“The importance of his work is precisely owing to the visibility and scale of his ambition, as well as his ability to see possibility in obscure and despised corners of cultural production. His critical acuity, formed in response to the negativity of the postwar Japanese condition, takes him beyond its limits.” (Midori Matsui, “Murakami Matrix: Takashi Murakami’s Instrumentalization of Japanese Postmodern Culture,” in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art, © Murakami, 2007, p.108)
Multiplying Takashi Murakami’s single most celebrated subject – DOB – in an amorphous swirling spiral over an enormous double-panel silver surface, The Castle of Tin Tin of 1998 stands as the apotheosis of the artist’s continuing construction and deconstruction of post-apocalyptic Pop identity. DOB is a hybrid humanoid whose identity we all share to a great extent: the monstrous and the innocent, the East and the West, the high and low culture, the rejoicing of the surface, the endless consumerist desires. Accumulating organically in scale and form to spectacular proportions against a shimmering silken surface, the flashing toothy grins and multiple winking eyes of these impossibly adorable creatures are immediately branded © Murakami. The Castle of Tin Tin represents a pinnacle of Murakami’s career and is a summation of the developments in Murakami’s style and subject matter. The milky liquid swirl evokes the artist’s controversial and erotic sculpture, My Lonesome Cowboy of the same year, and the colorful bubbles emanating from DOB’s body also anticipate Murakami’s signatory smiling flowers. The most comparable body of work immediately to precede this painting is best exemplified by 727 of 1996, now a highly-prized component in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which, though less complex and radiant than the present work, stands as direct precursor for the artistic apex reached in The Castle of Tin Tin.
Murakami’s art always juggles between the more confrontational, aggressive and sexual atmosphere of Otaku – a computer-based virtual lifestyle that gradually becomes a substitute for reality – and the cute cartoon style of kawaii as a more subtle visual language for his contemporary cultural scrutiny. Under the innocent kawaii lies a burgeoning undercurrent of primal desires, much like the ideological operation of Surrealism in the early 20th Century. Culling from the visual vocabulary of Surrealist masters like Salvador Dalì and Yves Tanguy, DOB teases the viewers’ imagination with its sinuous bodily form, psychedelic colors, smiling yet threatening mouths, shimmering yet devilish eyes. DOB’s eyes represent the artist’s most powerful elements of communication in his art. “I discovered the presence of eyes incites spectators to interact with the work.” Murakami believes that the feeling of uneasiness stimulates the viewer to read beyond the superficial interpretation and mere aesthetic response to his work. Referring to the constant presence of the eyes in his works, Murakami observed how he “wanted to summarize these two aspects, the art of the quest for identity on the one hand and the art of ‘design’ on the other.” (the artist in “Interview with Philippe Dage,” Le Monde Magazine, September 11, 2010). Since the history of Japanese painting has been traditionally based on decorative arts and on two-dimensional perspective, Murakami pays tribute to Japanese classical representation through his obsessively flat depiction of the eyes. In the stunning rendition of the present work, designed into a double-panel reminiscent of ancient painted folding screens, Murakami seamlessly blends in delectably ocular kinetics and adds decentralizing decorative effects.
The monumental work presents us simultaneously with a combination of order and chaos, of convention and transgression. Its central and upwardly spiraling composition is disrupted by the severing of the painting surface into two panels, straddling between two painterly worlds: on the one hand, the binary structure alludes to the decentralized compositions inherent to traditional Japanese multi-panel ink-paintings while the centralized DOB composition is emblematic of most Western art practices. In The Dragon Screen of the eighteenth-century Japanese master Maruyama Okyo, the deliberately separate composition of an assumed unified body on two different panels effectively exemplifies Murakami’s Japanese heritage and contrastingly shows his rebellion against it. The artist, Japanese by birth but having lived and worked in America, lives the kind of duality that is consistently reflected in his art, attributing much to the American Pop Art master, Andy Warhol, yet remaining true to his Japanese roots.
In fact, it is the Pop Art movement that succeeds in filling the previously unbridgeable gap between the West and Murakami. The ideological and aesthetic bridging of high and low in Pop Art forms a kind of kinship with Murakami’s theoretical development of Superflat: namely, the artist associates the flat picture planes of traditional Japanese paintings to the lack of any distinction between high and low in Japanese culture. Formally, he groups traditional artists of the Edo period (1603-1868) together with the creators of animated films believing that they shared important stylistic similarities in the one-dimensionality of their work. It is one of Murakami's firmly held tenets that demarcations between fine art and popular merchandise are completely un-Japanese. Only after the embracing of the West in the Meiji Restoration period did Japan import the foreign notion of ''art'' and create a vocabulary for it. Citing his own anecdote about the co-existence of a department store and a museum in the same building complex, the artist consistently emphasizes that the blurring of high and low remains characteristic of Japanese society. In the present work, Murakami toys with the “superflat” style by giving DOB the appearance of being pressed flush against the picture plane, despite the energetic motion conveyed by the spiraling composition. This painstaking “superflat” style he employs over his immaculately smooth surface in The Castle of Tin Tin is both a feature of Nihonga painting – the style in which he was initially trained – and mass factory production, the two opposing poles that Murakami’s art successfully reunites.
However, Murakami cannot be reduced to a mere disciple of the American Pop master. Indigenous Japanese culture—whether in its reverent, sacred forms, or in more spectacular Pop guises—is at the heart of every aspect of Murakami’s work. As the artist observed, “the United States and the United Kingdom were victorious in the Second World War. Pop culture was born there, it ‘popped up’, amidst the prosperity of these ‘winners’. Consumer society emerged among the victors. But we Japanese are the losers. We have experienced a long period of hardship and poverty. We were completely flattened, and have never been able to ‘pop up’ since. I have a word for that ‘superflat’. The cheerful colors of my works may evoke Pop, but the backdrop of their emergence is completely different.” (the artist in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, © Murakami, New York, 2007, p.22) While his deep-rooted Japanese identity might not always be immediately legible to Western audiences, his multi-tentacle enterprise can be understood as a campaign to reverse Japan’s postwar cultural inferiority complex and overturn American Pop hegemony by capturing both the Western market share and the popular imagination with more purely Japanese forms and content. DOB, embodying an anthropomorphic development through a fleeting form of desire and reification, like the nonsensical phrase from which it was derived, moves itself with sound, speed, fluidity, and boundless accumulation – the perfect allegory for the rampant consumerism endemic in today’s world.
While Warhol used images of Mickey Mouse and Lichtenstein sourced the comic pages, Murakami went into ancient Japanese paintings and invented the ever fascinating DOB. In contrast to Walt Disney, for whom the character Mickey Mouse became the brand identity with which he built his corporation, nor like Warhol, for whom Mickey Mouse became another popular icon through which he expanded his lexicon of American icons, Murakami has created a humanoid alter ego, a constantly evolving character that embodies all the complexities and nuances of his ever-changing personal and corporate identity. In his KaikaiKiKi Studio (formerly Hiropon Factory), that operates much like a modern software or digital production business, Murakami has hired a salaried staff working in product development, fabrication, marketing and sales. Within this enterprise, Murakami persistently produces variations of DOB, of which The Castle of Tin Tin is a lavishly rendered unique example; a post-apocalyptic Mickey Mouse that sees everything with its eyes yet cares for nothing but voraciously accumulating and having fun, DOB remains the most celebrated and influential icon that effectively uses past imagery and contemporary consumer imagery to define the zeitgeist of our digital age.