A Brief History of Emoji Art, All the Way to Hollywood

Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller) and Hi-5 (voiced by James Corden) in “The Emoji Movie.”CreditSony Pictures Animation/Sony Pictures Animation, via Associated Press

The Emoji Movie” is the apotheosis of Hollywood’s consumerist blockbuster trend, where the smartphone is recast as a playground, and tech companies spin their products into sparking baubles to sell to children. In the film, three emoji characters chase their dreams while sailing down Spotify streams, scaling a level of Candy Crush and ascending into the cloud through every child’s most beloved app, Dropbox.

The movie cements emoji’s place as defining symbols of global capitalism — a form of expression that transcends language barriers and lends a gloss of emotional affect to our cold, unfeeling devices. But before emoji went Hollywood, plugged-in artists were leveraging them in their work to invoke the wonders and hazards of the digital era. Here are landmark moments in emojified art.

‘Emoji Dick’

“Emoji Dick” translated “Moby Dick”CreditFred Benenson

In 2010, Japanese emoji hadn’t even made their way to American smartphone keyboards, but Fred Benenson was already working on an all-emoji translation of “Moby-Dick.” “Emoji Dick” was both crowdfunded (on Kickstarter) and crowdsourced — the translations were performed by hundreds of workers recruited from Mechanical Turk, Amazon’s online jobs marketplace.

It’s safe to say that “Emoji Dick” does not rival the original. “Call me Ishmael” comes out as a telephone emoji, a man emoji, a boat emoji, a whale emoji and, finally, the O.K. hand emoji, as if to say, “Just deal with it.” But the translation made its mark as an experiment in digital language and labor. The Library of Congress acquired it in 2013.

‘Book From the Ground’

From “Book From the Ground.”CreditXu Bing

“Twenty years ago I made ‘Book From the Sky,’ a book of illegible Chinese characters that no one could read,” the artist Xu Bing…

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