'The animated explosions formed the whole of my anime otaku experience. Something strange about their movement was unforgettable; after seeing them once they became an integral part of my 'awareness' of beauty' (T. Murakami, 'Life as a Creator', Takashi Murakami: Summon Monsters? Open the Door? Heal? Or Die?, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2001, p. 137).
Executed in 1998, Spring Liquid is a unique, large-scale Splash painting by Takashi Murakami. Epitomizing both the artist's signature fusion of high and low art, and his characteristic sense of humour, the painting bears a suggestive, milky trail spinning rapidly across four, bright, cyan canvases. Based on the ultimate gaming figure, Silver Cloud from Final Fantasy, this blue-spikey haired youth brandishes his ejaculate like a cattle herder's lasso, projecting his libidinal mark across the gallery. Situated opposite the cowboy was the artist's Hiropon (1997), an eroticised female figure derived from an otaku fantasy with exaggerated lactating breasts aimed at her opponent. The two figures never physically interact, but the series of splashes emanating from each meets on the canvas in Spring Liquid's two-dimensional painting. The trails of bodily fluid appear 'superflat', pared down and minimal in their abstract style forming a playful if mocking conflation of Western abstract expressionism and Japanese artistic conventions.
In Spring Liquid Murakami brings together a remarkable synthesis of high art and consumer culture. His painting refers to the cultish Japanese phenomenon otaku, elaborated in the artist's essay 'Impotence Culture - Anime' (2001). As Murakami has explained, otaku originally derived from the honorific word for a person's family or home. Obsessive, housebound fans of anime, manga and video games later coined and coopted this term to colloquially refer to each other. For these fanatics, the memorabilia collections relating to their favourite manga comics and video games are considered sacrosanct. In Japan, many have come to see otaku as a subversive designation, synonymous with negative stereotypes such as rampant sexuality and anti-social behavior amongst young men. Murakami became fascinated with this form of sub-culture and began to work in the late 1990s on elevating its products from 'low-culture' by removing the imported Western distinction of 'high-culture' (traditionally this dichotomy did not exist between Japanese Arts and Crafts). Both My Lonesome Cowboy and Hiropon were born out of this initiative, the former recalling Warhol's homoerotic, The Lonesome Cowboys (1968) and the latter being named after the crystal-amphetamine drug popular in Japan following World War II until its ban in 1952. Spring Liquid is the culmination of these two figures' outpourings on canvas, translating otaku to the medium of paint.
With its smooth, clean aesthetic, the painting is also an elaboration of Murakami's 'superflat' aesthetic, which draws formal parallels between traditional Japanese painting from the Edo period (1603-1868) and contemporary animators. In Spring Liquid the decorative style employed appears indebted to the traditional, flat, calligraphic style of Kano Sansetu's screens Pheasant on a Plum Tree (1631) and The Old Plum (circa 1645). It also recalls the animation of cult Japanese science-fiction filmmaker Yoshinori Kanada whose explosive effects in films such as Goodbye to Galaxy Express 999 (1981) made a great impression upon the young artist. In fact, the projected fluids in Spring Liquid arguably reveal what Jackson Pollock's action painting drips would look like under Kanada's special treatment. As Murakami has explained: 'the animated explosions formed the whole of my anime otaku experience. Something strange about their movement was unforgettable; after seeing them once they became an integral part of my 'awareness' of beauty' (T. Murakami, 'Life as a Creator', Takashi Murakami: Summon Monsters? Open the Door? Heal? Or Die?, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2001, p. 137). Murakami began his career in animation, changing trajectory in 1986 and studying instead for a doctorate in Nihon-ga painting. The influence of this nineteenth century branch of Japanese painting is writ large in Spring Liquid where each milky crest appears like the internationally recognised, frothy tidal wave wood prints executed by Hokusai Katsushika.
Murakami is often considered to be a new proponent of Pop following the likes of Andy Warhol. Certainly his work embraces high and low art, but whilst Warhol and Lichtenstein attempted to subvert these binary terms, Murakami conflates them, emphasizing the lack of context for their use in Japan. In Spring Liquid as with his fantasy figures My Lonesome Cowboy and Hiropon, the artist revels in taboo and strong sexual themes. This certainly has precedent in American Pop and post-Pop from Tom Wesselmann's full frontal nudes, Cindy Sherman's Sex Pictures, Andreas Serrano's notorious photographs to Jeff Koon's Made in Heaven series. Spring Liquid artfully invokes and reinvigorates these themes, articulating them through Murakami's own popular aesthetic to great effect.