Takashi Murakami - Biography and Legacy
Japanese Painter, Sculptor, Installation artist, Curator, Art Critic, and Cultural Entrepreneur
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.
Murakami grew up hearing his mother tell him that had the U.S. dropped another nuclear bomb, he would not have been born. The omnipresence of the devastation and the ensuing U.S. presence in Japan in the decades following WWII had a tremendous influence on Murakami's artistic evolution. During Murakami's childhood, Japan created a national identity that revived traditional Japanese culture and put tremendous pressure on its workforce to produce in order to compete with the West both economically, as well as culturally. This hybrid emphasis on traditional Japanese culture and Western influences was reflected in Murakami's childhood activities, which ranged from attending Buddhist rituals and taking Japanese calligraphy courses to visiting museum exhibitions of masters such as Renoir and Goya.
Though he developed an early appreciation of both traditional Japanese culture and modern European art, Japanese animation had the most significant impact on him during his formative teenage years. This explains why a major part of his works are dedicated to the otaku audience, a subculture obsessed with apocalyptic and fetishistic imagery. These recurring motifs in anime and manga coincides with otaku followers' inability, or perhaps refusal, to interact in the real world or apply social skills. Murakami himself links the otaku subculture directly to post-WWII Japanese society.
Early Training and Work
Initially interested in studying background art for animations, in 1980 Murakami enrolled in the nihonga (a traditional Japanese painting style that draws on elements of Western art) department of the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he stayed on for master's (completed in 1988) and doctoral degree (completed in 1993). While diligently studying the ancient techniques at university, he also learned animation production outside of school, and continued his knowledge of the contemporary art world through visiting exhibitions and his school's visiting artist program.
In 1984, an inspiring yet infuriating meeting with Joseph Beuys proved to be a turning point in Murakami's artistic career. During an in-class discussion, Beuys ignored several of the students' questions, saying "the questions have no meaning. I would like a more meaningful question." Beuys's dismissive attitude upset Murakami, while the famous artist was in turn frustrated with what he saw as uninformed Japanese art students. As a result, by his seventh year at school, Murakami's began to reflect his deeply critical attitude towards the Western art market.
Murakami's early works reflect the realities with which he had grown up, exploring the complex post-WWII relationship between Japan and the U.S. For example, Polyrhythm (1991) uses plastic World War II toy soldiers, Sea Breeze (1992) refers to the atomic bomb. These works demonstrate his early development of a playful and seemingly light style that always refer to a more cynical stance.
In 1994, Murakami traveled to New York City to participate in P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center's International Studio Program on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. Isolated and fairly unhappy in New York, Murakami was surrounded by the pressures of the American art market and gallery system. There he realized that in order to succeed in this world, he had to abandon his overly-intellectual Japanese preoccupations, and to present a more simplified brand of himself and his art as quintessentially Japanese. This time therefore represents a radical breaking point for his career. Prior to this, his work focused on a global bent to contemporary art, but it was during this visit that he decided to re-engage with his Japanese identity and strengthen his work's engagement with both the high art form of nihonga as well as the popular culture forms of anime and manga. On the eve of his departure from New York, while playing a late-night word game with friends using non-sense words like "dobozite" (a manga word meaning "why?"), Murakami came up with the figure Mr. DOB, which would go on to become the artist's signature character across his diverse array of artistic media. Mr. DOB-shaped inflatables were shown for the first time in New York at the Angel Orensanz Foundation in 1995, but did not receive any significant critical attention. In 1996, he was included in a group exhibition at the gallery Feature. This exhibition marks the beginning of his international acclaim and fame. Murakami went on to design a series of major sculptures inspired by otaku subculture in the second half of the nineties, including Miss ko2 (1996-1997), Hiropon (1997), and My Lonesome Cowboy (1998). Murakami's liberal borrowings from Japanese popular culture was very comparable to Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol's appropriations of comics.
In order to produce his otaku-inspired sculptures, in 1996 Murakami founded the Hiropon Factory. Like much of Murakami's works, his factory is modeled on both traditional Japanese art workshops, such as the ones that produced the colorful woodblock prints from the Edo period, as well as on Andy Warhol's Factory. At Hiropon assistants trained in various areas of expertise collaborate under the artist's supervision for large-scale, mass-marketed projects. In 2001, the Hiropon Factory evolved into Kaikai Kiki Co., a highly organized corporation employing about fifty people in its Tokyo headquarters, and twenty in its New York office and studio. Besides producing and marketing Murakami's works, the corporation promotes new artists; operates art fairs, organizes collaborative projects with individuals and companies in fashion, music, and entertainment, and develops animated videos and films. Kaikai Kiki represents a shift in the production of modern artwork where fine art and commerce are seamlessly integrated, and where the artist's physical hand in the making of the artwork no longer determines the financial value, but rather the symbolic value is created through the artist's association with the art-commodities produced in his business-oriented factory. Now the corporation employs as many as 60 full time employees in its Tokyo location, and more than 20 in New York.
In 2000, in search of a post-war Japanese identity and out of a frustration of his compatriots' indifference to Japanese contemporary art, Murakami presented the theory of Superflat in a group exhibition of the same name. The exhibition featured his own works as well as the ones by Yoshitomo Nara, Shigeyoshi Ohi, Aya Takano, and others. The Superflat theory soon swept across the contemporary art world, becoming a landmark movement in contemporary Japanese art, the latest major style to reach international acclaim in the art world since the 1950s Japanese Gutai group.
Murakami's historic essay, "A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art" (2000) is his ultimate expression of his early scorn for the art world. There, he articulates desire to produce a uniquely Japanese art form that is directly related to the long shadow cast by Japan's trauma after the humiliating defeat of WWII. This essay seeks to extract the very marrow of the post-war Japanese culture in order to utilize it as a foundational philosophy for his artworks. As writer Pico Iyer states, Murakami "is a realistic chronicler of the flight from the real. And much as Andy Warhol decided to give modern America exactly the glut of mass production and mass celebrity it seemed so intent upon, with a vengeance, so Murakami offered Japan precisely the images it loves, in its fondness for the kawaii and those deviant forms loved by the otaku." The Japanese version of this essay demonstrate a vitriolic anti-Americanism, while his English translations focus more on the stylistic evolution of his works. In both versions, however, Murakami explains the concept of, as he describes, "Superflatness is an original concept of the Japanese, which has been completely Westernized."
His epic Superflat thesis aims to seamlessly unite the history of Japanese art from 12th and 13th -century Genji and Heiji scrolls with contemporary Japanese pop-culture. Despite his art-historical and culturally-rich referents in his art, essays, manifestos, and interviews, people are often immediately drawn to his work for its seeming superficiality and dazzling explosion of characters and colors. This paradox between the profound meaning and the immediate pleasure enjoyed by his audience directly expresses of the fluid nature of his Superflat concept.
Ever since the founding of the Hiropon Factory, Murakami's projects have been more commercially charged and have explored unconventional artistic media including fashion, music, entertainment, public installations, animation, and films. This shift between roles reveals Murakami's ambition of redefining what a postmodern, international artist can be.
In 2002, at the invitation of the designer Marc Jacobs, Murakami began his long-term collaboration with the elite fashion brand Louis Vuitton. Without losing his identity in the LV project, Murakami was able to tweak the brand to incorporate his own unique aesthetic. For example, he combined LV's monogram with his own signature jellyfish eyes or overprinted the monogram with his cartoon cherries. This collaboration made Murakami widely known for further blurring commercial boundaries, elevated his status to celebrity in his home country, and raised economic value of his art to one that is highly prized among (mostly Western) collectors.
His fame in the fashion world swept across the pop music industry as well. In 2007, Murakami designed the Dropout Bear character for singer Kanye West's album Graduation and directed an animated video for West's song "Good Morning." His collectors in the pop music world include the South Korean superstar musician G-Dragon and Pharrell Williams, who also collaborated with Murakami in 2009 and 2014. Murakami later "re-appropriated" these projects by incorporating the identical imagery into his paintings and sculptures meant for prestigious art institutions or influential collectors.
The Legacy of Takashi Murakami
Murakami has inspired and personally mentored the next generation of Japanese artists. He named himself as the guru of the kuriieita (creator) generation, the young adults of Japan's two "lost decades" of the 1990s and 2000s who grew up in a society in decline. To these followers in Japan, he declared he was on a mission to fool the West and smash the Japanese art system. He is also an active mentor to emerging Japanese artists through employing them at his factories, curating exhibitions of their work, and writing essays that contextualizes their work within the legacy of modern Japanese art. Proteges at the Kaikai Kiki Co. include Chiho Aoshima, Chinatsu Ban, Akane Koide, Mahomi Kunikata, Mr., Rei Sato, and Aya Takano, whose strong presence in the Japanese art world defines the landscape of Japanese art in the 21st century. Despite the clash of reception between his artwork, alternating between heavy disdain and blatant celebration, Superflat has come to dominate the world's view of Japanese contemporary art.