Murakami Review

Is a Ph.D. in fine art a pre-requisite for the production of sexually offensive, hyper-color, infantile comic book styled corporate clutter? If your name is Takashi Murakami than the answer is, "yes". The self-proclaimed creator of a new art movement entitled Superflat, which refers to what Murakami has defined as the lack of distinction in Japan between high and low art, as the flat space in between. A trend he points to in traditional as well as contemporary Japanese art. According to the artist, “Japanese don't like serious art. But if I can transform cute characters into serious art, they will love my piece.”

Murakami maintains that his goal is to question the Japanese obsession with western art and immature consumerism, by blurring the lines between art and commerce. However, rather than critiquing this shift, his work further intensifies the magnetism. Murakami describes postwar Japanese impotence as a void, popularly obscured by Hello Kitty dolls that the artist has stepped in to fill with ultra commercial merchandise as art. A man who can sell paintings for 1.3 million and toy figures for 50 bucks a pop has demonstrated his capabilities as a marketing genius. Perhaps his designation as the new Andy Warhol and best contemporary Japanese pop artist is just another example of his promotional mastery.

Born in Tokyo in 1962 from working class parents, Murakami earned a BA, MFA, and Ph.D. in traditional Nihonga painting from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Growing up, he was a member of the Otaku geek subculture, which centers around anime (cartoons) and manga (comic books) that often depict the explosion of the atomic bomb and gritty realities in post-war Japan. They also sometimes serve as outlets for repressed sexual fantasies. Otaku are mainly young Japanese men, who like American trekies or renaissance fair enthusiasts, collect figurines, and go to trade shows, except in this case the figures are often sparsely glad young girls called, bishojo.

As otaku relates to Murakami’s art it is a borrowing from cartoons and animations with the sexual or grotesque element almost made palatable by containing a somewhat child-friendly veneer. The latter is the imposition of an element called kawaii, or cuteness. This presence is found increasingly in his more recent work. Paintings such as Tan Tan Bo capture a combination of otaku and kawaii, which culminate in the figure of a bloodthirsty, yet colorful, cheery caricature. It is this very reference to morbid isolationism, augmented with hyper-color joy, which has rocketed Murakami into the mainstream. Millions of dollars later, he is still known to sleep many nights alone in a sleeping bag in a small building attached to his Japanese factory.

Murakami’s ‘factory’, not ‘studio’, employs over 100 people in locations in Tokyo and New York. The artisans and animators keep production consistent on his large-scale pieces and smaller items for the masses, such as mouse pads, t-shirts, cartoons and stuffed animals. In fact, according to the New York Times, “He no longer applies his hand to his own work. He is a conceptual artist. Yet even though the painting is performed by studio assistants, Murakami exerts tight quality control.”[i]

I stepped into the Brooklyn Museum on a peaceful Sunday afternoon, expecting to be enlightened by its fine collection of high art including the special exhibition, ©Murakami .The Sackler Center for Feminist Art impressed me accordingly, I enjoyed Ghada Amer’s exhibition and was stirred by Judy Chigago’s historically significant Dinner Party. Then journeying upstairs, I found myself on Planet Murakami and I was not quite sure if I liked the alien creatures that I met there. The only familiar icons that I was able to recognize were the Louis Vuitton symbol, lovingly encased in glass, and the familiar sounds of Kanye West emanating from a dark room.

When I regained my bearings, I realized that it was not love that had placed Vuitton behind the glass, no not irony either, it was pure commerce. These items were on sale! The handbags were protected from thieves and curious reviewers like myself, by young women clad in sleek white suits. I enquired as to what the prices were and was told that most bags were around $1,500. However, when I asked the ladies how many purses they sold per day on average, they told me that they could not disclose that information. The custodians of Planet Murakami are indeed secretive. I managed to deduce after repeated questioning that they sold around 100 bags daily, but $150,000 per diem is small potatoes for Murakami, who has said that he likes to keep his artwork accessible to those who cannot afford the million-dollar purchase price on select original pieces.

The Kanye music video and animations featuring Kiki and Kakai, two of Murakami’s cute little monster-creatures are shown in the small black box cinema. One of them has three blinking eyes, is he meant to frighten or comfort little children? Positive affects seem to be working on the large collection of young children who populate this dark room on the day of my visit. They sit utterly absorbed in the more than slightly perverse animations. Perhaps, the corruption of young minds is a small price to pay for selling merchandise.

The cartoon room at the start of the exhibition, the gift shop at the end and the Louis Vuitton boutique in the middle are exerting a force on me, which makes it hard to focus in and find the “art”, but I am determined so I hold steady. I am greeted by two life sized, although anatomically incorrect installations. The first Hiropon, is a rendering of a blue haired woman, with a barbiesque omission of her lower private parts, and a playboy style enlargement of her upper private parts. From these breasts, which are larger than her head, she squirts a semi-circle of white milk, which serves as her jump rope. Hiropon shares her name with a drug that was in use in post-war Japan. The male figure opposite her entitled My Lonesome Cowboy, assumingly her partner on this alien planet, has an oversized private part, from which he also shoots out white milk like substance in the shape of a lasso. Remembering the Sackler Center, it is hard to understand how blatantly sexist work can share space with feminist expressions. ‘Art is dialogue,’ I reassure myself.

Murakami is not new to controversy, if the mid-exhibition bag boutique isn’t enough to make museum goers, question whether they are on Park avenue or Eastern parkway, we should be thankful that we are not elite enough to have been invited to the opening night party. If we had been there, we would have wondered for a third time, where exactly we were as we stumbled upon a fake Chinatown in the Museum’s courtyard. Actors, who looked strikingly like recent African immigrants were on hand to man floor cloths, lined with pseudo-fake Louis Vuitton luggage. Actually, the bags were the only real part of the scene, which was designed to simulate the illegal knock-off handbag trade. Fake African street hawkers? Cultural insensitivity seems not to much worry Murakami, neither does environmental destruction. In fact, the Vuitton’s are not the first bags that Murakami has made. In 1991, while Japan was under pressure to agree to a ban on killing endangered whales, Murakami's decided to make randoseru, school children’s backpacks, out of whale skin.

Still on Planet Murakami and determined to find the high art, I pass by a Takashi brand poster, another Vuitton tribute and textile-like painting, Eye Love SUPERFLAT, Murakami flower decal wallpaper, a virtual reality female airplane installation, Second Mission Project ko2 and more renditions of Kiki and Kakai along with a few of Murakami’s other cartoon characters. This feels like an advertising conference, but I have faith. Downstairs I eventually find two moving paintings, each of Daruma, the Indian monk who brought Zen Buddhism to China and Japan, accompanied by an ancient koan. “I open wide my eyes, but see no scenery. I fix my gaze upon my heart.” The koan reflects my emotion and I resolve to voice honestly my critique of this exhibition: Murakami’s brilliant explanations about the purpose behind his art, only occasionally translate into the work itself. On planet Murakami, he is the new King of Pop, art that is, but outside in Brooklyn, art invested in meaning, which respects people, holds more cultural capital.