HONG KONG - It might look like a giant fluffy toy, but Takashi Murakami’s Panda Geant has a powerful and provocative significance in the artist’s œuvre. It is an emblem of his long collaboration with Louis Vuitton, which turned Pop art’s flirtation with commercialism into an out-and-out love affair. Murakami’s exhibitions would include whole sections of Louis Vuitton merchandise, and Louis Vuitton stores would feature generous displays of Murakami’s artworks in various media.

Murakami’s artwork installed in the Tokyo Louis Vuitton store, 2009. ©2015 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co. all rights reserved.

T006HK0562_7Z9CG_A_silo-450Murakami’s Panda Geant from 2009 (estimate
HK$4,800,000–6,000,000) will be offered at
Sotheby’s Hong Kong in April©2015 Takashi
Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co. all rights reserved.

The character Panda Geant first appeared in 2003 soon after Marc Jacobs, then the creative director at Louis Vuitton, invited Murakami to reinvigorate the company’s accessories line. Murakami did so by interspersing the classic LV monogram with his trademark punchy flowers and trippy “jellyfish eyes,” to a phenomenal public response. At that point, the panda was one of the protagonists in a short anime film Superflat Monogram. At the beginning, a young girl is greeted by the panda, who first grabs her cellphone and then swallows her whole before taking her on a kaleidoscopic adventure, punctuated by Murakami’s trademark manga-influenced characters and those familiar LV monograms.

The two-metre high sculpture was produced in connection with a second animated film, made in 2009, Superflat First Love, in which a young girl is again swallowed by a panda, this time Petit Panda, the child of Panda Geant. The pandas, according to Murakami, are “spirit residents of the other-dimensional monogram multicoloured world” who “tour through time and space.” The pair take her back to late 19th-century Paris to meet a young Gaston-Louis Vuitton, and the boy and the girl fall in love.

As with much of Murakami’s work, it is a story infused with cuteness, or to use the Japanese term, kawaii; indeed, Panda Geant may be the most kawaiiof all the artist’s works. But there is more to his plays on his native country’s obsession with cuteness than meets the eye – it is all part of an exploration of Japanese culture that is far richer, and far more critical, than Murakami is often given credit for.

The origins of this understanding can be found in his “Superflat” theory of Japanese culture. It relates not only to the flatness in the pictorial space of traditional Japanese art (Murakami has a PhD in Nihonga, the fusion of western and Japanese painting established in the 19th century) but also in the cultural flatness between different artistic disciplines. There is no distinction between craft and art in Japan, he argues. Murakami has taken this even further in his work – hence the flaunting of his LV collaborations and the explicit fusion of manga and animé imagery and Nihonga painting styles in his work. His production methods, meanwhile, fuse traditional painting and digital technology. Murakami’s art shows no hierarchy of reference or influence – everything is flat.The extent to which he has become an industry cannot be overstressed.

166381603Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Blum & Poe

Andy Warhol had the Factory, but it was as much a countercultural place of decadence as a production line. Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki organisation is genuinely like a corporation, producing his own artwork, promoting and managing other artists and presenting Geisai, a semiannual art fair for emerging artists.

Throughout his career, Murakami has immersed himself in Japanese culture but has also been an acerbic and perceptive critic of it. The exhibition Little Boy, which he curated at the Japan Society in New York in 2005, brilliantly surveyed kawaii and so-called otaku culture, the geeky world of animé, manga and other pop cultural forms, punctuated by mushroom-cloud explosions, steeped in post-apocalyptic atmosphere and often featuring an uncomfortable fusion of infantilism and dark, violent sexuality.

R0356HK0552_7KDST_V2-450A set of limited-edition pieces from Louis Vuitton’s Eye Dare You collection by
Takashi Murakami and Marc Jacobs sold for $21,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong
in October 2014.

Murakami sees otaku culture as a delayed response to the events of the Second World War and the subsequent US occupation of Japan; Little Boy, the show’s apparently oh-so-kawaii title, has a grim historical context: it was the name of the atomic bomb that hit Hiroshima in 1945. In 2005, Murakami told The New York Times: “Otaku culture is handicapped reality. We have to realise we are handicapped, and we don’t want to realise it. We know the US is our father. We thought we were children, but we are handicapped people. We need help.” Seen through this light, even apparently harmless sculptures like Panda Geant acquire an entirely different mood. 

And in a recent body of paintings and his film Jellyfish Eyes, Murakami has been exploring the effects of another catastrophe on Japanese culture – the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan. Admitting that following the 2011 disaster it looked like the Japanese people “almost gave up,” Murakami had the conviction that “this is a moment when religion becomes necessary for the people,” and set about creating “a healing story for the victims.” The resulting paintings –
vast multifigure compositions, somewhere between cartoons and Nihonga painting –
were inspired by the deathly imagery in ancient Buddhist stories. Meanwhile the film was a kids’ fantasy set against the ominous backdrop of Fukushima.

Ben Luke is a regular contributor to several arts publications and is the contemporary art critic for the London Evening Standard.

Banner Credit: © EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN/epa/Corbis.- Murakami's Superflat Monogram: Panda and his Friends from 2005 sold for $29,000 at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2014.