oil, acrylic, synthetic resin, fibreglass and iron
Addressing the viewer at eye-level, the sensational and extravagant figure of Kiki is one of Takashi Murakami's most distinctive and appealing creations. Executed in 2000, this outrageous character is unashamedly brash and ecstatically charismatic, announcing a glimpse into the boundless imagination and literally incredible world of the artist. Combining several of the most significant trademarks of Murakami's hugely influential oeuvre, Kiki is both a figure of fun and portal to unapologetic fantasy, as well as a sculpture that deals with profound themes of Japanese art and tradition and complex relationships related to contemporary life and culture. As the apotheosis of a singularly Japanese socio-aesthetic identity, this hysterical creature summates the developments of a particular culture over the past forty years as well as being the literal embodiment of a dream world.
The artist has explained both the physical and conceptual genesis of Kiki at length. Central to Kiki's identity is the phenomenon in Japanese popular culture of kawaii, which comprises something comparable to 'cuteness'. By way of explaining the essential nature of kawaii, the artist has referred to, and even drawn, the simple shape of a circle with the top half blank and the bottom half containing two dots for eyes and a smiling mouth and declared that "In the kawaii system, this scale is very important" (the artist cited in: Arthur Lubow, 'The Murakami Method', The New York Times, 3rd April 2005). The types of forms that Kiki is made up of are fundamentally derived from this compositional relationship. Apparently the designer Issey Miyake initially asked Murakami to create a character based on Humpty Dumpty, which eventually acted as the catalyst for Kiki and its companion work Kaikai. Together with another character called Oval, these three were intended to evoke the tradition in Buddhist sculpture where a central figure is flanked by two acolytes, all holding staffs and standing on lotus leaves. Evidently in the present sculpture the lotus leaf has transformed into a sphere covered with Murakami's idiosyncratic smiling flowers.
Although in Japanese the adjective 'kikikaikai' translates as 'strange things' or 'phenomena', according to the artist the name of Kiki actually stems from the more esoteric word 'kaikaikiki', which is written with different Chinese ideograms and was a sixteenth-century term used to describe art that was courageous, powerful, and sensitive. This term thus reflects the intriguing combination of warrior-like confrontation and adorable kawaii resident in Murakami's three-eyed, pink weapon brandisher. This figure thus harbours a complex combination of character traits, as further explicated by the artist: "I thought I too would like to create a form of art that was at once vigorous, sensitive and intelligent...With these three characters – Oval, Kaikai and Kiki – I wanted, I think, to create my own 'gods of art'" (the artist interviewed by Hélène Kelmachter in: Exhibition Catalogue, Paris, Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Kaikai Kiki, 2002, p. 87).
Kiki represents a pinnacle of Murakami's career that summates the developments of his style and subject matter that led up to its inception. In the 1980s Murakami studied at the Tokyo National University for a doctorate in 'nihon-ga', the hyper- stylised branch of Japanese art that came about in around 1890 and was intended to restore traditional Japanese painting while promoting the idea of a pan-Asian cultural continuity. Inevitably, vestiges of this training have lingered on to colour aspects of his later working practice, from his impeccably perfectionist method to the inclusion of particular motifs. Indeed, one of the most evident traces of influence is his recurrent motif of crowds of smiling flower-faces, such as those carpeting Kiki's pedestal-ball. Murakami had spent two years drawing flowers when he was preparing for the entrance exams into university, and he also spent nine years working in a preparatory school teaching students to draw flowers.
Murakami's original aesthetic related to the pre-eminent anime and manga visual cultures of 1980s Japan, but developed to deal in otaku, which describes a computer-based, virtual lifestyle that becomes a substitute to reality. However, from the mid 1990s, Murakami moved away from the more confrontational, aggressive and sexual atmosphere of otaku and started to embrace the cute cartoon style of kawaii as a more subtle medium for his contemporary socio-cultural scrutiny. Emblematic of this change in direction was the name change of his studio in 2001 from the 'Hiropon Factory' to 'Kaikai Kiki'. Murakami has declared that "Japanese don't like serious art. But if I can transform cute characters into serious art, they will love my piece" (the artist cited in: Arthur Lubow, Op. Cit.). Representing the artist's immersion in kawaii, Kiki is the distilled incarnation of this project, simultaneously standing as something quirky and undeniably appealing, as well as a brilliantly pithy comment on the influential effect of branded dream-worlds in contemporary culture.
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