There seems to be something intrinsically enchanting about Takashi Murakami’s works, which have dominated not only the Japanese local art scene, but also the international contemporary art world for the past decade. Though he had originally studied Nihonga, a traditional Japanese style painting, in his university and later even received a Ph.D. in the field, as one can see in the evolution of his extended oeuvre, the artist is determined to move beyond any parameters set by the tradition of society. Also extensively educated in both Eastern and Western art history, Murakami has infused the essence of the two cultures into the realm of Japanese manga and anime, where his true interest lies, paving the way to the establishment of one of the most important movements within Japanese contemporary art, the Superflat. The blurring between high and low art, fine art and commodity, as advocated by the artist has exerted tremendous influence on the young generation in Japan, a feat unprecedented among his peers. Kaikai Kiki (Lot 950) belongs to one of the earliest works to feature Murakami’s mascots Kaikai Kiki, and is a highly representative work from early 2000s that showcases the aesthetics and concept of the Superflat, as well as the popular smiling flower icon that flourishes within Murakami’s artistic practice.
In Japanese, the term “kikikaikai” can be translated to “strange things” or “phenomena”. Kaikaikiki also refers to a sixteenth-century ideogram that comes to describe the artworks that are sensitive, powerful, and courageous. For Murakami, Kaikai and Kiki were originally conceived as the acolytes of Oval based on Humpty Dumpty, serving as a response to the collaboration with Issey Miyake, and first showcased in the fashion designer’s Aoyama shop in 2000. Each representing good and evil, the charming presence of Kaikai and Kiki at once blends together the paradoxical world of Superflat with the essence of kawaii from Japanese popular culture. Produced in 2002, the lot on offer is one of the first works to feature Kaikai and Kiki, representing the beginning aesthetics of the two beloved characters that would later populate Murakami’s oeuvre. Situated in a fantasy setting, Kaikai and Kiki are depicted on the left and right respectively. Both figures appear to be extremely adorable and childlike, particularly Kaikai, who wears a white rabbit costume that evokes a sense of innocence and frivolity. Kiki, on the other hand, is characterised by a pink appearance with circular ears that are reminiscent of Western cartoon characters, in particular the contours of Mickey Mouse that also inspired Murakami’s other character DOB. To differentiate the two, their names are rendered in Japanese script on their ears, pinpointing the typical mannerism of text found in Japanese manga and anime. Lastly, surrounding the pair are smiling flowers, arguably Murakami’s most ubiquitous visual icon that is described by Murakami to be both simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.
The smooth surface and flawless rendition of the composition almost resembles a product from a highly systematic factory line. This immediately brings to mind the seminal works produced by Andy Warhol from his studio “The Factory” in the 1960s. Indeed, in comparison to the lineage of Warhol and the Pop Art movement, Murakami’s artistic practice has arguably transcended the notion of popular culture within contemporary art, imbuing not only images from otaku subculture, but also creating a world of animated manga-like characters such as Kaikai and Kiki in the Superflat fashion. The disappearance of a foreground or traditional spatial devices, as seen in the present work, is precisely Murakami’s vehicle in breaking down the sense of visual depth, defining the principle language of Superflat. Murakami coined the term in order to describe a paradoxical sensibility that contributes to all aspects of Japanese culture, in particularly a sense of flatness that can be found in the various art forms and society in post war Japan. At the same time, it is also a critique of the Japanese consumer culture that has dominated the country for a long period of time. As the artist has said, “consumer culture looks only one direction, not evolved. In the 80s, Japanese people didn’t think about the meaning of life because of the strong consumer culture. Now, people are realising there is an end. They have to think about it more than in the past. Young people are looking outside of consumer culture and asking, ‘What is life?’”1 Most importantly, for Murakami, the artistic vision of the Superflat was to distinguish the boundary between Japanese and Western contemporary art. “I'd been thinking about the reality of Japanese drawing and painting and how it is different from Western art. What is important in Japanese art is the feeling of flatness. Our culture doesn't have 3-D.”2 In this sense, Kaikai Kiki is certainly an impressive work that truly encapsulates the different psychedelic elements within Murakami’s practice and the Superflat movement, merging together two parallel threads that define contemporary Japanese art today.
1 Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, “Superflat”, artnet, 2001
2 Refer to 1