‘Nothing like this by Murakami has come to market before,’ says Contemporary Art specialist Asia Chiao of the artist’s sculptural incarnation of Mr. DOB. The Simple Things realised HKD21,725,000 on 23 November 2019 in Hong Kong
One of the biggest names in contemporary art, Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) is best known for his palette of kaleidoscopic colour, repeated motifs and flattened representational picture plane. His inspirations span everything from the visual arts, music and pop culture to manga, traditional Japanese painting and Edo-period woodblock prints.
The Simple Things (2008-2009), a unique sculpture created by Murakami in collaboration with the rapper, songwriter and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams, is a brilliant example of the artist’s signature style. That it is ‘one of a kind, with added celebrity factor, and fresh-to-market makes it all the more exciting’, says Asia Chiao, associate specialist in Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art.
The work has remained in the same private collection since its debut at Art Basel in 2009, and was offered for the first time at auction on 23 November at Christie’s in Hong Kong. ‘Nothing like this by Murakami has come to market before,’ said the specialist. ‘We expect there to be a lot of excitement.’ It sold for HKD21,725,000.
The Simple Things is a sculptural incarnation of Murakami’s character, Mr. DOB, who has appeared in numerous guises and mediums, and has been interpreted as an alter ego of the artist. His name derives from the Japanese slang phrase ‘dobojite’, meaning ‘why’.
Inside Mr. DOB’s gaping jaws are seven bejewelled consumer objects hand-picked by Pharrell Williams. ‘Sometimes the simple things in life get overlooked,’ Williams said during an interview with VernissageTV at Art Basel in 2009. ‘So, I took seven items that I cherish that people would look at and say, “What’s the big deal?”. But for me, these are the glue to my personality.’
The seven objects include a can of Pepsi, a cupcake, Johnson’s Baby Lotion, Heinz Tomato Ketchup, a bag of Doritos, a Trojan Magnum condom and a Billionaire Boys Club trainer. They were crafted from gold and 26,000 diamonds and other precious gems by jeweller Jacob & Co.
They are all individually spot-lit and dazzle like stars on a stage. ‘A bejewelled can of Pepsi draws our attention in a way that a regular soda can would not, challenging us to reconsider the value of everyday joys and pleasures,’ says Chiao.
The Simple Things demonstrates the significance of duality in Murakami’s artistic practice in more ways than one. According to the specialist, the open mouth, for example, evokes ‘ideas of consumption’ as well as ‘ideas of protection’ and, in particular, ‘the treasure box’. In Japanese culture, she adds, ‘precious objects need precious containers to hold them.’
There’s also the aesthetic differences between the sculpture’s front and back. When viewed from the front, Mr. DOB’s gruesome fangs rendered in manga style intimidate, says Chiao. And from the back? ‘You see an amiable self-portrait of the artist, complete with his trademark goatee.’ The high-definition finish of the jet-black surface makes the work seem flattened, she suggests.
Murakami has explored the Japanese tradition of ‘flattening images’ since the early 1990s, the height of the Japanese Neo Pop Art movement of which he was a key exponent.
Nearly a decade later, in 2001, Murakami coined the term ‘Superflat’ to describe this distinctive treatment of space in contemporary Japanese art. Not only does ‘Superflat’ refer to the non-three-dimensional linear perspective commonly used in traditional Japanese painting and manga, explains the specialist, but also to the shallowness — or flatness — of global consumerist society.
Unlike his Pop art predecessors, who referenced the mechanical reproduction of images, Murakami focuses on the presentation of textures and details, precise fabrication, and artisanal craftsmanship. Every component of The Simple Things was individually moulded during the creation process, which took over a year to complete.
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‘Large, important sculptures by Murakami are extremely sought-after by collectors,’ states Chiao. ‘Murakami understands the power of celebrity and knows that his images translate well into social media.’
Takashi Murakami & Pharrell Williams, The Simple Things, 2008-2009.
The Simple Things led the inaugural HI-LITE sale in Hong Kong on 23 November 2019, which featured artworks by leading contemporary artists whose Neo-Pop aesthetic — and connections to commercial art, cartoons and street culture — have gained them a global cult following.