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Sunday, April 24, 2022
06:10 pm CET
By Ronny Waburek
Sunday, April 24, 2022, 06:10 pm CET
By Ronny Waburek





Is it Art? Is it Commerce?

How Takashi Murakami Gives Depth to the Surface

Is it Art? Is it Commerce?

How Takashi Murakami Gives Depth to the Surface

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami


 One question can never be answered with Takashi Murakami: Is what he produces art or does it only serve commerce? Or is it precisely this ambiguity that constitutes the essence of his art? The ambiguity provides food for an important controversy. For while many people seek the truth and authenticity in art, the art world itself has become a playground for the super-rich. Many Murakami paintings, in particular, hang decoratively in the rooms of those for whom no status symbol - be it a yacht, a watch, or a work of art - is too expensive. In a world where paintings are there to increase the profit and image of their owners, art as a means of cognition and self-reflection has - it seems - lost its meaning.

Flowers and Film: The Art of Murakami

But Murakami’s art cannot be characterized so easily. There are manifold references and developments. It is astonishing, for example, how eager Murakami is to experiment. He has collaborated with fashion designers, directed music videos, and even designed anime. He is a painter and sculptor, but he also designs jewelry and even makes films such as Jellyfish - albeit without commercial success so far.

What is Jellyfish about? Very briefly, Murakami tells the story of a young girl named Koko who struggles to find her place in the world. Orphaned at a young age, Koko has always felt different from the other kids her age. However, when she meets a boy named Hiro, she finally feels like she belongs. The two become fast friends, and Koko finally has someone to share her life with. But when Hiro is diagnosed with an incurable disease, Koko must find the strength to go on living without him. Jellyfish is meant to be a touching story about friendship, loss, and acceptance.

It may sound strange that an artist who wants to be taken seriously would dabble in the film genre. Especially if, like Murakami, the latter portrays George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as his role models. But that is only the surface. Underneath, things look different.

As a Boy and Today: The Biography and Career of Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami was born in Tokyo on February 1, 1962, the son of a cab driver and a housewife. He grew up together with his brother Yuji. In 1986, Murakami graduated from the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo with a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). In 1993, he earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation, "The meaning of the nonsense of the meaning," on "Yōga," a Japanese movement in painting from the mid-19th century that worked with Western conventions, techniques, and materials. This is in contrast to the purely Japanese painting tradition (Nihonga), in which Murakami himself was also trained during his studies.

Takashi Murakami and Japan

Takashi Murakami was born in Tokyo on February 1, 1962, the son of a cab driver and a housewife. He grew up together with his brother Yuji. In 1986, Murakami graduated from the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo with a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) and an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). In 1993, he earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation, „The meaning of the nonsense of the meaning,“ on „Yōga,“ a Japanese movement in painting from the mid-19th century that worked with Western conventions, techniques, and materials. This is in contrast to the purely Japanese painting tradition (Nihonga), in which Murakami himself was also trained during his studies.

References to the History of Japan

Murakami’s work is difficult to understand without a look at the history of Japan. Japan is a country with a long and turbulent history. Evidence of human settlement in the region dates back to at least 30,000 B.C., and the first settled communities emerged around 11,000 B.C. For centuries, the Japanese lived in small clans that occasionally engaged in disputes with their neighbors. In the late 4th century AD, however, a powerful leader named Jimmu Tenno unified the country under one banner. Since then, Japan has been ruled by a series of imperial dynasties.

During the Middle Ages, Japan was marked by a series of wars between rival clans. In the early 15th century, however, a warlord named Oda Nobunaga managed to unify large parts of the country. This paved the way for his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who completed the unification process in 1592. The following year, Hideyoshi undertook an invasion of Korea, which ultimately failed.

In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu was appointed Shogun of Japan, ushering in a period of relative stability that lasted over 200 years. During this period, Japan experienced significant economic and cultural growth and increased contact with the outside world.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The devastation wrought by these weapons was unimaginable, and the death toll was staggering. In Hiroshima, an estimated 70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 injured. In Nagasaki, the death toll was even higher, with an estimated 40,000 people killed instantly and another 60,000 injured. These two bombings ended World War II but also ushered in a new era of fear and uncertainty. For the first time in history, humanity had the opportunity to destroy itself. The legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is one of both horror and hope. These horrific events remind us of the terrible cost of war, but they also remind us of the human capacity for resilience and recovery. Even after such destruction, life ultimately goes on.

This small digression helps to better situate Murakami’s work, for it is intimately if covertly, intertwined with the history of Japan. In particular, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki influenced Murakami and his work. His mother was born in the Japanese city of Kokura in the Kyushu region. Originally, it is said, the Americans‘ atomic bomb was to be dropped there. For Murakami, this leads to an important conclusion: what would have happened if his mother had been killed then? He would never have existed. This thought is a central motif in his work.

In addition, the subject of the atomic bomb not only shapes Japanese thought in general, but Murakami was also often confronted in his childhood with people who suffered from illnesses caused by the atomic bomb. The nuclear danger was never a theoretical-abstract phenomenon for him, but a real experience.

It is therefore not surprising that he asked himself questions early on about society’s responsibility toward these victims. What exactly is a war, what is a nation? And where does the line between good and evil lie? Even if these central human questions are not directly addressed in Murakami’s works, one senses subtle links to them in almost all of his creations. In a sense, the atomic bombing can be seen as the engine of Murakami’s art machine. His works are a reminder that Japan has also so far failed to come to terms with its past and overcome the trauma of World War II. The tragedy is hidden under a friendly surface that is barely perceptible to many people in the West. That Japan cannot get rid of its nuclear trauma was shown once again by the Fukushima disaster. In the Fukushima nuclear disaster, there was a significant release of radioactive material at the Fukushima I nuclear power plant in Japan on March 11, 2011. This was caused by the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan that day. The disaster had far-reaching consequences: Not only were people killed or injured, but the economic damage was enormous. In a sense, one could say that Fukushima was the second major nuclear disaster in Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And just as the effects of the atomic bombs were felt for many years afterward, so the consequences of the Fukushima disaster are still being felt today.

Murakami responded promptly to this event, with a work of art that is among his most important: the 500 Arhats. In doing so, Murakami again refers to history: originally, the 500 Arhats are a group of Buddhist saints who are often depicted in paintings and sculptures. They are usually shown in small groups and are recognizable by their red robes and the fact that they carry begging bowls. The 500 Arhats represent the perfect embodiment of Buddhist teachings, and they serve as reminders of the suffering of all beings.

Murakami’s work 500 Arhats is a painting in which he depicts a group of 500 Arhats in the traditional Japanese painting style. The painting is based on a traditional Chinese scroll painting from the Song Dynasty.

Murakami’s relationship with Japan goes beyond the purely historical dimension; contemporary culture is also reflected in his work. This is revealed in the fact that his art often contains elements of otaku culture, a subculture of anime and manga fans. This is evident in his use of bright colors and allusions to pop culture. For example, he sees his „superflat“ theory as a direct link between the post-war Japanese art scene and traditional Japanese art. The „superflatness“ of Murakami’s works is therefore not to be understood as a departure from tradition but as its reinterpretation.

Exhibitions for a World Description: Globalism in the Fine Arts

Takashi Murakami is an artist who comes from a country that has long been self-sufficient from world events, but whose work is strongly influenced by globalization. His art is a product of globalization, and the themes he addresses in his works are global. But you can also put it this way: Murakami himself is a global player and yet sees himself as an artist. His art is exhibited on every continent. Murakami is an artist who sees globalization as an opportunity and is open to it. He knows how to develop and disseminate his art under the conditions of globalization. Not a few criticize this attitude to globalization, which is not clearly critical.

Museum and Gallery: Takashi Murakami is Everywhere

Takashi Murakami’s art is exhibited in the most prestigious museums and galleries and his works fetch high prices on the international art market. Murakami is an artist who transcends the boundaries between East and West and knows how to develop and disseminate his art in a global context. In short, Murakami is an artist who has conquered the Western art market and knows its mechanisms, and uses them for himself. To attract attention, to stand out, to be unusual, and in a certain way also to follow the mainstream to satirize and criticize it, very covertly, - this is how Murakami’s approach could be described. Much of the work is done by the busy staff of about 100 at his company, Kaikai Kiki, headquartered in Tokyo. The master conceives, reviews, criticizes, and - in the worst case - has his employees start all over again. Around five large plants leave the company every month. But revenue is also made in no small measure from the sale of T-shirts, stickers, toys, postcards, and chewing gum. At the same time, the artist has increasingly appeared in public in recent years.

Instrumental in Murakami’s success has also been galleries such as Gagosian and Perrotin. Gagosian and Perrotin are among the heavyweights in the art scene.

Gagosian Gallery is one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world. Founded in 1981 by Larry Gagosian, the gallery has locations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Guangzhou, London, Paris, Rome, Athens, and Geneva. The gallery represents some of the most influential artists of our time, including Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Jasper Johns. In addition to exhibitions, Gagosian Gallery also hosts lectures, performances, and film screenings. The gallery has been a driving force in the world of contemporary art, and its influence can be seen in the work of many of today’s most celebrated artists.

Takashi Murakami did not get his start at these mega-galleries, however. The Powerhouse Gallery in Los Angeles, founded by Tim Blum and Jeff Poe, enabled Murakami to exhibit internationally for the first time at Art Basel 1999. Although he had exhibited in Paris with dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, who had met Murakami in Japan in 1993, and New York with dealers Gavin Brown and Hudson, he had not yet broken through in the market. In Basel, collectors who ventured to the Blum & Poe booth welcomed Murakami’s then-shocking art.

Since 2013, he has not exhibited at Blum & Poe but has been with Perrotin, the dealer who gave him his first solo show outside of Japan. From there, Murakami’s fame only grew, fueled by Vuitton handbags and Kanye West album covers.

Murakami began his first solo show at global mega-gallery Gagosian in 2007, and since then he’s exhibited regularly at Larry Gagosian’s spaces in New York, London, and Hong Kong. Their relationship grew even stronger last year. During that time, Murakami organized three joint exhibitions with designer Virgil Abloh at Gagosian in New York City, Tokyo, and London, culminating in a spectacular show of new work at Gagosian in Los Angeles that drew crowds.

Between New York and Tokyo: The Rise of a New Artist

In recent years, contemporary art has experienced a resurgence in New York. The city is home to many world-renowned art galleries and museums, as well as a growing number of independent artists. Contemporary art in New York is characterized by its diversity and innovation. Artists of all stripes are finding new ways to express themselves, and the city’s art scene is constantly evolving. From public murals to small installations, there is something for everyone to discover. Especially through the Gagosian Gallery Murakami has received to the world important New York art scene.

Gagosian and Japanese Contemporary Art

Many Japanese artists try to imitate Western styles and techniques, but some artists go their way. Murakami is an example of an artist who has developed his style. This has quickly made him an interesting artist for the Gagosian Gallery, which has established a global network of locations more intensively than any other well-known art gallery.

Works and Work: Criticism of Capitalism

Some would say that Takashi Murakami is a critic of capitalism, as his art often reflects on consumerism and the excesses of the market. Others, however, would argue that Murakami’s work ultimately celebrates the power of the market and consumerism. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to decide what they think of Murakami’s stance on capitalism. The ambivalent relationship to capitalism is particularly evident in his own company.

In 1996, Murakami founded the company Hiropon, from which the company Kaikai Kiki would emerge in 2001. It works in the field of both management and promotion of young artists (e.g. Chiho Aoshima, Aya Takano), organizes exhibitions, and the art festival GEISAI. However, the sale of art-related consumer items, such as key chains, T-shirts, and toys, with which Murakami massively markets his art, is the focus of the company’s interest. The museum stores and the sale of these items are an integral part of his exhibitions.

Then in July 2020, the bankruptcy of the company Kaikai Kiki had been announced in an Instagram video, the reason being the Covid 19 pandemic.

Kaikai and Kiki

Kaikai and Kiki are two of Takashi Murakami’s most famous characters. They are a rabbit and a bee, respectively, and appear frequently in his works. Some see them as symbols of consumption and excess, while others see them as innocent and playful figures. They are also often depicted as a couple, which can also be interpreted in different ways.

Paris loves Takashi Murakami

Pick up any city guide about Paris. What do you read? Probably something like this: „If you’re an art lover, Paris is an absolute must-see. The city is home to some of the most prestigious art galleries in the world, showcasing some of the best artwork from both established and emerging artists. Whether you’re interested in modern or classical art, you’re sure to find something that piques your interest at one of Paris‘ art galleries. So if you’re looking for a cultural experience that will inspire you, be sure to include a few art galleries in your itinerary when you visit Paris.“

You probably won’t read anything by Murakami. And yet, there are some important connections to this city in particular.

Artist of Artists: Exhibition in Versailles

In the fall of 2010, Murakami opened an exhibition at the Palace of Versailles. The exhibition was controversial, with some critics saying it was inappropriate to show contemporary art in such a historic setting. Murakami’s fans, on the other hand, praised the exhibition for its playful spirit and bright colors. In any case, it is safe to say that the Palace of Versailles has never seen anything like it.

Even before the exhibition began, there was a lot of excitement; French people saw a national treasure threatened. Such things are almost normal in a country where conservative circles still mourn the fall of the monarchy. It is also a joy for PR strategists because the demonstrators brought the show worldwide media attention. When Murakami’s exhibition finally opened, it was even more controversial than expected. The conservative French were outraged by the artist’s use of sexual motifs. However, the artist himself said that he did not want to provoke anyone and simply wanted to create something beautiful. Takashi, it is said, walked proudly like a little sun king through the halls, where 22 of his sculptures took on a bouncy life of their own among all the baroque gold, chandeliers, mirrors, and murals.

Waiting in the Hercules Room was the huge figure of Tongari Kun, a strange, seven-meter-tall creature made of fiberglass, perched on lotus blossoms and a flat frog, its many arms outstretched like an Indian goddess, its miserable gaze wide and crowned with a spike. Nothing in this massive installation suggests Herculean effort. Rather, it was a sometimes witty, sometimes contradictory, and often playful fusion of ancient beauty and contemporary art, which is, after all, one of the most expensive of the present.

Takashi Murakami and the Galerie Perrotin

Galerie Perrotin is a world-renowned art gallery specializing in contemporary art. It was founded in 1991 by Emmanuel Perrotin and today has locations in Paris, New York City, Seoul, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. The gallery represents some of the most influential artists of our time, including Takashi Murakami, as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kusama Yayoi. In addition to exhibitions, Galerie Perrotin also offers educational programs and events that promote an understanding of contemporary art. Thanks to its commitment to excellence, Galerie Perrotin has become one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world.

Superflat: An Alternative Concept to Western Culture

Some critics see Takashi Murakami as a pioneer of the so-called Superflat movement. This is an art movement that originated in Japanese manga and anime and whose goal is to blur the boundaries between high and popular culture. The Superflat movement was started in the 1990s by Murakami himself. He believed that the traditional Western hierarchy of art, in which high art is superior to popular culture, was outdated. Instead, he proposed a new way of thinking about art in which all forms are equal. This way of thinking has influenced many other artists who have taken a similar approach to their work.

Painting and Sculpture: Takashi Murakami Thinks Big

While the history of sculpture is often seen as one of the significant works in stone and bronze, contemporary artists are increasingly working with a wide range of materials. Glass, steel, and even paper can be used to create dynamic and innovative sculptures. As a result, today’s sculptures are more diverse than ever before.

One of the most striking aspects of contemporary sculpture is the way it often interacts with its surroundings. For example, many artists create site-specific sculptures that are designed for a specific location. By engaging with their surroundings in this way, contemporary sculptures can encourage viewers to think about their surroundings in new and different ways.

In addition to their physical form, contemporary sculptures often use light and sound. This allows artists to create multi-sensory experiences that can be both visually and emotionally powerful. As a result, the contemporary sculpture is an exciting and ever-evolving field that continues to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Murakami often emphasizes in interviews that he does not consider himself a born sculpture artist. Gradually, partly because the demand for large works of art has increased, Murakami has acquired a sculptural vocabulary. His goal: to create sculptures that are monumental and at the same time light as air.

Collaboration: Louis Vuitton, Kanye West, and Virgil Abloh

In addition to the size of his artworks, Murakami is always concerned with reaching a good audience. His basic motivation: to reach as many people as possible and not to create elitist art that is only open to a few insiders. Murakami crossed the line into commercialism to great media effect when he collaborated with designer Marc Jacobs on designs for luxury bag maker Louis Vuitton in 2000. Cherry blossom decors and colorful logos adorned the bags, which quickly became rare collector’s items. This collaboration was very successful and helped to increase both Murakami’s and Louis Vuitton’s popularity. Products included purses, luggage, and accessories.

Murakami also designed CD covers for US pop star Kanye West’s music album „Graduation“ and shot an anime-style music video (2007).

Traditions I: The Factory of Andy Warhol

But where do Murakami’s art's historical roots lie? The name of Andy Warhol must be mentioned here. Andy Warhol’s style has often been compared to a machine - precise, repetitive, and seemingly emotionless. But there was much more to his work than meets the eye. In many ways, Warhol’s art was a reflection of his complex personality. For Warhol, art was a way to explore the world around him and make sense of the often chaotic and confusing world in which he lived. His work was often playful and humorous but also had a dark and sinister side. Warhol was fascinated by celebrity culture and the darker side of fame, which is reflected in many of his most famous works. In short, Warhol was a master at creating art that was both visually arresting and deeply reflective of the human condition. The comparison to a machine could also apply to Murakami, the partly mechanical taking of extraneous motifs fitting in just as well as the busy workforce that produces his works.

Traditions II: Nihonga

Murakami reaches even deeper into art history with his references to the traditional Nihonga style. Nihonga is a traditional Japanese painting style that dates back to the Heian period (794-1185). Nihonga paintings are characterized by bold colors and intricate patterns, and often depict scenes from nature. One of the most characteristic features of Nihonga is the use of gold and silver leaf, which give the paintings an air of luxury. In recent years, the Nihonga has gained popularity among art collectors both inside and outside Japan. Thanks to their unique style, Nihonga paintings are highly sought after by those who want to add a touch of elegance to their homes. Murakami incorporates the style and subject matter of the Nihonga style into his creations and copies to create. He is always concerned with a modern interpretation of the traditions.

The Artwork in the Shop: Commercialization

But modern also means dealing with capitalism. Therefore: Can art and commerce coexist? This question has been asked for centuries and still divides minds today. On one side are those who believe that the two are mutually exclusive and that the pursuit of commercial success is always at the expense of creativity. On the other side are those who argue that art and commerce are not only compatible but can even reinforce each other.

So what is the truth? Can art and commerce coexist? The answer seems to be both yes and no. There are many examples of artists who have had commercial success without compromising their creative integrity. But there are also many examples of commerce corrupting art and turning it into a commodity to be bought and sold. Whether art and commerce can coexist ultimately depends on the individual artist and how they navigate the sometimes murky waters of the modern art world.

Pop Style Paintings: Mr. DOB goes Around the World

If you look at Takashi Murakami’s arsenal of characters, you’ll notice that one of them is particularly important. This is Mr. DOB. The name of Mr. DOB is derived from the nonsensical Japanese phrase „Dobojite, dobojite, oshamanbe.“ This creation, if one follows Murakami’s reasoning, is to be understood as a criticism of the contemporary art scene. The figure was created in close collaboration with some Murakami collaborators. He sees the figure as a symbol and says of it that, in a sense, he only follows it once he has created it. While it is clear that commercialization played a role in the making of this figure, one would misunderstand Murakami’s artistic project if one were to view it solely as a cynical work. Rather, what is interesting about this work is how it both critiques and celebrates the world of commercial art. On the one hand, the figure mocks art world celebrities and the cult of personality that surrounds them. On the other hand, the figure has become a celebrity itself. In this sense, the figure is both a product and a critique of the commercialization of the art world.