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In Europe, Popeye’s copyright expired on January 1, 2009, which means his likeness can be used in comics, on clothing, and elsewhere without authorization from the copyright holder—but only in Europe, where the law protects copyright for seventy years following the author‘s death (E.C. Segar, who first drew the spinach-guzzling sailor in 1929, died in 1938). In the United States, however, copyright stands for ninety-five years after it is first registered, so uses of Popeye will have to be registered through 2024.
The discrepancy in US and EU law has created an odd situation where geography determines legal constraints on the production of highly mobile images. Takeshi Murata wasn’t aware of the copyright issue when he began working on I, Popeye (2010), but it highlights the contradictions that interest him: the possibility of “unauthorized use” with images that are as deeply embedded in the popular consciousness as a song like “Happy Birthday.” Here, Murata twists a cartoon of heroic triumph into a litany of failure—the opposite of what Disney does when adapting a tale that, in the Grimms’ telling, doesn‘t end happily. The halting, minor-key version of the Popeye theme song in Devin Flynn and Ross Goldstein‘s soundtrack and the leering, moneyed Popeye pictured on the anti-hero‘s T-shirt—a caricature of pop-culture icon as commodity—are two details that contribute the video‘s effect. But the key factor is the medium itself. By rendering the characters in the kind of slick three-dimensional animation commonly associated with big-studio production, Murata intensifies and complicates the discrepancy between the official Popeye and his own “folk” version.
A pioneer of datamoshing—a form of glitch art that manipulates compression frames to give them an overly pixelated appearance—Takeshi Murata is best known for his psychedelic animated videos. More recently Murata has created digital still lifes that depict outmoded technological detritus and symbols of mortality, combined with miscellaneous objects such as beer bottles, lemons, and VHS tapes. Murata creates these objects using CGI technology that give the illusion of three-dimensionality, in effect producing updated Dutch vanitas images for the digital age. In these and video works such as I, Popeye (2010), Murata meditates on the process of image-making and the digital afterlife of images.
American, b. 1974, Chicago, Illinois, based in Saugerties, New York