Maybe I was 3 years old, I had a nightmare which was a very memorable one - I was peeing somewhere, suddenly robots were approaching but I couldn't stop peeing then I went 'Oh my god! Oh my god!' - … is it okay to talk about that?
Takashi Murakami might be the most prolific contemporary Japanese artist today. He works in fine art and what is conventionally considered commercial media —fashion, merchandise, and animation—He coined the term superflat, which describes both the aesthetic characteristics of the Japanese artistic tradition and the nature of post-war Japanese culture and society. Born and raised in Tokyo he was an enthusiastic follower of animation and manga, and originally sought to acquire the drafting skills necessary to become an animator, but eventually majored in Nihonga, the ‘traditional’ style of Japanese painting that incorporates traditional Japanese artistic conventions, techniques, and subjects. Though he would go on to earn a Ph.D. in Nihonga, he gradually became disillusioned with the field’s insular, highly political world and started to explore more contemporary artistic styles, media, and strategies. Murakami was unsatisfied with the state of contemporary art in Japan, believing it to be “a deep appropriation of Western trends.” Thus, much of his early work was done in the spirit of social criticism and satire. Efforts from this period include performance art (Osaka Mixer Project, 1992), parodies of the “message” of popular art in Japan in the early 90s, (DOBOZITE DOBOZITE OSHAMANBE, 1993), and conceptual works (e.g. Randoseru Project, 1991). He also began developing his own pop icon, “Mr. DOB,” which would later develop into a form of self-portraiture, the first of several endlessly morphing and recurring motifs seen throughout his work. We had the chance to meet him at the VansXMurakami collaboration launch in Paris and ask a few questions:
How do you want your audience to feel when perceiving your artwork? For example, the flower design is received very positively all over the world. But my main concern is in Japan. Japanese people are sometimes against what I do, some geeks even hate me… because I use some Japanese geek ideas mainly routed in Otaku culture, so they think that I'm stealing it to export to the Western world and twisting it, but in the Western world I see positive reaction to it...
Could you tell us about the workflow of Takashi Murakami? First I make a small drawing and then it is passed on to my assistant for scanning, then it grows little by little, bigger and bigger, taking up to a week minimum to sometimes several years, hanging on a wall or checking on my computer, then I select the right one at a point and then finally it's done.
Let's talk about the Vans collaboration, can you tell us more about your interest of working with Vans, what`s your relationship with Vans? I've been wearing Vans for over 15 years everyday. I have 60 pairs of white slipons out of the box. I`m not a fan (of Vans), it's more like breathing air or drinking water…it's very natural for me. Then Steve came to my studio and wanted to do a collaboration, but at that time I couldn't imagine it because as I said, it's just been so natural, too natural to paint or draw, but he gave me some ideas.
One thing that was requested by Steve was that he wanted to do surfboards, as he knows a legendary surfboard craft man (shaper)… Do I surf? No, I'm just a geek. I don't play sports, but I love watching skateboarding, surfing or extreme sports videos… geek people love that too! Generally, surfing is so far away for me, but I imagine if some people rode my surfboard, it would feel so much more free…
Do you think that commercial accessibility and its mass communication is important to you for the reception of your art? Yes, very much, because I am Japanese - our culture doesn't fit well with the Western perception of high art, I have established my art with a subculture, mostly with animation and games - and people in Western high art, don't know anything about it. Also the VansXMurakami project has been really great for me, because Vans is an everyday thing…
With any artist collaborating with mainstream brands, this could affect or even crop your reputation, have you considered this? When big brands collaborate with big artists, the good thing is that everybody knows the name and the bad thing is in the art market. When I did the collaboration with Louis Vuitton, the auction prices went super low, because contemporary art people and serious buyers disrespected the collaboration. I don't know right now but maybe the big boom is over and maybe now the collaboration stuff can't make an effect in the market. I'm doing this Vans collaboration which doesn't affect the art market, if I lose out due to the branding, it doesn't affect my market much but if it's a big success, that could move my market.
In terms of the art market, how important is it for artists these days to do collabs with big companies to eventually spread their art, and how has the reception changed from 60s conceptual art that wanted to get out of the market into the museums for the sake of art, and now lots of artists are seeking collabs with big brands? Art industry people are afraid of the big boom… any gallery can make big business but at the same time you never know when that ends, which is called a bubble. For example in the music industry when MTV came out in early 90s, the music industry was exploding…now there's the internet culture realm, and the sales of CDs and records have been crushed. So maybe in our near future the same thing could happen in our (my) business. It might all become cheaper or even for free. Then people might understand what art is, because the music industry has come back to the music business in real life… we probably need some kind of going back to a craft thing.
Things should crash at a certain time as a form of renewal to bring back its focus and necessity… as you say now many artists are doing collaborations and making lots of money and it might look so confusing from an artist perspective… but maybe in the future the same cycle might happen - the bubble bursts and the serious artists intensely stress out about how to make contemporary art - like in the 60s.
It began in Asia a little bit, that art turned into (toy) products around the late 90s. There's something in Asian culture, for example in Hong Kong, that created that toy creation craze… and then it all really started with artists collaborating with brands in Japan. Is this a typical thing in Asian culture? This is a good point of view. In the Western world, mostly Europe, society has a pyramid system. In Japan, after WW2, the Japanese hierarchy was completely destroyed. It looked democratic but at the same time there was the feeling of unnatural flatness… then afterwards people started wanting to become better and different, so the big boom happened in brand business in Japan, China, or the Asian territory in general.
We still have a lot of chaos, we don't know what is precious and what is important… this mixture is mostly something you can enjoy as a foreigner. You know Kaws - he criticises the system - he was doing graffiti in NY and then came to Japan with the clothing company Original Fake which he did for 7 - 8 years. When the clothing company had run its course, he started to come up in the contemporary art scene making paintings and sculptures and he brought them to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing…it looks like he is criticising the system and using this chaos of Asia, but at the same time in the US and Europe, he's showing the same thing. So the chaos can be produced all over the world, this looks like Kaws' concept, like hacking the contemporary art market… back to your question, yes, Asian culture itself is chaos, I think that's why these products come from Japan or Asia.
When you started working, Japan was like a mega fortune bubble country and today Japan has much less money than when you started, what has changed in your work and creation? I myself haven't changed, but I think the reason why the Japanese economy is weak comes from education today, which is made of the misunderstanding of the Western world… like you have to look for your freedom and think for yourself… but these sorts of things don't have any place in our country's heritage. Teachers and students are confused… those students grow up with confusion. Many young people commit suicide… I think it's because of the education system. With the economy, 30 years ago, the first generation after WW2 created our great economy with strong will and hard work to build something strong, then the 2nd and the 3rd generation followed but by became weaker with that power. Now, it's super weak with regard to the motivation to work, which I think comes from education. As for myself, there is no change, because I was spoiled by Japanese culture then escaped to New York, so I don't perfectly fit to Japanese culture anymore.
Do you like social media, like Instagram and Facebook? Do you think it's changed the way people look at art? Yes, when I take a photo on Instagram, many clients ask my gallerist for the works on my instagram. I was surprised by those reactions… but now I think it's quite normal, so I really do care about how to take pictures on instagram. I think it's a strange movement but I enjoy it.
Are there any new artists you particularly like? Now I watch graffiti artists closely, because the graffiti art scene is getting bigger and more serious, some artists go in completely different directions like abstract painting but almost everyone arrives at the same position in contemporary art. It's really interesting so I'm really focused on watching them and I've already started collaborating with graffiti artists. We will do 3 more graffiti artists this year… maybe a maximum of 20 - 30 artists in total. Our communications are going well, so we will continue.
In 2000, Murakami published his “Superflat” theory in the catalogue for a group exhibition of the same name that he curated for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The theory posits that there is a legacy of flat, 2-dimensional imagery which has existed throughout Japanese art history and continues today in manga and anime. This style differentiates itself from the Western approach in its emphasis on surface and use of flat planes of color. Superflat also served as a commentary on post-war Japanese society in which, Murakami argues, differences in social class and popular taste have ‘flattened,’ producing a culture with little distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’. The theory provided the contextual background for his work and he further elaborated on it with the subsequent exhibitions, “Coloriage” (2002, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris) and “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture” (2005, Japan Society, New York). These exhibitions helped introduce Japan’s lesser-known creative culture overseas and such curatorial projects would become an integral part of Murakami’s multifaceted artistic practice. In accordance with the Superflat concept, Murakami’s practice involves repackaging elements that are usually considered “low” or subcultural and presenting them in the “high-art” market. He then further flattens the playing field by repackaging his “high-art” works as merchandise, such as plush toys and T-shirts, making them available at more affordable prices.