Japanese Painter, Sculptor, Installation artist, Curator, Art Critic, and Cultural Entrepreneur
Summary of Takashi Murakami
Known for his brightly colored and maniacally cheerful works, Takashi Murakami's astronomical rise to fame in the contemporary art world has been met with equal parts celebration and criticism. Murakami merges Japanese pop culture referents with the country's rich artistic legacy, effectively obliterating any distinction between commodity and high art. He is compared to Andy Warhol for his art-as-business approach, as well as for his large factories of workers who produce, market, and sell his art. His critics have derided him as a sell-out, and as playing into the art market's increasing demands for easily consumable and exotic art from Japan. But for Murakami, this is a compliment and precisely what he intends. His work draws inspiration from the Japanese subculture of otaku, which is replete with strange perversions of cuteness and innocence, as well as incredible violence. Through this, Murakami crafts a subtle critique of Japan's contemporary culture as well as the West's intruding influence upon it.
- Sculptures of anime-inspired characters with voluptuous breasts shooting out streams of milk like a jet-stream, overly cheerful cartoon characters with razor sharp teeth, and sickeningly cute paintings of smiling daisies are all stylistically and thematically based on Murakami's early engagement with the Japanese subculture of otaku - a large group of fanatical geeks obsessed with the fantasy worlds depicted in anime (animated cartoons) and manga (comic books), and the concept of kawaii (all things "cute"). In his youth, Murakami immersed himself in this world, and as an artist he began to draw stylistic inspiration from it and presents to viewers from a cynical and distanced stance.
- Out of defiance for the Western-dominated art world, Murakami created his own movement called Superflat. The name refers both to the flattened compositions that lacked one point perspective of historical Japanese artistic movements such as Nihonga, as well as to the flattening (or merging) of art and commerce. Superflat is Murakami's way of bringing together Japan's history with contemporary pop culture. Its bright and easy eye-candy aesthetic immediately lured a wide audience to Murakami's work. However, critics have derided Superflat as a blatant caricature and distortion of modern Japan. Regardless, Superflat has inspired an entire generation of contemporary Japanese art.
- Taking cue from Andy Warhol's factory, Murakami developed a new form of Pop art, aptly titled Neo-Pop, in which the line between pop culture and high art was not simply blurred, but rather, completely obliterated. Murakami's Neo-Pop parodies postwar Japanese consumer culture by "sampling" and "remixing" its themes and characters within the realm of high art. Murakami's factories produce fine art that sells for millions of dollars alongside cheap trinkets that sell for just a few dollars. In this respect, Murakami shatters the illusion of elitism and superiority of the art world, while simultaneously benefitting from it economically. His collaboration with Louis Vuitton further destroyed the line between art and commerce, while the wide availability of his trinkets enable anyone to own a Murakami piece.
- Murakami's work must be understood as deeply critical to Western intervention. He was raised by parents who experienced the devastating nuclear bombings in a Japan that then faced heavy sanctions and a permanent U.S. military presence. His Japanese writings differ wildly from his essays written in English, and in them, he betrays a deep cynicism towards the West, and towards the global art market. Murakami considers Japan's contemporary obsession with cuteness, youthful innocence, fetish, and violence to be the product of U.S. intervention that began with the bomb. Many believe that Murakami considers his thrusting of this culture onto the U.S. through his elevation of it as high art as a form of revenge.
Biography of Takashi Murakami
Takashi Murakami was born in 1962. Murakami's father was a taxi driver, and his mother was a homemaker. His mother, who studied needlepoint and designed textiles, had a tremendous influence on Murakami's interest in the arts. His parents often had him write reviews on exhibitions he had seen. If he refused, he was forced to go to bed without dinner. Raised in such a highly competitive environment, Murakami learned how to think and write quickly. These skills partly inform his later fame as an acerbic art critic.
Important Art by Takashi Murakami
In the center of this contemporary triptych is Murakami's avatar named Mr. DOB. His open mouth reveals razor sharp teeth, as his multiple eyes roam maniacally across his environs. Japanese anime is known for cartoon characters with unusually large eyes, which frequently encompass a large portion of their face. The roving eyes in this piece take anime's exaggeration even further.
Mr. DOB, created by Murakami in 1993, is derived from the Japanese slang term "dobozite" which roughly translates as "why?" The maniacal smile of Mr. DOB can be understood as Murkami's laughing stance towards the art world, and also towards the West. The title itself, 727, is a reference to the Boeing American airplanes that flew over his childhood home while heading to U.S. military bases. In this sense, the title is a direct reference to the U.S. presence in post-WWII Japan that Murakami is so keen to both explore and critique in his art.
The stylized wave upon which Mr. DOB sits is an obvious reference to the 19th-century Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai, who was incredibly influential for future Japanese artists and manga comics alike due to his bold colors and flattened compositions. The abstract background, created by scrapping away many layers of paint, is reminiscent of a Japanese folding screen done in the nihonga style. The soothing use of paint in the background of this work is in stark contrast to the cartoonish Mr. D.O.B. atop a parodied version of Hokusai's wave. With a Ph.D. degree in nihonga, Murakami masterfully merges the worlds of historical Japanese aesthetics and popular contemporary Japanese cartoons.
Murakami began the Mr. DOB series with the purpose of creating a great icon of the contemporary world, comparable to Mickey Mouse, Miffy, or Hello Kitty. This recurring motif is Murakami's first "artistic DNA" that is spread across different media and cultural levels, from fine-art paintings and gigantic 3D sculptures to mass-produced t-shirts, posters, and key-chains. Mr. DOB is very much a brand mascot. The intention is to make the artist disappear, as he declares, "the audience doesn't need the artist, only the character." Resonating with the anonymous Japanese artisans of the past, Murakami adds, "I despair of the possibility that the world will not purify, and that art is an effective medium to survive cheerfully, even after my death." Mr. DOB's global success gave Murakami the confidence to elevate himself to the status of Cézanne, Duchamp, Warhol, and Picasso who, in his words, "had their characters (in their work and in themselves) to survive many dozens of years beyond their lifetimes." Mr. DOB is simultaneously a celebration as well as critique of contemporary culture, and this paradox is what makes this figure so intriguing.
This overtly sexualized sculpture, with her tiny waist and voluminous pink pig-tails, has breasts that are so large that they burst out of her skimpy bikini top to spray a jet-stream of milk that encircles her figure. While this sculpture resembles a cartoon character, her looming physical presence and positioning on a clean white vitrine reminds viewers that this is "high art." Combining a feminine cuteness and shocking perversion, this sculpture reflects Murakami's deep engagement with otaku subculture, and in particular, its pornographic underbelly, known as "loli-com" (short for "Lolita Complex") in which innocence and girlhood are paradoxically prized, as well as fetishized.
Hiropon is a part of Murakami's anime-inspired characters that also include a masturbating sculpture of a boy named My Lonesome Cowboy. Murakami explains these sculptures simply as a celebration of his own love for anime during teen years, "I became an otaku when I was in high school and absorbed many different things from anime like its erotic and fantasy elements... that very process resulted in this work."
However, beneath its cartoonish and seemingly vapid surface, this sculpture functions as a crippling critique of post-WWII Japanese culture. Murakami repeatedly states in his interviews and writings that Japan was infantilized by the U.S. presence following WWII, that it became the "little boy" in comparison to the U.S. Murakami states that following the end of the WWII Japan was "kept from participating fully in global geopolitics, Japanese aesthetic-political impulses imploded into fantasies of monsters and superheroes, galactic wars, cyborgs, and schoolgirls - all the displays of anime, manga, video games." He describes this as having a castrating effect on Japan, and as a result, Japan's culture became obsessed with youth, cuteness, and with it, came a darker and violent sexual manifestation of this obsession.
The title itself alludes to the darker aspects of Japanese culture - "hiropon" is Japanese slang for the narcotic - crystal methamphetamine. This literal connection to the drug culture reveals Murakami's examination of otaku culture as an illicit form of entertainment.
This now iconic sculpture articulates, in three-dimensional form, Murakami's "Superflat" manifesto - that is, a merging (or "flattening") of the high and the low, of fine arts and pop culture - by extracting the erotic from "low" anime culture and inserting it into fine-art sculpture meant for influential collectors and prestigious art institutions. This sculpture sold for $427,500 at Christie's auction house in 2002 and helped transform Murakami into a superstar in the global art world.
Executed in Murakami's signature Superflat style that combines referents to historical Japanese painting alongside contemporary pop culture, this multi-paneled painting of mushrooms, titled Supernova, at first glance, seems like a playful, childhood fantasy. However, these creatures' mutant eyeballs, fang-like spikes, psychedelic colors, and distorted forms hint at sinister undercurrents. The title of the work refers to a song by the British band Oasis called "Champagne Supernova" from 1995. The association with the song - containing allusions to drug culture - suggests that these fanciful images could also be interpreted as hallucinogenic (magic) mushrooms.
At the center is a giant mushroom with a monstrously beautiful, eyeball-covered cap and shard-like teeth. A horizontal band of smaller mushrooms spreads over its seven panels. The composition is inspired by the eighteenth-century artist Ito Jakuchu's Compendium of Vegetables and Insects (1761) that focuses on mushrooms - mushrooms have been long revered in Japan for their gastronomic qualities, diversity, and reference to longevity.
However, within the context of post-WWII Japan, the mushroom is also an ominous reminder of the mushroom-like cloud produced by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945. The mushroom's mutant status evokes the horrific and lasting side-effects of nuclear radiation. Throughout Murakami's works, mushrooms are prominently featured. Their whimsical presentation of a glossy cheerfulness are a subtle critique to Japan's youth-obsessed culture in which both innocence and cuteness are prized. This manifests itself in this work through its bright colors and cartoonish forms.