The colorful, tightly layered skulls construct a macabre millefiori, evoking the theme of mortality that has been explored throughout the art historical canon, from seventeenth century Dutch vanitas paintings to Andy Warhol’s famed 1976 series of silkscreened Skulls. Though the work alludes to such grand thematic tradition, Red Life Force is quintessential Murakami, whose oeuvre is the embodiment of cultural collisions effected by the globalization of the mass-market and contemporary art market. Trained in the traditional Japanese art movement of Nihonga, the artist has also found inspiration in everything from manga and anime to Buddhist forms and iconography. His practice invokes an artistic plurality disconcertingly underscored by the profound impairment of Japanese culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. Murakami confronts the literal and metaphoric “flattening” of Japanese culture—heralded by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and exacerbated by the dominance of Western surveillance and influence thereafter—in his oeuvre, united by the term Superflat. Red Life Force presents a flawless synthesis of the artist’s Superflat series and socio-culturally charged conceptual interests.
Following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan the year before the present work was executed, Murakami turned frequently to studies of mortality and human empathy in his work. Through the repetition of the skull as a powerful symbol of death, Murakami both magnifies and desensitizes our fear of death. Similarly, the motif simultaneously represents both everyone and no one: the skull becomes uncompromisingly universal in its lack of individuality, devoid of hair, eyes, nose, flesh, life. The vivacious hues of acrylic paint are in stark, satirical contrast with the morbid subject matter. The kaleidoscopic vitality, combined with the work’s deceptive title—it promises blood and life but presents only a colorful death—underlines the transience of life pitted against the omnipotence of death. In Red Life Force even death, the final adversary of humankind, is reduced to lurid mundanity through the contemporary practice of visual repetition and Murakami’s signature aesthetic. The artist’s exquisitely rendered skulls are here invested with the unnatural, synthetic perfection of the digital age. Having forged a distinctive artistic voice grounded in the special effects of anime and manga, a visual sub-culture that reactively emerged following the proliferation of Americana in Japan, Murakami presents a fine-art lexicon for the culturally dislocated Japanese generation nurtured by the US political custody in the second half of the twentieth century.
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