OUT OF HIS SKULL
Published in Asia Tatler, February 2013
In the long, white, clean space of the gallery hang 14 paintings. They are accompanied by the frantic movement of a dozen people, while metres of electrical cord wind across the bare wooden floor. Cameras are set up and a team of silent assistants shuffles about, respectfully administering to the needs of the artist. The whole scene looks like a carefully choreographed production, which is just what you’d expect from the pop star of the contemporary-art world, Takashi Murakami.
It’s likely that when you hear his name, the first thing that comes to mind are designer handbags and the kitsch, brightly coloured flowers that helped to define an era of contemporary art in the 1990s. The comparison between Murakami and Andy Warhol has become a cliché for a reason. Like Warhol, Murakami represents the artist as brand and celebrity; both created a well-oiled mass-marketing machine that blurs the lines between art, commerce, pop, tradition and subculture. In 1996, Murakami also emulated Warhol by founding his own Factory, the Hiropon Factory, rechristened in 2001 as Kaikai Kiki Co.
Born in 1962, Murakami rose to prominence in the ’90s as one of the most prolific and well-known Japanese artists. Coining the term “superflat” to describe his cartoony paintings and also as a comment on changes
in Japanese society, Murakami brought the Japanese otaku subculture of manga and anime to the international market, fusing it with Western art influences such as Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The current show, Flowers & Skulls, at Gagosian Gallery, is Murakami’s first in Hong Kong, and the opening night re-enforced how popular his work is in the city. His trademark ponytail has been lopped off, but Murakami is still as recognisable as his brightly coloured creations. He is dressed in khaki trousers and a black jumper, with round specs adorning a face that has become familiar from the pages of magazines and from paintings in which he transforms himself into a Japanime character, one of which hangs in the current exhibition. He embodies that cartoonish persona, readily posing for the cameras with an arsenal of comical gestures and expressions.
The range of Murakami’s creative pursuits is endless. A master of self-promotion, he mixes art with branding and merchandising. He’s an entrepreneur at the head of a very profitable art-making empire of 200 or so people, which works on design collaborations with fashion brands, markets merchandise derived from his art and creates animations. He also runs his own art gallery as part of Kaikai Kiki, which represents artists such as Aya Takano and Anri Sala. All of this on top of an illustrious career as an artist himself, with exhibitions at the Guggenheim, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Palace of Versailles. Not to mention the collaboration with Louis Vuitton that made him a household name and cemented his brand power globally, across the spheres of both fashion and art.
The otaku culture, long a cornerstone of his work, still plays an important role in it – and the subculture is now embraced by broader Japanese society. “It was a minor element, but now the otaku culture in Japan is quite vibrant,” Murakami says through a translator. “The whole society is supporting the otaku culture; it’s become mainstream and the whole country is trying to export that culture.” Otaku offered the opportunity to create something distinctly Japanese in a post-war era that still seemed in thrall to Western sensibilities when the artist was coming of age. Although he became the figurehead for this geeky, tech-obsessed subculture, which unashamedly embraced popular culture and video games, Murakami also has a doctorate in the study of traditional Japanese painting, nihonga. He took instruction in calligraphy, attended Buddhist rituals and applied himself to his practice for 11 years. “I grew up in a poor family and wanted to have some skills to earn money, and nihonga art was so valuable that I thought it would be the most efficient way to make money,” he says. “That was the reason I studied it. But I realised that the reason the Japanese art scene was so dead was because there were so many social-structure problems to do with taxation, art distribution and logistics. I learned all this in order to do my business. It was a valuable lesson.”
Pragmatism and business, then, have always been part of Murakami’s artistic approach. But his assiduous study of traditional painting has also always informed his work, something that’s particularly clear from his Dragon in Clouds paintings, exhibited at Gagosian in Rome two years ago. Drawing on Buddhist and Shinto references, the dragon paintings, known as unryuzu, are also references to Soga Shohaku, an 18th-century Japanese artist. They demonstrate an understanding and deep appreciation of Japanese art history and culture.
In his current Hong Kong show, the piece ‘Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, and Fountains’ (2011) jumps out from the moment you step into the gallery. Taking up the entire back wall of Gagosian, it’s impressive in both scale and composition. There are elements of traditional Japanese painting in this landscape, which is made up of a mythical-looking lion atop a rainbow of skulls, with a column of black- ink calligraphy running down one side of the canvas. A delicacy and fluidity in handling paint and colour betray the artist’s classical training.
The show is dominated by the contrasting symbols of flowers and skulls from which it takes its name. These are motifs that Murakami has drawn on repeatedly and refined over many years; they have become the most famous identifiers of his work. It is “an abstract narrative and structure,” he says, that refers back to the American abstract expressionist movement of the 1940s and ’50s. Whole canvases teem with the motif from edge to edge. Enduring symbols of life and death, beauty and decay, happiness and terror, heaven and hell, they are the perfect pairing for Murakami, a master at navigating borders – between East and West, and between new and old.
In 2008, Murakami made Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list, the only visual artist included. Like Jeff Koons, another influence, he has helped redefine notions of art as consumption. He once famously said: “I wanted to be commercially successful. I just wanted to make a living in the ‘entertainment’ world.” But that motivation has changed to embrace much more. “When I first tried to be a contemporary artist, the New York art scene was difficult to break into, but I achieved that and put myself on the cutting edge, the frontier of contemporary art,” he says. “But now my aspiration has changed. Rather than joining the frontier, I’m thinking of how to expand in the future. The next phase is that we’re in the process of making a film, and that’s going to be launched next spring.”
There are limits to that expansion, however. “If contemporary art becomes as big an industry as fashion, I’m afraid people will get tired of it because it has become too prevalent,” he says. For the moment, though, there’s no slowing down, either for Murakami or the demand for his work. And one thing’s for certain: whatever he does in the future, it will continue to perfectly reflect the times.
MURAKAMI AT AUCTION
Fashion designer Marc Jacobs, luxury maganate François Pinault and Ukrainian financier Victor Pinchuk are all Murakami fans. German mega-collector Thomas Olbricht has also amassed a sizeable collection, to say nothing of the museum collections around the world. Little wonder that Murakami’s works fetch some of the highest prices for a Japanese artist at auction.
Here are the top five Murakami works by value:
‘My Lonesome Cowboy’ (1998), sold by Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 for US$13.5 million
‘Miss KO2’ (1997), sold by Phillips de Pury New York in November 2010 for US$6m
‘Dob in the Strange Forest’ (1999), sold by Christie’s New York in November 2008 for US$3m
‘Kaikai Kiki’ (2005), sold by Christie’s London in October 2010 for US$2.6m
‘Panda’ (2003), sold by Phillips de Pury London in April 2008 for US$2.3m