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Takashi Murakami

Lives and works in Tokyo / Japan

Takashi Murakam is a contemporary Japanese artist. He works in fine arts media—such as painting and sculpture—as well as commercial media —fashion, merchandise, and animation— and is international known for blurring the line between high and low arts. He coined the term superflat, which describes both the aesthetic characteristics of the Japanese artistic tradition and the nature of post-war Japanese culture and society.

curated contemporary art

Things Are Not What They Seem
Murakami and the difference between childlike and childish

contemporary artLearning that an artist belongs to the most popular ones does not necessarily raise favourable concern. Looking at work which obviously begs for public attention makes us shrink back still further. But never trust first impressions.
 
Clearing out old stuff
In Frankfurt am Main, the Museum fuer Moderne Kunst had been emptied to provide sufficient space for a body of work, which has made Japanese artist Takashi Murakami one of “the hundred most influential persons worldwide in 2008”. Murakami became known when he isolated Manga motifs from their context and surrounded them with ornament, based on a few repeated patterns.

 
In and out
So once again opinions are split between individuals inside and outside the art world. Inside reactions range from shrugging over moaning to screaming, outside from children's delight over adolescent receptiveness for primary sexual characteristics to stunning sums of money paid for enlarged toys.
In the face of Murakami's user-friendliness, precipitant critics fall for the first-glance-appearance of dolls, fashion accessories and sculpture, spotting blunt commercialism and locate the Japanese somewhere between the US-American Pattern and Decoration-movement of the 1980ies and the iconography of entertainment industry, aimed at the generation 2,5 plus.
Bright colours, an overkill of sign stimuli and an omnipresent schema of large heads with still larger eyesserve to explain the artist's immense popularity as an effect of subjugation to the aethetics of consumer electronics.

 
Power selling
The fact that a shop for Murakami paraphernalia is enclosed within the exhibition space signals that the self proclaimed “marketing artist” considers distribution as an equal part of creation. This holistic notion of art as the union of creation and distribution makes the shrewd entrepreneur a pioneering figure, leading the way to the survival of the fittest – the artist, that is.
Under the name Kaikai Kiki a considerable assemblage of co-workers manage juridical and financial issues, specialists for computer animated images are concerned with drafts which il maestro leaves on the screen for further processing. Huge silk screen prints are revised by specially trained painters who are responsible for delicate lines within hall-sized wallpaper.

 
art contemporaryRather subject than object
So Murakami shows the path how to survive as a visual artist under present conditions. In order to do that he doesn't “bridge the gap” between art and commerce. Instead he feels utterly comfortable in it. Right from the start he has made commercialisation part of the work. Preferring to control than to be controlled he sets up his own distribution and has the media comply to his rules. So he strictly regulates publication of his pictures in the press. This way the self-proclaimed “marketing artist”, who creates bags for a high-priced company and videos for prominent musicians doesn't so much subjugate himself to any aspect of popular culture as in fact he forms it.
In this manner he settles the question how to earn a living as an artist in a country where the majority doesn't care a beep about contemporary art – at least in the victim's own words.

 
Deep Flatness
Murakami subsumes his work under the notion “superflat”. This obviously does not refer to his images´ outer appearance. In no spatial illusion is avoided but rather optimized. So “flatness” must have some metaphorical meaning. In his book The meaning of the Nonsense of the Meaning Murakami termed "superflat" as his definition of Japanese culture, which he describes as “extremely two-dimensional. In his Super Flat Manifest (2000) he describes "super flatness" as the original concept of the Japanese people which was completely westernised.
Consequently he considers himself the lonely representative of vanguard art in his country. Even though the term vanguard may sound outdated – in Japan there are still heroic deeds to be done. Although this evidently is not the place to elaborate on the status of contemporary art within Japanese society it's fair to say that a common mistrust among contemporary Japanese towards the value of today's art is certainly one reason for Murakami's confession to the aesthetics of mass media. Given the fact that no museum in Japan possesses any of his pieces it seems as if also his elective affinity to another famous “marketing artist” testifies to Murakami's wish to be recognized as an artist.
“I am proud to be called Japan's Warhol, because this shows that people understand that I am contributing to the development of art.”
 

 
The roots of synthetic flowers
Since integration of traditional elements is a common means among artists worldwide it´s unnecessary to quote Leiko Ikemura or Mariko Mori to recognize allusions to Buddhist deities in the employment of lotus flowers, multi-armed creatures and transcendental “guardians”.

Actually there are hints to ancestors all over the place. So Murakami affiliates bodily fluids, which adorn his quite permissive figurines, with traditional woodcuts by Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849). 

 
An additional example of art historical roots is the painting where the artist's alter ego, a figure called Mr. DOB, was born. The then tiny form emerged on a surface entirely imbued with International Klein Blue. In the following years it grew up, so to speak, on a threepartite painting where it surfed with Hiroshige-like waves over dreamy clouds of a strongly Tachist background.

 
Just what is it what makes Murakami so different, so appealing?
In other words: which qualities separate Murakami´'s dolls from Toys”R”Us and breakfast TV? Plenty. Of course his figures and films repeat technique, looks and plots of Manga and Anime, and vice versa they transport this popular culture – that is art in the widest sense - into art in the narrow sense of the word. When the prominent Frankfurt museum mentioned above transformed its facade to “© Murakami Museum”, adjacent galleries immediately furnished their windows with similar items: happy, multi-coloured, sometimes garish and – superflat.

Of course the sudden appearance of children's world imagery happens neither sudden nor for the first time. A vast amount of Murakami's past and present peers combine decorative harmlessness with aggressive sexuality and nauseating depictions. But so far hardly anybody has fused the pretty and the cruel so compellingly. Apparently Murakami's work oscillates between shiny surfaces and the precipices underneath, walking the thin line between affirmation and subversion.
??
 
Speaking of contradictions, the union of opposites is all pervading. The joy and threats of life are walking hand in hand about the Murakami universe - sometimes obviously partitioned into two figures called Kaikaiand Kiki, the protagonists of animated films, sometimes subtle like flowers on camouflage pattern or naked women transformed into fighter planes.
The reason that Murakami´s trading company bears the same name as the comic-strip heroes lies in the fact that Kaikaiand Kiki- the Japanese equivalent of “elegant” and “bizarre” – could serve as the common denominator of his whole assortment.
Another example of the inseparability of opposite forces are the hands of rubber dollMiss Koo, one reaching out in a communicative gesture, the other one clenched to a fist behind her back. This antagonistic movement of compliance and refusal also constitutes Murakami's pieces just as the inseparability of the nice and the ugly.
 
Even hardly charming activities like defecating and vomiting are presented in such a masterly decorative manner that it takes a second look to distinguish them from other types of wallpapers presented, like the ones covered with flowers or decorative logos.
A giant frog, in traditional Japanese culture a sign of recurrence, appears wherever those waste products, flooding the tableaus, give rise to additional Mr. DOBs. This way the crab transforms to new creatures which produce more crab which in turn … and so on and so forth. In short: the ancient model of cyclic existence energizes the Kaikai Kiki industry.

 
Smiling as effect of moving muscles
Since the beginning of mankind pleasure and pain are inseparable, but in Murakami's “happy” faces and “joyful” colours this ambivalence emerges quite drastically. In fact the smiling mimicry of “gay” beings with “funny” faces is about as convincingly as the bare teeth in the distorted faces of Yue Minjun's “laughing” figures.
Hence it seems hasty to interpret “faces” with widely open mouths as friendly. Since reality was not the right place for smiling, Murakami explains, his figures' “smiles” were merely "effects of moving muscles". This commentary, revealing a general scepticism – almost cynicism – doesn't come as a surprise. Nobody would honestly believe that an adult meant characters like Murakami's “cute” creatures seriously. Cuddly gadgets may be endemic at best in the realm of pop music, but within the visual arts? Furthermore, born 1962 the artist doesn’t exactly fit the age group attracted by computer animated childlike features. So obviously there must be another layer beneath the streamlined appearance of this oh so happy univers
 
modern artMurakami's awareness for the ambivalent nature of phenomena includes also the cost-benefit analysis of the establishment of brands – an issue, which once occupied the artist for years. Signboard Takashi
for instance depicts the word “Takashi”, printed in a font which resembles the letters used in American Westerns. Underneath it the slogan “First in quality among the world” is visible, and above two five-pointed stars, perforated by irregular wholes with burnt edges. In between these dubious holes, which bear strong resemblance to gun holes, the word “brand” is printed.
One last example for the dual nature of the popular is Murakami's mascot. Cheerful Mr. DOB
may have looked Micky Mousish in the beginning but later the jolly bubble head developed fangs and reduced his neatness.

 
Accompanied by signals for rage, loss of control, weariness and sickness the now bleeding and gagging monster transformed to a depiction of the artist´s felt self – as he admits. And since Murakami explaines that a painting called Tan Tan Bo puking  was about greed he once again unifies the continuous alteration between craving and aversion in one image.
Hence irrespective of all alleged flatness Murakami's issues are heavy with content, above all impermanence and death. Annihilation pervades his inventory: According to the artist Mr. Pointy's  mushroom-like body represents the cloud of the atomic bombs which made Hiroshima and Nagasaki “superflat” - as Murakami puts it. As if to crown it all this memorial sits on a glossy frog – the Japanese symbol for recurrence, remember? And what will recur is clearly not the individual, since:
“Everyone will eventually perish
we each have only one life to live
a meaningless speck
in the history of universe.”
 
These lines next to another picture don't leave much doubt about what will recur won't be a funny comic character.

 

Author: Charlotte Lindenberg

 

Images:
Portrait Takashi Murakami, Wikpedia, the free enzyclopedia
Takashi Murakami, DOBs, Photo Web
Takashi Murakami, DOB, Photo Web
Murakami with ancestor, Photo Web

More art-reviews by Charlotte Lindenberg.

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