The image above is of Tadanobu Asano and Chloe Sevigny for Uniqlo’s Spring 2008 UT collection. “UT” is, as stated on Uniqlo’s website, “a limited edition collection of t-shirts designed by renowned artists, designers, photographers, etc.” What interests me today is this UT publicity photograph and what it might reveal to us. That is, what emerges in an attempted reading of this image?
Voyeuristic Realization of Irrelevancy
The perspective of the photograph is voyeuristic. One look at where their eyes are pointing tells us that they do not notice us, but it is we who notice them. In short, they are noticeable, more noticeable than the viewer. Meanwhile, the averted gaze complements the body language (their hands are perfectly positioned) in an almost filmic moment – the witnessing of a happening. While Sevigny obviously is gearing up or is in the process of telling Asano a secret, his eyes ambiguously look the other direction. Is he looking at the source of the secret or pretending to look somewhere else while secretly wanting to view the secret? From our perspective, this is hard to determine. The viewer is catching this scene from the angle of an as-of-yet irrelevant yet fascinated (by this couple) bystander. The capturing of this moment is the moment of, as John Berger may say, envy. That is, we are on the periphery of a secret yet visually obvious verbal exchange, wanting to enter the space of the secret, wanting to emulate the pose and poise of the couple. The models exude the kind of situation that one could be in only if one enters into the UT mode. However, whatever the lifestyle tropes for that mode are, they too, are ambiguous.
Asano, as man, in this photograph receives the information from Sevigny with a calm yet interested demeanor. He is also well aware of social-etiquette and visibility as is obvious by his meticulously set hair and formal almost reverent stance (the grizzled facial hair as well, perhaps). Sevingy, on the other hand, as woman, seems to be the Serpent, the instigator or the gossiper – the seductive counterpart to Asano’s expressionless gaze (loosely flowing hair, sleeveless shirt). I am not sure as to the symbolic relevancy of Sevigny’s tied t-shirt, but, if anything the pattern of the rippled fabric creates a spectrum branching out from the knot pointing the eye to Asano’s t-shirt. However, at the same time, the knot acts as a fashion point which draws the eyes down, suggesting the ability to freely transform the t-shirt as one wishes and still retain a stylish presence.
Ambiguous Lifestyles and Reproducibility
At this point, we realize that we have not really even noticed (or, if we have noticed it has not pushed our buttons) the actual design printed on the t-shirt. Probably, we have taken account of the colors and how they contrast with the skin of the models and the soothing background color, but the printed design doesn’t seem to be of much importance in the overall structure of this photograph. I am tempted to say that we are not supposed to necessarily care about the content of the t-shirts in this photograph. What should be most striking is the image of the people represented, the societal tropes and lifestyle image, which they display and how the viewer interacts with them in relation to his or her own life. The viewer as irrelevant but through the sartorial transformation, able to gain relevancy…
I tend to shop at Uniqlo once every two or three months out of convenience of location and reasonably priced dress shirts, but must admit to not being familiar with most of the artists that participated in the UT design project. I can see this kind of collaboration working in two ways. The first, would be the exposure of relatively unknown artists into a more socially visible medium. That is, transforming their obscurity into consumability. Second, I can see the degradation of the value of that art as it becomes a reproducible consumable item. Again, I’m drawing from Berger (and Walter Benjamin): The transformation of the original into a printable commodity changes something (aura) in the magic of the original piece of art by virtue of its immediate accessibility and reproducibility.
What are your thoughts as to the structure and semiotics of this photograph? How do you read this particular publicity image?