Takashi Murakami cited in: Exh. Cat., Doha, Al Riwaq, Murakami: Ego, 2012, p. 256.
Undeniably joyful and fantastically whimsical, Takashi Murakami’s larger-than-life sculptural work Panda (2003) intelligently explores the boundaries between fine art and commercial product, high culture and luxury fashion. The artist’s transgression of traditional Japanese high art is profoundly present throughout his visual practice as a whole, for Murakami is as much mega-celebrity, curator, designer and brand manager as he is an artist. This ground-breaking marriage between high art and commercial culture has its foundation in Murakami’s commercially successful 2002 collaboration with the illustrious fashion house Louis Vuitton, when the brand’s then-creative director Marc Jacobs invited Murakami to reinvigorate Vuitton’s accessories line. This collaboration is central to the present work, as the adorable, cartoon-like panda stands en pointe atop a vintage Louis Vuitton monogrammed trunk. Here, Murakami pays homage to the brand’s distinguished history as a Parisian luggage company, as well as to their visionary branding that has evolved around a storyline of travelling on a surreal journey through time – ideas of which Murakami touches upon throughout the collaboration. The artist’s project with Vuitton in 2002 was received with controversy, for Murakami himself asserts, “Japanese people accept that art and commerce will be blended; and in fact, they are surprised by the rigid and pretentious Western hierarchy of ‘high art’. In the West, it certainly is dangerous to blend the two because people will throw all sorts of stones. But that’s okay – I’m ready with my hard hat” (Takashi Murakami cited in: Exh. Cat., Doha, Al Riwaq, Murakami: Ego, 2012, p. 228). Executed only one year after Murakami’s first project with Vuitton, Panda stands defiantly against convention, and delivers a powerful critique on the merging of high art and luxury fashion.
Murakami’s panda – known as Panda Geant within the artist’s vibrant, Louis Vuitton monogrammed world – first featured in the animation Superflat Monogram, which Murakami created in collaboration with the fashion house in 2003. In the short film, a young girl’s daydream is disrupted by the sight of a giant, towering panda. As she gazes up at the creature, he bends forward and consumes her, after which the girl quickly finds herself thrust into a whimsical adventure inside the panda’s body. The animation presents a nihonga and kawaii-inspired version of Alice in Wonderland, in which the little girl journeys through an enchanting time machine of swirling, multicoloured Louis Vuitton logos, which are juxtaposed against the artist’s trademark iconography of cherry blossoms – a traditional symbol in Japanese culture. Panda Geant makes a bold appearance within this psychedelic universe, as the girl spots him magically standing atop a small leather Louis Vuitton trunk. Thus the present work fantastically brings Murakami’s animation to life, as here the artist’s audience can view the playful character and its vintage Vuitton case in the round and in larger than life size.
While Murakami’s charming panda became an identifiable mascot for the Louis Vuitton brand around the time of the 2002 collaboration, the character also became a crucial signifier for the artist, and one that would recur throughout Murakami’s wider oeuvre. Indeed, Panda Geant is deeply encoded within the aesthetics of the Murakami brand, for the character – whether rendered in fiberglass or stamped on a leather handbag – indefinitely lies at the intersection between high art and commerce. Murakami’s Panda is therefore undoubtedly reminiscent of the work of Jeff Koons and KAWS, as for both artists, the kitsch, the commercial and the prosaic are powerfully transformed. Significantly however, there is a deeper side to Murakami’s practice in his postmodern conception of Superflat, which not only explores the flattening and superficiality of traditional Japanese aesthetics, but also remarks on the flat and shallow nature of consumer culture – the latter of which Murakami seems to equally celebrate and critically exploit. Superflat has become a cultural phenomenon that spans all spheres of commercial culture in both the East and West. Indeed, yet another vital impulse in Murakami’s work is his profound effort to marry Eastern and Western aesthetics and taste: “Gradually, Murakami has erased the distinction between himself and the cultural position he inhabits. The complex iconography he has built may have been extracted from Japanese entertainment, but these images have become Murakami’s own icons – or better yet, avatars – which he uses to negotiate the relationship between East and West” (Gary Carrion-Murayari cited in: op. cit., p. 119). Panda therefore couples a beguiling cuteness with a profound understanding of contemporary culture in both Japan and the West, in turn presenting a spectacular example of Murakami’s visionary practice – one that interprets and defines the cultural spirit of our time.
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