At a Chelsea Gallery, It’s All Smiles

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Zoë Salditch and Julia Kaganskiy, curators of a new exhibit on emojis at Eyebeam Art+Technology Center.Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

In the hellish, 16th-century landscape painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a hog wearing a nun’s habit appears to be seducing a frail man into signing away his possessions. Cities blaze in the background as other tormented characters succumb to life’s temptations.

The emoji version is slightly more upbeat.

“Garden of Emoji Delights,” by the artist Carla Gannis, replaces stricken faces with smiley ones, and the other figures she uses, including a pig, a knife and some harmless-looking flames, are similarly lighthearted.

Matthew Rothenberg installs his ‘Emoji Tracker.’ Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

Emojis, the tiny pictures inserted intoFacebook FB +0.75% updates, emails and text messages, are increasingly part of everyday communication—the word made it into Oxford Dictionaries Online this year—and they are the subject of a brief exhibition at Eyebeam Art+Technology Center, opening Thursday and closing Saturday.

According to Zoë Salditch, one of the show’s curators, the digital icons have become an important part of art and design today.

“Visual communication has been a part of human expression since the beginning of time, from hieroglyphics to cave paintings to religious iconology and you see that here too,” Ms. Salditch said. “We wanted to bridge that gap.”

Ms. Gannis, who is also the assistant chair of digital arts at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, sought to create an artwork “that contextualized emoji within this iconographic lineage, reinscribing Bosch’s work, using this new secular, pop vocabulary of signs and digital symbols, which are as pervasive now as religious symbology was in the 15th and 16th centuries.”

‘Shift Key’ by Maya Ben-Ezer Eyebeam

Emojis add “a new flatness to the iconography of the past, emptying it of controversy,” she added.

Some 30 other artists and designers have contributed to the show, which includes a Saturday-afternoon panel session titled “I Have No Words.” Among them is Matthew Rothenberg, a Brooklyn-based software developer. He built a tool out of a curiosity about how technology plays into social interaction.

Of the roughly 1.7 billion tweets surveyed, “black heart suit,” “tears of joy” and “white smiling face” have registered as the most popular emojis used by users of iOS, the operating system that runs on iPhones.

Zoë Burnett, an Internet artist based in Ohio, will unfurl emoji wallpaper for the show.

“When I got an iPhone in 2011, the first thing I did was enable the emoji keyboard,” she said. “At first, they were just a fun thing to litter all my conversations with. Then I realized I could use them in my art, like I had already been doing with old AOL, Yahoo [and] MSN smileys.”

Ms. Burnett added: “Future art historians are going to have fun with our emoji art.”

A detail of emoji wallpaper Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

Other contributors are experimenting with the linguistic possibilities of an icon-based vocabulary. Addie Wagenknecht, a researcher and artist in Austria, and Ramsey Nasser, an artist and computer scientist who lives in Bushwick, drafted a programming language called “Emojinal,” consisting entirely of emoji in place of words, as an experiment to transcend the alphabet.

“We were not only interested in making it into a usable language, but to make it fun, creative and intuitive with the goal that people can program without knowing or having a traditional programming background,” Ms. Wagenknecht said.

Visitors will be available to try their hand at “Emojinal” on iPads at the exhibit.

GroupMe, a text-messaging app that is involved with the exhibition, will host an emoji-designing contest whose winner will have his or her creation appear in a future update of GroupMe’s service.

This points to another emoji-related discussion topic: its need for expansion. “There’s definitely a yearning for more emojis” on mobile devices, Ms. Salditch said. “There seems to be a lack of certain representations of people and cultures in terms of food, plants, animals and objects that people are asking for.”

For instance, there is a Christmas tree but no menorah, and an array of white characters but only a handful of stereotypical renderings of other races.

Whether the popularity of pictograms will fade is anyone’s guess, said Andrea Rosen, a co-founder of the events firm Forced Meme Productions.

“It could be a fad, or it could be something that sinks into our everyday usage, like hashtags,” she said. “It’s become something we say aloud, that’s not necessarily linked to art and design but just human expression.”



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