Takashi Murakami is one of the most important contemporary artists in postwar Japan. Studying traditional Japanese art at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, he becomes the first ever to earn a doctor’s degree in Nihonga.
SUPERFLAT AS A NATIONAL CHARACTER AND CULTURE
Murakami’s oeuvre is conceptually united under the umbrella notion of ‘Superflat’. Hand-crafted with immaculate perfection and almost scientific precision, his work is ultimately flattened to computerscreen like surface filled with commercial graphics. To Murakami, ‘Superflat’ captures the social reality and general morale of Japanese society after the World War II, which was concluded with atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In addition, historically, giving the unique geographical constituents of Japan, the nation has been under the distress of several episodes of natural disasters flattening a number of prefectures. For the Japanese, the notion of flattening is both physically and metaphorically embedded in their national character. In particular, post-war Japan suffers from the infusion and dominance of Western political power as well as the invasion of Western culture, and therefore the flattening of democracy and culture is a known and prevalent malaise.
In When I Close my Eyes, I See Shangri-la (Lot 62), the overlapping arrangement of multicolored, jubilant smiling faces of flowers distinguishes foreground from middle ground, which is a common technique in the Rinpa decorative style paintings (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). At the same time, the spidery network of figures covering the entire ground leaves no vacancy and compresses the pictorial space. Rather than adhering to the classical technique of representation using ‘one-point’ perspective, Murakami disturbs and diversifies the perspective. The buzzing commotion and pulsating tug of animated flowers gives an uneasy feeling and alludes to the imminent rupture of the mirror-like façade.
FASCINATION WITH FLOWERS AND ITS PARADOXY
Speaking of his fascination of the flower motif, Murakami remarks, ‘(the flowers are) unease, pretty, cute, disturbing.’ As for the fanatic multiplication and the suffocating fullness, he continues, ‘so I thought that if the opportunity arose, I would very much like to make a work in which I would represent them as if in a crowd scene. I really wanted to convey this impression of unease, of the threatening aspect of an approaching crowd.’ (Serpentine Gallery, Takashi Murakami, London, 2002, pp. 84-85). In fact, flower has always been an important visual lexicon in Japanese art and culture, from being a popular motif in classical paintings (Fig. 3), to ikebana (flower arrangement) the near fetish maneuvering of flowers demonstrating the way Japanese treat nature in a different system. Flower is the embodiment of multivalent referents, beauty, happiness, harmony, fragility, degeneration, and temporality.
In When I Close my Eyes, I See Shangri-la, the little smiling faces at the center of sunflowers are connected to the world of childhood. To Murakami, the notion of kawaii (cuteness) is very positive as it expresses the luminous side of an enchanted world. However, if one looks closely, one can detect three less noticeable unhappy faces including one crying, which add an impish and menacing character to the painting. Like his contemporary Yoshimoto Nara, Murakami is interested in representing the antithetical implication of childhood in an increasingly complicated world.
TECHNICAL PERFECTION AND CONSUMERISM
Influenced by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Murakami’s ‘Superflat’ aesthetic combines historical, commercial and popular imagery in exploring the superficial nature of globalized consumer culture. Unlike the emphasis on proliferation of Pop images and the adoption of industrial production methods in Warhol and Koon’s work, handcrafted perfection plays a key part in Murakami’s art. The quality of lines and the brilliance of colors in his paintings are perfectly merged together with traditional Japanese decorative art, which is indebt to his academic training in traditional Nihonga art. The level of perfection in Murakami’s art is even stronger than that of his Western counterpart. From a social point of view, perfection is closely related to capitalism and consumerism as people expect perfection from either product or service in contemporary life.
MR. DOB = HYBRID + PSEUDO EGO
Mr. Dob in Melting DOB: Complex Blue (Lot 63) is one of Murakami’s earliest creations and the most represented subject in his oeuvre. It is a fantastic hybrid character combining traditional Japanese monsters, popular fictional cultural icons such as household manga name Doraemon, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Disney’s Mickey Mouse. DOB was born in 1993 from a late-night word game with friends, coming into existence as a visual pun derived from linguistic trick ‘Dobojite? dobojite?’ (‘Why? Why?’) popularized by Yuri Toru, a Japanese comedian.
With one ear showing the letter D, another showing the letter B, and its round face forming the letter O, DOB was born at a time when artists such as Jenny Holzer (Fig. 4) and Barbara Kruger whose work features a prominent role of language, were being shown in Japan. Since its inception, Mr. Dob has taken on different incarnation (paintings, sculptures, collectibles, inflatables) and personalities (happy, cute, dark, violent), and has become the artist’s surrogate self-portrait and a powerful new cultural icon.
Murakami’s training in traditional Japanese art and the influence of decorative art (Fig. 5) is strongly manifested by Melting DOB: Complex Blue as the background is finely laid with silver leaves of even square shapes onto canvas, resulting in a splendidly luminous surface. The painting is also very unique because it combines Mr. Dob in various emotional states in one composition, including a playful one, a dumbfounded one, two scary ones on the verge of cannibalizing two smaller DOBs, symbolizing a society of jungle world whereas the stronger crashes the weaker.
INFLUENCE OF ANIME, MANGA AND OTAKU SUBCULTURE
The crystallization and metamorphosis of images buried in the dense mount of visual symbols reflects the psychedelic vibrancy of Murakami’s unique visual language. Murakami’s art is influenced by anime, manga, and otaku. These Pop cultures concern one important point, sekaikan, i.e. the worldview. Manga, first used by Edo-period ukiyo-e artist Hokusai in The Ghost of Kohada Koheiji (Fig. 6), is about caricature, imagination, and distortion. Each manga has its own discourse and worldview (Fig. 7). What is logical in one manga does not necessarily apply to another, for example, in the world of Dragon Ball, people have superpower and they can fly; however, in Doraemon, the kids cannot fly unless they put mini helicopters on their heads. In Murakami’s kingdom, he is the king who employs all his citizens which includes signs, icons, audiences/fans, recasting them as currency in his symbolic economy. The icons in his kingdom ‘emerges as an object of mass consumption and sold." (M. Yoshitake, The Meaning of the Nonsense of Excess, p. 125). Murakami reclaims an identity for Japan through his art and most ironically, he creates a reversal colonization of the West by his art.
Otaku, constituting the impotent subculture of Japanese society, refers to a type of socially inept people who has connoisseur-like obsession with accumulating objects and information in their own interested category. The phenomena of general pubic tries to escape from reality can be explained in a larger background of contemporary Japanese society: unemployment, long working hours, oppression due to traditional moral standards, natural and man-made tragedies from earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis. Otaku is considered lowest and the least esteemed class in Japanese society to the extent that it is almost discriminated against. In the beginning, Murakami coins the phrase poku as a combined form of Pop and otaku. ‘I coined the term poku in an attempt to blend the oil and water; but it didn’t work. It was after that that I opted for the term superflat, which evokes more of a compression than a fusion of these two elements.’ (Serpentine Gallery, Takashi Murakami, London, 2002, p. 79).
When I Close My Eyes, I See Shangri-la constitutes a paradox: whereas Shangri-la implies an exotic territory of blissfulness and utopianism, it also refers to the escapist view and the social inertia of the otaku. The floating deformed heads in Melting DOB: Complex Blue resembling the agonized figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream (Fig. 8) or the modern-day despair face in Pink Floyd’s 1982 movie The Wall, represent the cyclic progress of degeneration, regeneration, life, death, and nirvana. Created shortly after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, followed by Fukushima nuclear incidence, these works are an emotional powerful and profoundly poetic pieces by Murakami imbued with artist’s lamentation of the recent disastrous event as well as his positive belief and hopeful outlook for a better future to come.
MURAKAMI = EMPEROR OF SIGNS
Hailed by Alison Gingera as the ‘emperor of signs,’ Murakami’s real agenda in his giant artistic enterprise is to address identity politics and postcolonial re-territorialization by blending the lower and the high culture, the East and the West. Ultimately, Murakami intends to create a utopia in which everyone has an equal share of happiness.