- Takashi Murakami
- The World of Sphere (diptych)
- acrylic on canvas mounted on board
- overall: 350 by 350 cm.; 137¾ by 137¾ in.
Private Collection, USA
USA, MA, Waltham, The Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University, Post and After: Contemporary Art, September 2005 -April 2006
USA, Los Angeles, The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art; Germany, Frankfurt, Museum fur Moderne Kunst; Spain, Bilbao, Guggenheim Museum, © Murakami, 2007 - 2009, unpaginated
“The art I believed in was an art that makes your mind go blank, that leaves you gaping,
that makes you ask questions because there’s nothing you know you can compare it to;
something that must surprise and disorient you.”
Having single-handedly carved out a unique niche within the international contemporary art world, Takashi Murakami has undoubtedly become one of the most pivotal artists of our generation. Earning a doctorate from Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music in 1989, where he received his training in Nihonga (Traditional Japanese style) painting, the artist is a master of traditional Japanese compositional and material techniques, often borrowing from traditional concepts such as what Murakami has termed Hokusai’s “zooming in” method, as well as what he believes is the “aggressiveness” of the Japanese Momoyama period. In spite of this link to more traditional methods, however, his entire practice can also be conceived of as an extremely modern form of Gesamtkunstwerk through the multi-faceted operations of his company, Kaikai Kiki.
Murakami is most recognised in the world of contemporary art for producing finely crafted sculptures and paintings, but he is also an entrepreneur who has developed his own method of branding by operating in both the worlds of fine art and commercial culture. His company Kaikai Kiki is based on the terms “supernatural and bizarre”, which are used to describe the work of eccentric Edo period painters, such as that of Eitoku Kanô. Murakami has in turn used this term to create his signature characters Kaikai Kiki of the same name, both of whom recur throughout his oeuvre. Kaikai and Kiki are based around another of the artist’s characters named Oval, a figure inspired by the nursery rhyme’s Humpty Dumpty. As well as this, the creation of Oval was based on a request from the fashion designer Issey Miyake, who Murakami believes is capable of deftly combining his Japanese heritage with a universal accessibility. Similarly, Murakami wanted to inject this same sense of universality into his own character. Oval, who was also centred around the Hyakume cartoon figure—a monster with a thousand eyes—from Murakami’s childhood days, as well as the image of the Buddha, was accompanied by two acolytes of sorts: Kaikai and Kiki. “With these three characters—Oval, Kaikai and Kiki,” Murakami stated, “I wanted, I think, to create my own ‘gods of art’.”1 The company operates as both a fine art studio with departments in painting, sculpture, design, animation, PR, marketing, merchandise, as well as the organiser of a biannual art fair for emerging artists in Asia. It manages several careers of young Japanese artists who exhibit their work at Kaikai Kiki gallery alongside young international artists, such as Mr. and Aya Takano.
A prolific writer, Murakami has also published several books directed as critical guides for survival in the art world, aimed for emerging artists in Japan. He is also a regular contributor to newspaper columns and serves as a radio host. However, he is perhaps most well-known outside of the art world for establishing himself within the realm of commercial collaborations including highly successful merchandise lines for Louis Vuitton, the grand opening of the Mori Art Museum in 2003, advertising commissions, and corporate branding projects. His work with the fashion house included a complete rebranding of the logo, adding pops of colour as well as a floral motif to the original label. He has also established an independent animation studio that has just released his first feature-length film, Jellyfish Eyes (2013), a fantastical science fiction movie that confronts the traumatic aftermath of the 2011 Tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster from the perspective of youth.
The importance of youth and childishness, if not childhood, is central to an understanding of Murakami’s work. For instance, the creation of his Jellyfish Eyes works—which are the same creatures that the film is based on—is heavily influenced by the aforementioned Hyakume character, as well as Murakami’s childhood tale of a little girl terrified of an ominous painting that seemed to watch her everywhere she went. Murakami’s works are thus often important meeting grounds of childlike play and serious undercurrents.
Murakami’s role as an adroit critic of contemporary art and culture can be seen developing in his early forays into conceptual art and performance in the late-80s and early-90s, works which comprised of mock-appropriations of legendary Japanese art movements such as Gutai and Hi Red Center. These dealt with critical commentary on the communicative failure of the Japanese avant-garde to reach international recognition. Murakami was also an avid observer of Euro- American artistic practices of that time period, and his early projects often incorporated seductive elements of humour, irony and spectacle, which questioned values such as the use of endangered species skins to create randoseru backpacks for elementary school children (Randoseru Project, 1993). Other works looked to the past, such as a large-scale mural of a skull rising from the ashes of an atomic mushroom cloud (Time Bokan, 1993). Murakami would later add his signature cosmos flowers, the plainest and most ubiquitous of flowers in Japan, inside the blank hollows of the skull’s eyes.
Murakami’s early works deftly penetrated the enclosed worlds of traditional Japanese fine art and contemporary art. The concept and aesthetics behind are essentially his main tools in creating new narratives that not only contribute to the rise of Neo-Pop aesthetics in the early-90s, but also reflect the pervasive struggle of cultural and identity politics in the world at the time. On a theoretical level, Murakami is certainly at the forefront of Japanese contemporary art, constructing a distinctive artistic practice that not only integrates high art and consumer culture, but also independently operates both within and outside the cusp of both worlds. While he has acknowledged predecessors such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons as inspirations, the Japanese artist has truly surpassed their influences on all fronts through the integration of his artworks with the business model of his company Kaikai Kiki.
Looking into his interest in underground manga comics and anime, the artist further reinvented the otaku subculture through showcasing his highly stylised human-scaled figurines such as Miss Ko2 (1996) and SMPKO2 (2000) across different wonderland festivals for commercial trade figure makers in Japan. These figures would later be developed into highly sexualised sculptural models such as the Lonesome Cowboy and Hiropon (2000), making their first appearance in the realm of high art through the participation in different art fairs and galleries across the world. The creation of figurines such as Miss Ko2 as well as Lonesome Cowboy is indicative of Murakami’s style of combining “cuteness” with something more complicated. The artist comments on the sexualized Lonesome Cowboy, whose phallus in fact served as inspiration for his later mushroom works, after commentators brought to his attention their resemblance to one another. The image of the mushroom, poised between the artist’s self-crafted explicit symbol, as well as a universal symbol for childhood—especially in a Western context of fairy tale toadstools—is yet another example of the artist’s unique ability of compressing diametrically opposite concepts into one single object. Not unlike, for example, the artist’s method of Superflat.
In the millennium period, Murakami has experienced tremendous popularity with his Superflat aesthetics, which points not only to the flattening of high and low art, but also links the fundamental functions between art and everyday life. The concept of Superflat is in turn the artist’s rendition of a Nihonga-inspired optical illusion, where objects— some further and some closer to the viewer—are all compressed into one dimension, foregoing the need for depth or scale as the viewing of the image becomes one. In his Superflat Museum, small collectible items of his large-scale figurines are distributed through convenient stores, adopting a business model that opens the access of these figures and products to the everyday consumer. During the same period, several characters and motifs are also aesthetically transformed, including Murakami’s alter ego Mr. DOB, an erratic, monster-like figure, the winking Jellyfish eyes and the smiling Cosmos flowers. First appearing on small-scaled canvases in 1995, the flower motif along with the jellyfish eyes were expanded into a dizzying array of media including circular canvases, wallpapers, and ultimately into the plastic Flower Ball sculptures that symbolised the never aging status of the “supercute” ideal. One can see the jellyfish eyes blending within the candy-coloured canvas grids with Louis Vuitton’s LV and cloverleaf logos in the Eye Love SUPERFLAT (2004) and The World of Sphere paintings. Produced separately from the high-end brand accessories, these paintings are intentionally hovered between the aura of the Louis Vuitton logo and Murakami’s own signature motif, exemplifying a different aspect of Superflat that expands beyond the simple integration of fine art and mass culture. In essence, through the development of the Kaikai Kiki brand, Murakami has found methods to expose the possibility for a truly reciprocal process of collaboration in a manner that integrates highly different contexts, genres, and worlds. Combining his interests from the modern, contemporary world, while extending more traditional aspects of Japanese art, Murakami has undoubtedly marked his importance in the world of contemporary art.
1 Takashi Murakami Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Serpentine Gallery, p.87
Infusion of Two Worlds
Takashi Murakami’s The World of Sphere (Lot 52) is the most comprehensive painting from the series associated with the artist’s collaborative venture with the French fashion house, Louis Vuitton. In 2002, Louis Vuitton’s creative director, Marc Jacobs invited Murakami to design for the brand’s accessories line. Murakami had already been producing his own line of Kaikai Kiki (formerly Hiropon Factory) merchandise products through his studio since 1996 as part of his own practice in commercial design that functioned to complement his large-scale figurines made famous in 1998. For Louis Vuitton, the artist worked with Jacobs to draw upon signature seasonal motifs from Japan. The result was an array of pink cherry blossoms, clovers, red cherries alongside the artist’s signature pop-colors to update the brand’s brown canvas monogram, and a second Monogramouflage Collection (in 2008) inspired by the military camouflage patterns. In addition to the merchandise, the artist also created black and white square canvases with gridded patterns of singular motifs. Murakami not only established himself as a designer in the world of high fashion, but also brought critical attention to the merging worlds of fashion and fine art.
Originally created from a sketch that was then digitally transferred and manipulated into patterns and layers of carefully hand-painted surfaces, the effect is a highly-refined composition exemplified in the Flower Ball series (2000–) where paintings were based on flattened digital renderings of spherical balloons, each linear form filled in with solid colors. Embodying a brightness and a lightness emerging from a glowing white background, this large-scale, square format painting integrates the new characters and motifs that Murakami developed for the accessories line featuring two LV mascots: Panda with signature Murakami eyes (Jellyfish Eyes) and purple and moss green Louis Vuitton clovers on his ears who greets the viewer alongside a stalk of bamboos and tiptoes atop the edge of a pastel-colored boulder. To the right is Mr. Pointy (a major sculptural figure that debuted at the artist’s Public Art Fund project at Rockefeller Center that same year) who bears a diamond-winged body and a slew of rings swirling out of his pinshaped head. A field of growing flowers line the bottom of the painting embedded with Murakami’s colorful-camouflage patterned LV logo with a greeting hand.
These characters are featured in Murakami’s animation, Superflat Monogram (2003) created for the opening of the new accessories line. In this wonderfully whimsical story, a young girl, Tomoko is standing in front of a glass building where she encounters a larger-than-life Panda. As she looks up at him, he proceeds to consume her and she quickly finds herself on an adventure inside the animal’s body. Journeying through an abyss-like time machine swirling with thousands of LV logos, clovers, and cherry blossoms as seen in the negative spaces on the white camouflage-patterned background of The World of Sphere.Tomoko leaps and bounces from one logo to the next while eventually landing inside Mr. Pointy, watching as a jellyfish blows a massive dust of charms. His body grows into the LV symbol and a closed hand appears as it spreads open to reveal her cell phone. (This is the birth of the greeting hand logo, a symbol of communication and connectivity between actual and virtual worlds.) She takes hold of the phone and takes shots of herself floating in this dynamic environment and sends pictures to friends around the world who proceed to ask her where she has been. She finds herself in a daze standing in front of the Louis Vuitton store discovering that this was all a daydream. Her friends quickly come and scold her for being late and while they scurry off, a bamboo leaf falls from the fold of her flip phone and a photo of smiling panda appears on her screen. Perhaps it wasn’t a dream afterall?
More critically, the work is distinctive for taking the artist’s signature Superflat style onto an entirely new level. Superflat, which began as an explorative play on surface versus three-dimensional depth in 2000 on the occasion of his exhibition of the same name that featured commercial designers from Japan, soon grew into a blurring of lines between fine art and commercial culture. World of Sphere however is not only a representation of this blurring of boundaries, but functions as a central threshold of merging worlds. In fact, this painting was included at the foot of the entrance gallery leading up to a temporary Louis Vuitton boutique housed inside the artist’s 2007 retrospective exhibition © MURAKAMI at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. For the gala opening of the Brooklyn Museum venue of the exhibition, Louis Vuitton staged outdoor vendor shops at the entrance to the museum, mimicking knock-off handbag vendors, The boutique was a site of controversy as it was fully operational with Louis Vuitton sales staff selling items inside the non-profit space of the museum. Some artworld professionals questioned the legitimacy of a capitalist enterprise operating inside a non-profit museum, while others lauded these ventures as part of the boldness of Murakami’s artistic practice.
At the heart of the painting, as reflected in the narrative of the Superflat Monogram, is the artist’s concern with the evasive quality of a shared memory associated with the experience or service economy. Murakami’s own mascot, Mr. DO B, first developed in 1993 undergoes a series of events that follow a dark narrative of exploring through different imaginative realities including the subterranean world of Japanese subculture, and excesses of capitalist consumer culture. By the time we reach The World of Sphere, what is at stake is an intimate connectivity that he finds revelatory in the worlds of both high art and fashion. The greeting hand in the The World of Sphere is thus an embodiment of not only the integration of the two worlds, but also the evasive power of mementos, of thousands of emotions and memories in a single, shared experience. That is the invaluable beauty of Murakami’s paintings that takes the power of a logo and transforms it to a transcendent level of experience.