This project is a visual exploration of graphic design and commercial artwork depicting technology embedded with spiritual, esoteric and transcendental themes, mainly from American and Japanese publications. Advertisements researched from 1960’s to early 2000’s include images of out-of-body experiences in space, celestial scenes, symbols of the psyche and cyber-biology.
This curation represents some of my overarching interest in the intersections of technology and spirituality: two seemingly opposite subjects but with many nuanced intricacies between them. By showcasing these intersections visually, I aimed to provide insight into how graphic design and commercial artwork have used spiritual themes in order to evoke the transcendental and metaphysical imaginings of new devices and influenced the way we perceive technology in the modern world.
Surrealism as an artistic vehicle for imagining technology in the 20th century
Surrealism emerged in the early 20th century as a philosophic and cultural movement. After traumatic periods like WWII, surrealism became an artistic vehicle to “extract visuals from the unconscious mind to create art devoid of logical comprehension” (Craven, 2019). Artists like Rene Magritte looked for ways to “liberate the psyche and tap hidden reservoirs of creativity.”
Influences of Magritte are seen in this curation with Milton Glaser’s 1980 ad for Sony. Surrealism and fantasy elements in artwork depicting technology offers a sense of escapism and out-of-body experience. Fantasy acts as a “mediating factor” which allows the viewer to “connect more fully with their desires and wishes of imagination in reality, through the process of spectating fantasy in media, and not in their mind” (Brenner, 2003). The commercialization of technology used the versatility of these artistic themes to match the innovative and transformative qualities tech brands hoped to inspire with their products. Popular science fiction art would also accelerate the cultural imagination. Before photography and computer art, artistic tools like the airbrush was especially useful for creating clear and sharp lines to illustrate technical machinery as well as project our imagination of the cosmos.
Glaser’s Sony ad led me to look further into how surrealist and fantasy elements are embedded in print advertisements. As my research progressed to other sources, I looked into Japanese graphic design books and sci-fi magazines. Several recurring motifs began to emerge.
Japanese spiritual philosophical approach to technology
After its catastrophic loss during WWII, the Japanese government sought to rise above the ashes by concentrating its economic efforts in becoming a major industrial power. Within 20 years, Japan had proved to be a formidable player in the global market, and graphic design played an integral role in the advertisement of a growing electronics production industry.
Many cross-cultural exchanges occurred between Japan and Western art, which helped inform a Modernist approach to design. One Japanese artist who emerged during the postwar period was Yusaku Kamekura. He showed his ability to combine 20th century Modernist formal experiments with traditional Japanese sense of harmony (Meggs, n.d.). Kamekura took inspiration from the graphic styles of French artist Cassandre, whom he discovered in his early teens, and adapted similar Bauhaus techniques into his professional career, earning him the nickname “Boss” within the graphic-design community. I included many of Kamekura’s designs in my curation, including his work for Nikon (1960, 1971), Onkyo (1980), and the conference for Communication Tokyo (1986). There is a metaphysical quality from these images; motifs like butterflies and the cosmos are used as visual language.
Another Japanese artist I included in my curation is the work of Koichi Sato. Gaining recognition during the 1970’s for his graphic design posters, Sato’s work carried an “otherworldly, metaphysical design statement.” His style included “softly glowing blends of colour, richly coloured and modulated calligraphy, and stylized illustrations to create poetic visual statements that ranged from contemplative quietude to celebratory exuberance” (Meggs, n.d.). In his work for Onkyo (1978), an audio equipment company, Sato uses a stone in the ad poster to represent the “technological perfection” of Onkyo. The designer himself remarked that he hoped to “create a symbol of the dream in which, unlike the present world, the human spirit and technology are joined together in some higher dimension” (Japanese graphic idea exhibition ’81., 1981).
Sato’s perspective on the relationship between the human spirit and technology may seem rather mystical compared to Western attitudes toward technology. As I delved further in to my research, I moved on from Japanese graphic design to sci-fi periodicals from the 1980’s and discovered the OMNI magazine archive at New York Public Library. OMNI magazine debuted in October 1978 and ran until 1997. Entering a rising market of new science magazines, OMNI’s
audience was sci-fi and science enthusiasts, but who were perhaps “non professionals” in relation to the scientific field. By using OMNI magazine as a source, I found many advertisements centered around electronics. Japanese brands like Fuji, Sansui and Casio all had adverts for electronics ranging from video cassette tapes to audio equipment to digital watches. A deep fascination with Japan is apparent throughout the publication, even dedicating a whole issue on Japan in June of 1985. This particular issue opens with an introduction by Japanese writer Hisako Matsubara that I think connects to Sato’s earlier statement regarding his work for Onkyo. Her comment remarks on the differences between the West and Japan in relation to technology:
In the West, it is commonly believed that technology and culture represent a contradiction in terms. Traditionalists say, “Technology dehumanizes; technology creates a spiritual void; technology destroys the human dialogue.” In Japan, no such stigma exists. Those who wish to reverse modern developments are unable to gain any constituency.(Matsubara, 1985)
Japan’s ability to embrace technology comes from not only the country’s determination to rise as an industrial power, but the desire to create convenience, practicality and harmony throughout compact populations within a small nation. Thus, it helps that in Japan, as Matsubara also points out in her statement, “neither futurists nor traditionalists seek to alienate each other.” While Japan may not see itself as a religious society, its long cultural tradition of nurturing Buddhist and Shinto beliefs into everyday philosophy can certainly be considered as spiritual. Therefore, technological creations like robots are not necessarily seen as man’s demonstration of intellectual hubris like in the West, but rather extensions of man’s co-existence with the environment that surrounds him. This divide of Western versus Eastern beliefs and the rise of the technological and information age caused me to contemplate the relationship between the two. Does spiritual philosophy have an influence on our imagination and understanding of technology?
Spiritual origins of cyberspace
Spirituality and technology uniquely intersect when one considers the history and geographical placement of San Francisco and the Bay Area. It’s the site of both the counterculture movement of the 1960s as well as Silicon Valley. What is it about this area that became the home of so-called hippies and Big Tech? Writer and sociologist Carolyn Chen explores this topic in her book, Work, Pray, Code. She explains that the Bay Area has been “the epicenter of this fascination with Asian religions and Buddhism,” since the late 1950s with the arrival of Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, the Beat movement, followed by the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Hertog & Chen, 2022). Theodore Roszak, the American academic who coined the term “counterculture,” reflects on the 1960s decade and the spiritual shift that influenced the youth in his book The Making of a Counter Culture in 1969. In regards to Zen Buddhism, Roszak writes, “what was it that Zen offered or seemed to offer to the young?” He attempts to answer this by explaining that perhaps the, “commitment to a wise silence, which contrasts so strongly with the preachiness of Christianity can easily ally with the moody in articulateness of youth.” He extends this further:
A generation that had come to admire the tongue-tied incoherence of James Dean and which has been willing to believe that the medium is the message, would obviously welcome a tradition that regarded talking as beside the point. Similarly, Zen’s commitment to paradox and randomness could be conveniently identified with the intellectual confusion of healthily restless, but still unformed minds. Perhaps above all, Zen’s antinomianism could serve as a sanction for the adolescent need of freedom, especially for those who possessed a justified discomfort with the competitive exactions and conformities of the technocracy.(Roszak, 1969)
How would Roszak respond to how the influences of countercultural movements have eventually come to inspire several notable names in the tech industry such as Steve Jobs? Jobs was known to practice meditation and an enthusiast of Japanese art and culture. Without spiritual philosophical interests, would the Silicon Valley we know today exist? Digital technology has allowed us to design realms that seemingly exist beyond our physical world. Carolyn Chen again writes how the idea of the spiritual realm is, “expressed as an expectation of an unmediated relationship with the divine and of envisioning the divine as embodied in each individual person” (Hertog & Chen, 2022). Indeed, the vision of the “soul journey” mirrors well when viewing images of cyberspace. The idea of cyberspace points toward a new production of space that serves, what cyberpunk writer William Gibson refers to as, a “post-geographic” landscape (Murray & Nilges, 2021). A linear perspective created by grids provides a sense of infinite depth and dimension, much like our understanding of the universe. These scenes show how an endless horizon can represent the endless possibilities of technological invention.
Delving more into OMNI magazine’s archive for this project, I was particularly attracted to the work of Michel Tcherevkoff. I felt fortunate enough to find a book of his photography in Pratt Library’s catalog. A commercial photographer, his work from the 1980’s was used for several communications and tech companies such as AT&T, Bell Atlantic, and General Motors. In his book, Tcherevkoff: The Image Maker (1988), he often goes into detail explaining the process of transforming his clients’ conceptual ideas into an image. For example, his work for General Motors’ new laser and infrared radiation technology is interpreted as a human- shaped cloud form, “symbolizing the potential interaction of technology with people” as it views a curved grid extending into the horizon in a spirit-like realm.
I was also intrigued by his series of hand portraits for a book by National Geographic, Inventors and Discovers. He states, “hands are people’s most basic tool for shaping their environment” (Tcherevkoff, 1988). One of the hand photos, entitled “The Long Distance Messenger,” for a chapter about wireless technology captures a hand with a glowing thumb and index finger. From this glow emerges a coiling illuminated line wrapped around a dark globe as it turns into a comet-like light. This image demonstrates how without context, the image alone appears as if the hand is producing some sort of magic. Indeed, the word “magic” and the word “machine”, are tied to the same ancient Indo-European root word – magh – meaning “power” (Tcherevkoff, 1988). When one observes how powerful Silicon Valley— and the tech industry as a whole— has become, it’s hard to argue its rather magical hold it has on our society.
Throughout my research, I observed the perpetual dynamic between spirituality and technology. As this curation displays, the commercialization of technology used the versatility of surrealist artistic styles to match the innovative and transformative qualities tech brands hoped to inspire with their products in their advertisement. By extending this research to include Japanese graphic design, I was able to understand how the impact of postwar economic shifts and cross-cultural exchanges influenced the country’s approach to technology. In Japan, technological creations are not necessarily seen as man’s demonstration of intellectual hubris like in the West, but rather an extension of man’s co-existence with the surrounding environment. The rise of Big Tech in correlation to counterculture movements places San Francisco and the Bay Area in a unique intersection of spirituality and technology. It raises questions on how the relationship between spirituality and technology will continue into the future. Wherever it leads to, artistic mediums will certainly be used to illuminate the way.
Brenner, A. (2003). Fantasy. https://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/fantasy.htm
Craven, J. (2019, August 19). Surrealism, the Amazing Art of Dreams. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-surrealism-183312
Hertog, J., & Chen, C. (2022, July 11). Carolyn Chen: “Buddhism has found a new institutional home in the West: the corporation.” Guernica. https://www.guernicamag.com/carolyn-
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Matsubara, H. (1985). First Word. OMNI.
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Murray, M. R., & Nilges, M. (Eds.). (2021). William Gibson and the Future of Contemporary Culture. University of Iowa Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1d82hds
Roszak, T. (1969). The making of a counter culture; reflections on the technocratic society and its youthful opposition. Doubleday. https://www.nypl.org/research/research-catalog
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