Takashi Murakami is the best-known Japanese artist of our time. As an artist, curator, entrepreneur, and critical observer of Japanese society, he has taken Japanese subcultures and contemporary art and welded them into a global brand.
Through his production workshop Kaikai Kiki Co. he realizes his paintings and sculptures, as well as more commercial products for animation and fashion markets, and a wide range of Murakami merchandise. Flatness and a hallucinatory intensity typify his works, which are decorative, shiny, and strongly coloured. Their content – whether wallpaper with smiling flowers, long-legged manga heroines, or colourful mushrooms – can at one and the same time be described as cute, psychedelic, disturbing, and satirical.
Murakami studied traditional Japanese nihonga painting and tried his hand at animation before deciding to become an artist. He experimented first with performance, mail-art, and conceptual works, but was dissatisfied with Japanese contemporary art, which he felt relied too heavily on Western conventions and lacked its own functioning art market. His solution to the problem was first to establish himself in the Western art world and then to import himself back into Japan, with the ambition to create a new market along the way. He left for New York in 1994, and here found the inspiration for the studio-factory. Recognizing parallels with Japanese atelier traditions and manga/anime units such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, in 1996 Murakami established the Hiropon Factory (a precursor to Kaikai Kiki) to facilitate his large-scale projects and to work across several media. As with Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, Murakami is responsible for the ideas and concepts behind his art, but is not necessarily involved in its physical creation.
After his return to Japan, Murakami developed the theory of Superflat. Here he put forward the idea that Japanese art history has been dominated by flat, two-dimensional imagery, and that this uniquely Japanese tradition, which has survived fifty years of American cultural influence, high technology, and mass culture, has been carried over to today’s manga cartoons and anime films. According to Murakami, Superflat can be said to typify postwar Japanese society, in which there is no longer a conflict between elite and popular culture. His enthusiasm for manga led him to the otaku subculture, populated by young people who spend their days online in countless virtual worlds, totally absorbed in manga, anime, and computer games. A refusal to grow up is part of the otaku-culture’s passive protest, and is reflected in the apparently trivial and childish appearances of Murakami’s hyper-cute monsters and mascots. Beneath the cloying cuteness, however, there is latent aggression, perversion, and grotesque mutation.
The sculpture 3-Meter Girl (2011) is a full-blown realization of two-dimensional manga fantasies. The knock-kneed blonde with huge breasts towers above us in all her awkwardness. The three-meter high sculpture is a highly polished accomplishment in reinforced plastic and steel, and so closely resembles a computer animation that it is hard to believe she is two-dimensional. Cascades of hair act as counterweight to the enormous breasts that threaten to topple the fragile figure. The cartoon fetish extends to her red stilettos, fishnet stockings, dog collar, and maid’s uniform. The absurd composition awakes an ambivalence in us, being at the same time ridiculous, sexy, unpleasant, and impressive. The concept of “business art” was developed by Andy Warhol as early as the 1960s. Murakami, however, isn’t content with adopting existing consumer-society images, but instead infuses popular culture with new figures that function as if they were media imagery, such as his alter ego Mr. DOB and the mascots Kaikai and Kiki. Is his purpose to criticize the capitalist economy of the postwar era, or to celebrate it? Do Murakami’s wide-eyed manga figures and cute monsters expose or encourage materialist greed? His works provoke controversial questions about art and commerce, high and low culture, branding and personal expression, mass production and craftsmanship. None of these categories turns out to be mutually exclusive.