Thursday, 18 March 2010

An Artist's Empire

By David Michael Barnwell

What does Hiroshima, Luis Vuitton and Kanye West all have in common? David Michael Barnwell takes a dip into modern Japanese pop art and discovers one of its most defining and famed icons.

This fall, the beautiful Versailles Palace about 20 minutes drive from Paris will be putting on a true pop art spectacle, sure to draw the attention of art enthusiasts from all of Europe.

The Versailles, formerly the royal château of Louis XIV and famed worldwide for its stunning displays of architectural haute couture, will in the closing months of 2010 welcome none other than Takashi Murakami, Japanese neo-traditional art icon and credited founder of the influential ‘Superflat Theory’.

Murakami, aged 48, has risen to fame over the last decades thanks to his unique take on anime-inspired art forms, and today his works can be found in video games, toys, music videos and even luxury handbags.

The contrast between the Versailles’s legendary Mirror Halls and Murakami’s surreal works might appear almost comical, and managing director of the French castle Jean-Jacques Aillagon is surely in for quite a challenge combining the two into a coherent display.

Given the vast success of Murakami as an established artist and as a brand, visitors are however almost certain to flock around the Versailles this fall, and a closer look at Murakami and his legacy might just reveal why.

The Handbag

To fully understand just how influential Murakami is, one needs first to take look at his enormous portfolio.

Murakami’s works include vinyl figurines, canvasses, tapestry, a series of books (the latest titled “I Love Prints and so I Make Them”), busts, video installations, large scale prints, toys, a complete Kanye West music video and the original print for a Louis Vuitton handbag, originally priced at a whopping $5.000.

Especially the handbag – easily recognized by its bright colour scheme of ‘LV’-logos spread across an atypically white background – bears witness of how great an impact Murakami has had on Western culture.

The New York Times estimated sales of the Murakami inspired piece of French luxury accessory to be in the area of $300 million, a number which of course doesn’t account for the millions of copies to be found worldwide. Add to this that an original Murakami canvas will normally sell for more than $1 million, and the full reach of the Japanese master’s famed pencil strokes suddenly becomes graspable.

An Artist’s Empire

There is a good explanation behind Murakami’s successful conquest of the contemporary art world scene. And the explanation is marketing.

While many of his contemporaries celebrate originality and uniqueness, to Murakami, art is not to be separated from the mainstream. On the contrary.

Like it was the case with Andy Warhol, Murakami’s art is at times mass-produced, often made by carefully selected ‘workers’ rather than the artist himself. Works arrive in pieces with a carefully detailed instruction manual designed by the artist, and the ‘workers’ then set out to complete the masterpiece step by step. And as it is the case with Damien Hirst, Murakami has also long realized the economic possibilities of the international art market, offering these masterpieces at often astronomical prices.

Managing Murakami’s art empire, is the highly efficient in-house promotion agency/studio/art collective, Kaikai Kiki Ltd. The company consists of likeminded artists and workers, who collaborate with collectors and curators on promoting the works produced within the Kaikai Kiki realm.

Apart from managing major exhibitions like the one coming up at the Versailles, Kaikai Kiki and Murakami also handle a large variety of merchandise endeavours, distributing and selling anything from Murakami candy to Murakami teddy bears.

Seemingly, Murakami as an artist also means Murakami as a brand.

According to the company’s website, a bearing principle for the Kaikai Kiki philosophy is exactly the merchandise, the mass production and the projection of originality and creativity onto the canvasses of commerce and profits.

To Murakami and Kaikai Kiki, in contemporary consumerist societies, the boundaries between commerce and art are slowly but surely fading. The production of a deliberately wide range of artist-related merchandise is in this view nothing but a just reflection of this tendency.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the marketing-inspired take on art as a public and available good brilliantly showcases the inspiring original thought behind Murakami’s bizarre art: The Theory of Superflat.
Murakami on display at MOCA, LA, last year.

The Theory of Superflat

The Theory of Superflat takes Murakami-fans straight to the core of his provocative ideas.

Having originally studied traditional Japanese art at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Murakami found himself becoming increasingly more frustrated with the prospects of what the work of his ancestors could reveal to him.

Instead he turned his attention to his surroundings, and here he found a society plagued with affection for anime-culture and the otaku - originally an honorary noun in Japanese, but today used as slang for a person obsessed with the addictive world of violent and sexually challenging Japanese cartoons.

What Murakami saw, would however open his eyes and mark the birth of the ‘Superflat’ theory.

In a consumerist society, Murakami believes, the delicate lines between finer culture and mainstream are blurring. What is left is a culture-less, ‘flat’ society like the Japanese, where anime has become the preferred artistic expression for a number of generations.

The explanation for this absence of real artistic expression and surrender to consumerism, Murakami argues further, can be found in the desperate state of post-war Japan.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was left helpless and powerless, only to face a high level of Americanisation and even Disneyfication of the original culture. Alongside ran a distorted infatuation with the atomic apocalypse, which is remarkable and often frightening. It is not without reason that one of the best known, by now neo-classic, pieces of anime is the dystopian ‘Akira’ from 1988. It takes place among mutants and master villains in a dismal version of post-nuclear Tokyo.

The outcome of this atomic age cultural surrender is an emptiness and shallowness, which would later turn Japanese society into its current state, Murakami argues. Here the love for anime is the widest common cultural denominator the population can drum up, and this is a clear and real image of the world which can then be grasped and turned into art.

Takashi Murakami in front of one his works
Join the revolution

‘Superflat’ in the bubblegum-inspired vision of Murakami refers to the flatness of Japanese culture and society, and this is exactly what motivates the plastic prophet to bite back with his iconic pieces of art.

A Mickey-inspired mouse with a devious grin is a main character on Murakami’s palette. So is a set of emoticon flowers, perhaps a bit too happy.

All are brightly coloured, clearly inspired by the world of anime and then appropriated in a brutal yet unique way. Everything is seemingly overdone, then emptied of its original innocent message. In Murakami’s world, happiness and smiles are turned upside down, and efficiently made into a distinct critique.

Through his art, Murakami points his pencil at his audience with an anime-drawn grin, examining us with colourful but freakish eyes. What he demands of us is simple; coming to terms with the flatness of our lives, and accepting the coming of a pop art revolution in which art, entertainment and commercialism is irrevocably merged into one.

The Takashi Murakami exhibition at The Versailles Palace is due to take place over a three-month stretch from September 12 to December 12, 2010. For more info, see The Versailles Palace’s official site

Video: Interview with Takashi Murakami on Japanorama (YouTube):

Image rights: Creative Commons.

The Kosmo Blog
The Kosmo is an online magazine, published by international journalism students from all over the world. It's free of charge so just lean back and enjoy! Don't forget to send feedback!

Subscribe to The Kosmo via e-mail
Subscribe in your preferred RSS reader

Subscribe feeds rss Recent Entries


My Photos on flickr

Subscribe feeds rss Recent Comments