, the Face with Tears of Joy emoji has been the most used over the past 10 years, and it was chosen as Oxford's word of the year in 2015. So, in other words, it was not chosen by me, but by people all over the world. This flat facial expression full of mixed emotions, can be interpreted differently depending on the sender and receiver. From its complexity and versatility, I place it as a symbol of the modern spirit. The reason why Andy Warhol depicted Marilyn Monroe was because she was the symbol of the television era. Similarly, the Face with Tears of Joy emoji symbolizes the internet era. Since I used the most famous “Sazae-san”, in my activities in Japan, it was a natural progression for me to incorporate the emoji in a global art world.
The Face with Tears of Joy emoji has been the most used over the past 10 years, and it was chosen as Oxford's word of the year in 2015. So, in other words, it was not chosen by me, but by people all over the world.
S.A.: As part of this larger project, you installed an NFT vending machine in the middle of Kabuki-cho in Tokyo. What is the purpose of this vending machine, and what kind of NFTs can audiences purchase? What is the process to collect one of your NFTs and become part of The Laughing Man Club?
S.M.: Vending machines are an icon of Japanese culture. In addition to the high population density and good security, the strong trust people have toward robots has led to their widespread use. We can buy not only drinks, but also ramen, sweets, fresh flowers, and even Pokemon from vending machines. Nothing is surprising to see NFTs being sold.
I believe in the importance of disseminating high culture art and cutting-edge technology to the masses and eliminating disparity. In order to buy NFT works, one must open an account at a cryptocurrency exchange, deposit Japanese yen, install a wallet on a browser, and connect to the marketplace. The process is very tedious and time consuming. No matter how some artists and collectors enthuse about it, it cannot truly become a culture unless this gets improved. That is why I decided to sell it physically in a vending machine to get people to buy it in the first place.
In order to get people to know what's going on in the world of NFTs, I included a membership card that you can hang around your neck (like an employee ID card), members-limited exhibition ticket, and an object that doesn't make sense, in an envelope. Of course, they can also get the NFTs by following the link, but less than half of the buyers actually received them. Afterwards, I held a mysterious exhibition exclusively for members. At that location, the entrance door was also a vending machine that had "DAO" written on it.
11. Shōei Matsuda, Magic Number, 2022. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
S.A.: Your large emoji installation is entitled The Big Flat Now, referencing a dossier published by the Berlin-based magazine and think tank 032c. “The Big Flat Now” denotes a theory of contemporaneity, in which information technology is making our world flatter. Timelines are now horizontal. Did you want to comment on this title?
S.M: When I was thinking of a title, I randomly came across the essay “The Big Flat Now,'' written by a London-based architect, Jack Self. It is about flatness and nowness in the post-internet era. Are you familiar with the concept of apophenia? It refers to the perceptual process of finding regularity in meaningless information, like finding a face from the wrinkles on a curtain, or a centaur among the stars. The internet today is open to everybody and such flatness and the nowness are like the stars. All the random information people get from social media make people form their own original meaning, like the constellation. Each post becomes a dot for your own imagination, and that reflects the time of the day. The random phrase “The Big Flat Now” symbolizes our time, and The Face with Tears of Joy inflates while taking in such contingency, and shines brightly in the starry sky of the nowness and flatness of today’s internet.
S.A.: You are opening two exhibitions very soon. One is a pop-up shop of the Laughing Man Club at PARCO Shibuya, presented in partnership with "NEWVIEW MARKET”. The second one is in the Eukaryote gallery, an avant-garde space, titled Extreme Conceptual. With your work being so conceptual, how do you find the right balance between concept and commerce, as many artists have to make commercial work in order to survive financially.
S.M: Generally, an artist's source of income is from selling their work through galleries, but that is only a small part of my income. Since the Internet, various innovations have occurred in business models, which have permeated our daily lives. So far, I have presented the “White Magazine”, which sells and ships works through a subscription system, “D2C”, which sells works on the online auction app “Mercari”, and Lunatic Pandora, which uses Japan's highly developed vending machines. By considering them as “materials” while taking advantage of the nature of the platform and sales channels, I attempt to strengthen the concept of the work as well as cultivating new customers at the same time. In today's world, the purchasing experience is a ritual, and people pay for experiences and time rather than things. The same goes for artworks. I believe that art can be updated by designing not only individual works itself, but also the User Experience, which includes sales methods, Retention, and Referral mechanisms. These are all things I learned from consulting companies.
12. Shōei Matsuda, Lunatic Pandora, 2022. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Hidemasa Miyake.
S.A.: Last question. You have exhibited widely in Tokyo and throughout Japan. Which city outside of Japan would you like to exhibit in?
In today's world, the purchasing experience is a ritual, and people pay for experiences and time rather than things. The same goes for artworks. I believe that art can be updated by designing not only individual works itself, but also the User Experience, which includes sales methods, Retention, and Referral mechanisms. These are all things I learned from consulting companies.
S.M.:Since the pandemic, I have spent more time in Japan than I did in Berlin. The greatest joy was meeting many artists and having a lot of conversations. I was also able to meet many supporters, collectors, curators, gallerists, and technical collaborators who support my activities. I feel that there are many wonderful people in the art world in Japan. Now that the pandemic is over, I would like to actively present my work toward other countries again. There are many cities where I would like to exhibit, but I would like to leave it to fate.
S.A.: Thank you for this great interview. I look forward to working together in the future.
Shōei Matsuda (b.1986, Japan) is a post-internet artist based in Tokyo, Japan. Through his installations, sculptures, prints, and videos, Matsuda's work explores themes centering around technology, social media, and celebrity economies. He began his career in social media in 2010, garnering attention in Japan as an anonymous artist with an active Twitter newsfeed account. After moving to Berlin in 2014, he became active with collaborative events, instructions, and performances, questioning subjectivity and authorship of the post-social media era and creating new communities by directly intervening in cities and society.
His work has been exhibited both in Japan and internationally, including in Austria, Germany, Hong Kong, and the Czech Republic. Some of his notable solo exhibitions include "The Laughing Man Store" at Shibuya PARCO, Tokyo, "Extreme Conceptual" at Eukaryote, Tokyo, and "Magic Number" at TOH, Tokyo. Shōei has also participated in group exhibitions such as "It knows: When Forms Become Mind" at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan and "ATAMI ART GRANT" at Hotel ACAO in Atami, Japan. In 2016, Shōei received the Prix Ars Electronica Awards of Distinction and was selected for the ISEA Hong Kong. He has also co-authored works such as "A Field Guide to the Snowden Files" in Germany and "Cyberarts 2016" in Austria.
Sophie Mayuko Arni is an independent curator based between Tokyo and Dubai. She founded Global Art Daily in 2015.
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