Summary of Superflat
When Japanese artist Takashi Murakami coined the term Superflat in 2001, he launched one of postmodern art's most invigorated movements. Based on the compilation and compression of centuries' worth of Japanese "flat" art aesthetics, and inspired by the country's distinctively unique post World War II anime and manga craze, he inspired other artists to join him in putting Japan on the art world map. Often categorized as a Japanese form of Pop Art, Superflat has become an international phenomenon, infiltrating all areas of consumer culture from high to low art.
- The flat of Superflat has dual meanings. It refers not only to the history of non-three-dimensional styles of Japanese art, but also remarks on the flat, shallowness of consumer culture, something the movement has been doubly said to either celebrate or critically exploit.
- Although primarily drawing upon contemporary Japanese subcultures, the influence of Pop Art and Neo-Pop Art on Superflat cannot be denied because of its use of modern popular culture as a continual source of fodder. Not only does this expand Pop's reach as a movement but solidifies its foundation upon which artists worldwide are perpetually influenced by the constant stream of imagery and messages fed to society via mass media.
- Superflat has successfully and significantly blurred the lines between fine art and commercial art with work that ranges from traditional painting and sculpture to digital art, graphic design, and film to fashion and product design and development. Because of this, it has revolutionized the appropriation of globalized visual culture toward creating and manufacturing creative forms of art that can be accessed and bought by audiences across all economic spectrums.
Overview of Superflat
Japan has a centuries long tradition of "flat" art. The term generally refers to an aesthetic seen in the country's artistic output spanning many movements, styles, and forms defined by characteristics such as bold outlines, flat coloring, and a decided lack of natural perspective, depth, and three-dimensionality. Crossing periods of history and shifts in culture, "flat" has remained a strong identifier of Japanese art, all of which influenced the development of Superflat. It is only through the lens of viewing this long history that one can fully grasp the compilation that makes up this contemporary art movement, one directly informed by and drawn from all its parts into a modern lexicon.
Important Art and Artists of Superflat
This sculpture, depicting an anime figure, shows a life-sized naked boy masturbating, as his white semen in stylized spirals, swirls around him like a lasso, forming a jagged shape above his head that is both oddly weaponized and plane-like. The boy has the wide-eyed, gleeful gaze and characteristic spiky hair of an anime character. In the late 1990s, what some art historians have called Murakami's "bodily fluids" stage, he depicted highly sexualized otaku figures, like this one, as well as his Hiropon (1997) which depicts a woman with oversized breasts that spray a stream of milk encircling her figure.
The work's exaggeration of sexual features evokes earlier shunga, or erotic images, from ukiyo-e, which often depicted exagerrated genitalia. Shunga's depictions emphasized the erotic encounter, whereas Murakami's figures are isolate and static, suggesting sexual prowess void of human connection. The art critic Roberta Smith wrote that Murakami's figures have, "the odd thrill of seeing a fictional cartoon, which normally inhabits a television screen, made three-dimensional and life size." This thrill of the fictional made real, along with the erasure of boundaries between otaku figurines and art world sculpture or between sexual imagery and children's cartoons, was both shocking and innovative in contemporary art and launched the artist's global career.
The title of the sculpture refers to Andy Warhol's film, Lonesome Cowboys (1968), and thus posits it as a wink to Pop art, an earlier movement which also drew inspiration from popular and commercial culture.
The work has become among the most famous works by the artist, due to its $15 million sale price at a 2008 art auction. The sale of the work was fiercely condemned in Japan, and critics remain divided. Art critic Grace McQuilten said the piece represented "commodity fetishism."
This work presents Murakami's iconic Mr. DOB, a whimsical but maniacal mouse-like character, with many eyes and appendages, baring his shark-like smile while riding a stylized wave that swirls from upper left to the right center. The wave, a parody of Hokusai's ukiyo-e treatment in The Great Wave (c. 1830-1832) visually unites all three panels. The use of three panels, simultaneously suggests a modern Western triptych and a Japanese byobu, or traditional folding screen, implying that Mr. DOB conquers both worlds and flattens the distinctions between them.
Mr. DOB is known as Murakami's alter ego. Its name is a contraction of "dobojite, dobojite," a dada-like phrase taken from the manga Inakappe Taisho, which means "why? why?" DOB is always spelled out on the character's face, D on one ear, B on the other, his round face representing the O, so that in all of his transmutations, he is instantly recognizable. The use of text reflects the influence of the works of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who were introduced to the Japanese art world in the early 1990s when Murakami created Mr. DOB. The influence of anime and manga can also be seen in DOB's cartoon-like appearance and large eyes, and the manga catlike character Doraemon influenced his large red open mouth and nose.
Viewers cannot avoid the obvious connection to Disney icon Mickey Mouse, which is here transfigured into a very different figure, with its snarling smile and crazed expression, as if the character embodies the antagonism the artist felt toward America and the Western art world at the time he first created the figure in 1993. The piece draws upon the Japanese use of ma or negative space, and its many layers of paint, resembling traditional lacquer, have been scraped, to create the sense of a Japanese folding screen, in ruin. The title refers to U.S airplanes that were stationed at bases in Japan that frequently flew over the artist's childhood home, and suggests that Mr. DOB, riding his wave, is a kind of Japanese counter force, given impetus by art.
Murakami said, "The work is not particularly representative of anything. It is simply a combination of all the available techniques that I had at the time," but the character became the signature of his brand. His aim, as he said, was "market survivability - the universality of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Sonic the Hedgehog, Doraemon, Miffy, Hello Kitty, and their knock-offs produced in Hong Kong," As art historian Grace McQuilten wrote, Murakami's DOB functions as "commercial branding," and in the realms of art and commerce, "celebrates the depthless nature of consumerism."
Murakami has depicted the character in many works, like his neon colored and psychedelic treatment Hands Clasped (2015). Mr. DOB has been widely reproduced in posters, t-shirts, key chains, and bubble gum dispensers, among other products. Yet, as art critic Christopher Knight noted, "Murakami is the first major artist, Eastern or Western, to make our pervasive culture of branding a primary subject."
This large-scale sculpture depicts a standing white dog in cartoon simplification with closed eyes, its face serenely reminiscent of a Buddha in meditation, posed in some moment of inner stillness. The use of white, evoking traditional Japanese associations of the color with the spirit or ghost world, creates a sense of the otherworldly, despite the cute familiarity of the cartoon dog,
Nara first began depicting this cartoonish figure of a white dog in the 1990s. It has become one of his most iconic works, reproduced on t-shirts, pull toys, stuffed toys, and other items, and also made into a popular children's book, The Lonesome Puppy (2008). He also depicted a white dog in other works, most notably his Aomori ken (Aomori dog) a two story high sculpture of a white dog that is a signature work at the Aomori Museum of Art in Japan.
With these large scale works depicting animals, Nara draws upon the Japanese and Chinese tradition of komainu, large statues, usually of lions and dogs, meant to convey awe and power when placed at the gateways of temples. As a result, the work evokes a sense of the sacred.
The cuteness of the figure, suggests a child's unique perception of scale and feeling, where a pet dog may loom over one and also take on a larger-than-life significance in one's life. Yet the overall effect is melancholic, as the dog conveys a sense of both self-isolation and loneliness, as if embodying Nara's description of his own childhood, "I could communicate better with animals, without words, than communicating verbally with humans." A child's toy here becomes a monumental artwork drawing the contemporary viewer in with its charming simplicity, while hooking the viewer with its totemic and symbolic feeling.