March 20th, 2005


Uma in Seoul

"All my life," says an imaginary Uma Thurman, gazing down from a Louis Vuitton billboard at a busy corner in Seoul, "I've wanted to be the particular particular that gets to represent the universal. The one particular out of all those billions of particulars that can stand for all the rest. I know it's not fair to all you other particulars, all you other individuals, that I get to do this instead of you. But I like to think I'm magnanimous in victory. Sure, I'm up here on this billboard and you're down there on the street, but I'm representing you, the same way a signifier represents a signified or a politician represents the electorate. This is the nature of the system we live in. A system which values aspiration, and encourages unfair hoarding -- extreme accumulations of wealth in a few individuals who, rather than repulsing everybody else with their greed and selfishness, get to represent everybody's greedy dreams."

"Sure," continues imaginary Uma, "a few hundred miles north of here you'll find a country with the same name but a totally different system. Up there the posters show just one man, Kim Jong Il, the "beloved leader". That's a much more unjust system, because Kim himself claims to represent everybody in North Korea -- and he's not even pretty! I mean, talk about a class system, up there you've just got two classes, Kim and everybody else, with Kim representing every possible aspiration and hogging every resource while his people starve!"

"But there are some good points to North Korea. I guess you could say it's a good thing that every poster there shows a Korean. Maybe, looking at faces that might resemble their own, the North Koreans feel less alienated than the South Koreans do gazing up at me. I mean, sometimes I feel a bit uneasy here in Seoul, with my blonde hair, my white skin, my Scandinavian-caucasian racial features, my American passport, gazing down on the crowds of South Koreans with their dark hair and Mongoloid features, representing them. I mean, I know I probably shouldn't give it a second thought, but I sometimes wonder whether I'm representing universals or particularities. I mean, freedom, shopping, luxury, unfair accumulation, brands, the white race... Might I be a particular who links only to particularities, rather than a particular who links to universals? A couple of hours up the road and through some barbed wire, these are not considered universals."

"But it's worth considering that although I'm white, I'm female. In other words, although I'm part of the dominant race (let's not kid ourselves it'll always be this way, though: the Chinese are coming up fast, and there may be Chinese actresses in these ads in a few decades) I'm not part of the dominant gender."

A bus goes by. Two sad middle-aged women inside it look absently at Uma's very large face. Uma continues to muse. "Am I an elected representative, or a designated representative? Well, nobody voted for me to represent them. I've been appointed from above, chosen by an elite of film directors and creative professionals. I've been "designated". Then again, a sort of "electorate" paid to see my films. If "voting" has to come into it, that's the voting. Ticket sales. Of course, my films were shown here too, dubbed into Korean. People projected their dreams onto my face, and that's why my face is up here now. Plus, it seems to keep those Louis Vuitton handbags moving out the door."

"Sometimes I think about mapping," says Imaginary Uma, getting drowsy in the warm Seoul afternoon. "Mapping is also representation. A map is like a sign, or a photo, or a sentence. It has an arbitrary relationship with the territory it represents, and to identify one with the other we have to understand the conventions of representation, and understand that there are more things left out than put in. Every sign is a betrayal. Even a map at 1:1 scale would still be a representation, a selection, a simplification of the real world. There is always injustice where there's representation."

"Sometimes I think about signs. I'm a complex visual sign up here on my poster, but the purest, simplest visual signs are isotypes, the system of little logos you see on toilet doors, or in airports, or by fire escapes and disabled ramps. Otto Neurath introduced the Isotype system (International System of Typographic Picture Education) in 1936. Isotypes are ways to communicate with people who don't share your language. The US government is using them to warn human beings 10,000 years into the future about nuclear waste sites. We don't know what language those people will speak, so we use signs. The US government has also collaborated with AIGA to make a set of symbols for use in public places. Some people have complained that the only time women feature in these symbols is in the signs for the female toilet and the beauty salon, whereas the characters doing things men and women both do -- buying tickets, catching planes, drinking at the water fountain -- are all men. Well, the idea of "man" and the idea of woman are both represented in the symbol "man", which means "mankind". We all know that. And look, we women get our revenge when it comes to fashion and beauty and consumerism. Here I am up on this Vuitton poster, rather than some guy. Look at the shopping areas of big cities; all the images are of women. Now, imagine that consumer culture is only going to get stronger in the future. That means that images of women will spread and come to dominate urban life. The future, if it's consumerist, has a female face. The way things are going, it seems a better bet to say that female images will dominate in the future than that images of caucasians will dominate. If you come back in fifty years to this same corner in Seoul, I'm sure you'll see a woman up here looking down at you. But I'm not at all sure she'll be caucasian."

(The Uma Thurman in this text is a representation of Uma and not the real Uma. The thoughts here were prompted by Tom Vanderbilt's piece A Pictograph is Worth a Thousand Words (But Not Always) in Design Observer. Tom also took the picture of Uma.)