IN THE darkness, a dim light reveals the man’s smirking face. The man holds a figurine of a pretty girl and combs her hair, murmuring: “You are as beautiful as you have always been, Mimi…” This scene is what most people expect from the word “figurine.” The figurine was first conceived of as a sub-culture for maniacs. But modern artists are proving that the figurine can actually be art. What we call an “art toy” is this proof.
Toy Becomes Art?
The concept of art toys emerged in the 1990s, referring to figurines made by designers to target adult collectors. Unlike other figurines whose figures are a mere imitation of cartoon characters, the art toy is a figurine that has a widely accepted artistic value. Although it is a recent concept, the origin of art toys dates back to much earlier days. In Medieval Europe, ball-jointed dolls, the first moving action figurines, were made by artists. Since then, they have developed into the modern figurines, and finally to a form of art.
One of the famous works that opened the age of art toys is the Gardener series by Michael Lau. Lau is a legendary artist who *Forbes* nominated as one of the leaders who shaped “20 trends sweeping the globe” in 2008. As a founder of the art toy genre and a popular cartoonist, he has influenced various fields, including entertainment, fashion, and pop-culture. Before he gained popularity, however, he went through many hardships. Born in to a poor family that managed a chicken farm, Michael Lau was a boy who was fascinated with making and painting paper dolls. In his school days, he was well known to his friends and teachers for his artistic talent. After graduating from high school, Lau started his career in art by taking various jobs, including as a painting restorer, a show window displayer and a visual merchandiser. He had a difficult time getting by, but he was content since he could always enjoy art. Then one day, his opportunity came. In 1998, one of his friends, the editor of the comic magazine *East Touch*, offered Lau the chance to publish a cartoon series in the magazine. Lau accepted the proposal, and that became the moment the Gardener series began.
The Gardener series was a big hit. The public loved its comical way of depicting the daily lives of street skate boarders. Soon, in 1999, he experienced another success. At the Hong Kong Art Centre exhibition, Lau presented the characters of his cartoon “Gardener” in 12-inch figurines, naming them the “Gardener series.” Soon after the exhibition, Lau’s Gardener series was in popular demand among collectors. Along with this rising interest, Gardener has collaborated with famous clothing brands like Nike, Colette, and Maharishi, for example, by putting Nike shoes on “Gardener” characters. Lau also collaborated with Korean entertainment companies like SM entertainment, producing figurines of Tong Vang Xin Qi (TVXQ) members. Likewise, the Gardener series contributed a lot in integrating the art toy genre with pop-culture.
Walking Along the Streets
The name Gardener means people living in the “Garden,” an imaginary wonderland filled with Lau’s affection for street culture, represented by skateboards, hip-hop, and graffiti. His exhibition in Seoul is full of street culture. Gardener figurines standing side by side welcome the guests. Loud hip-hop beats vibrate in the air and pop art paintings hang on the wall, creating a free and dynamic ambience of street culture. Walking around the exhibition room feels like wandering around the street in the setting of the Gardener series.
The ten main characters of Gardeners, Max and his friends, are realistic figures designed after himself and the people around him. For example, the main character Max strongly resembles Lau himself. He works as an assistant designer but wants to be a great artist someday. When he sets a goal, he never stops until he reaches it. He is a diligent man full of passion for art, just as Lau is.
Besides Max, there are various other characters in the Gardener series. Some people might conceive of street people as a group that is one and the same. If one looks closer into the Gardener characters, however, one can find that there are many different types of street people. Each has a distinctive set of attitudes, thoughts and lifestyle. It is truly interesting to see how different each figurine is. Max’s girlfriend Miss is a kindergarten teacher madly in love with him. Max’s friend and rival, Brian, is a university pre-med student and his girlfriend Elsa only cares about her appearance. His other friends are: a little dull pizza delivery man, a tattoo parlor owner who always makes mistakes, a professional skate boarder, an old man who was once a popular DJ and his dog that is also a proficient skateboarder.
The spirit of diversity and resistance
Loose hoodies and pants sagging below the waist, shiny metal accessories and tattoos are common features of the street fashion amongst the Gardeners. Although there is a united pattern in fashion, the specific appearance of each character varies. Different fashion styles, hairstyles, tattoo shapes, and piercing spots reflect their different personalities. The appearance of the same character also varies according to the line. The line categorizes the characters under five different themes: skateboard, snowboard, wakeboard, young and lazy. Shifting from one line to another, Max’s hair style, accessories and even skin color undergoes changes.
One thing remains unchanged among Gardener characters, however: their spirit of resistance. Almost every character has a frowning face with a stiffened mouth in a straight line. These are the faces that show their street spirit, the spirit of resistance and passion. As we can see from the Gardener characters, street people are not financially affluent. They do not lament their reality, however. Instead, they choose to resist and even enjoy the harsh reality. Their frown challenges reality, resisting the hardships of life. From their crooked smile and glaring eyes, one can find their strong will and sense of humor that enables them to keep pursuing their dreams and never give up.
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Gardener is a miniature of the world we live in. There is diversity. Each character has his or her own story, personality, preferences and values. At the same time, there is a sense of unity. However different each character may be, they are connected to each other in their Garden. This coexistence of diversity and unity is the essence of the world we live in, which is captured and reflected in the Gardener series. This depth in understanding and reflecting the world made the Gardener series genuine art and has become the milestone of the art toy genre.
Date: ~ 2013. 4. 14
Location: Sejong Center for the Performing Arts
Ticket Price : 12,000