Takashi Murakami, master of the post-anime "superflat" aesthetic, has brought his older work into dialogue with some ambitious new projects, transforming the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow—and several other museums—into wild visual playpens.
Takashi Murakami. Photo: Courtesy of the GARAGE Contemporary Art Museum, Moscow, 2017
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Japanese artist Takashi Murakami is famous for large-scale, high-production-value sculptures and paintings that explore themes of postwar Japanese culture in a graphic language derived in part from anime. In 2000, Murakami coined the term superflat to describe this influential aesthetic, which is characterized by the combination of elements from traditional eastern and western visual cultures—all subject to extreme visual distortion—with signature icons of his own devising that include smiling flowers, skulls, mushrooms, his dog Pom, a character named Mr. Dob—and his own image.
Over the past year, Murakami has taken simultaneously retrospective and productive approaches; in three separate museum exhibitions, he has reintroduced work from the 1990s, showing it alongside bold new works that expand on his established themes. Much of this older work focuses on Murakami's ongoing examination of the dangers of nuclear power. The juxtaposition of these works, and their shared commentary, is at the heart of a new exhibition at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (Garage MCA) in Moscow, the first major survey of Murakami's work in Russia.
Titled Under the Radiation Falls, the Garage MCA exhibition, curated by Katya Inozemtseva, is organized into five sections. The first focuses on Murakami's education as a painter and the development of his technique, which began with traditional Japanese nihonga painting. It also places his work from the '80s—which he ultimately saw as limited and limiting—in dialogue with the traditional Japanese painting of such artists as Katsushika Hokusai and Kawanabe Kyosai. The second moves away from the artist's training to explore the transformation of Japanese visual culture following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. And a fourth section replicates Murakami's Tokyo studio inside the museum (he slept there during the show's installation). Remaining parts limn the connection between Murakami's work, kawaii culture, and traditional Japanese decoration. There's a live-action film, Jellyfish Eyes, and displays of toys and other objects from Tokyo's Nakano Broadway shopping center, where Murakami also has galleries and a café.
Yet it's the work at the entrance of the museum that best epitomizes Murakami's current trajectory, which increasingly incorporates graffiti, collaboration, and confessional, first-person writing. A double-sided curtain emblazoned with chaotic lettering and bright red flames, produced in collaboration with Japanese graffiti artists MADSAKI, snipe1, and others, represents present and future work, and is accompanied by seven other new works made especially for Under the Radiation Falls.
GARAGE: Since your early paintings— Nuclear Power Picture from 1988, for example—you've consistently made art that comments on the dangers of nuclear power. Other works that come to mind are Time Bokan from 1993, your Jellyfish Eyes film, and your new Octopus Eats Its Own Leg paintings. What's behind the persistence of these ideas in your work?
Takashi Murakami: Those of my generation in Japan, who lived through a society and culture scarred by defeat in the Pacific War, were repeatedly exposed to documentaries on TV featuring footage of the atomic bomb explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There were also many children's superhero TV shows that dealt with the aftermath of the explosions. Such images have become engraved in our minds, haunting my generation with fear.
The explosion in Chernobyl happened when I was 24 or 25, and I recall a writer named Hirose Takashi saying that the "ashes of death" would rain down on Japan as well. I was influenced by the activism of the time, the fear of nuclear energy that had seeped into our minds, as well as by the information we gained after Chernobyl about the dangers of nuclear radiation following a meltdown. This fear was triggered once again by the Fukushima incident in 2012. Once something like this has actually happened, all you can do is feel resigned; ennui takes over. When you eat peaches or rice, you always have in the back of your mind that they're contaminated by radiation, but you end up eating them anyway, complete with their weird aftertaste. This feeling of vague unease has become an important motivation for me.
Is this what's behind the Garage MCA exhibition title, Under the Radiation Falls?
My Miyoshi studio in Japan is located in the northern part of Saitama, which puts it in quite close proximity to Fukushima. As such, we can feel the effects of radiation. When it rains, we need to protect ourselves— though these days we get rained on and don't even care. We're resigned to it.
Katya Inozemtseva, the curator of the exhibition at the Garage MCA, noted that images of nuclear radiation and the bomb resonate closely with my works. This had a major impact on the selection of works for the show. Ultimately, that was what made me pick the title.
Would you consider 1992's Sea Breeze installation, which mimics the flashes of light from an atomic explosion, to be the centerpiece of Under the Radiation Falls? Which other works do you feel are critical to the show?
Sea Breeze moves me the most. The works I made at the start of my career rely on the themes of war, atomic power, and outer space. In these early pieces, I wanted to talk about dreams—like the dreams of humans who wanted to go to outer space—as well as the political situations behind them.
In this exhibition, I'm pleased that visitors are able to see older pieces of mine in juxtaposition with some of the newer ones. The other central works in the exhibition are situated in front of the main entrance: the Flame of Desire sculpture, my self-portrait, and a big, double-sided curtain piece made in collaboration with graffiti artists MADSAKI, snipe1, and others. I thought it would be a good flow for viewers to walk in, and immediately see the trend of my recent works, and then gradually revisit older works.
Why did you decide to have three different museum exhibitions this year, in Oslo, Chicago, and now in Moscow? What was important to you to specifically share at each venue?
Simply because the museums asked me! I kept saying yes, and they ended up happening back-to-back.
I'm 55 now, so I've been looking back at my past more frequently. Also, there seems to be a shared interest among the curators of these shows in exploring the genesis of the flowers in my work. Right now, the theme of my work is formal chaos. I've been able to produce large-scale works and squeeze them into these exhibitions unsolicited by the curators.
In all three of these museum exhibitions, you've displayed films and sketches showing how your studio functions. Why is it important to you to be transparent about the scale of your production?
To be honest, I never really thought that being transparent about my studio was all that important, but at the Garage MCA, Katya, the curator, wanted to recreate my studio for the show, and I went with it. Once it was completed, the recreated space actually looked a lot like my real studio, and I feel at ease in it. While I'm only in Moscow for a few days, I've been able to work in this space as if it was my real studio.
I've also shown my studio at work in various promotional videos I've made. If you look at my Instagram, people have made comments accusing me of taking advantage of my young production staff, but I feel that many young people do not really comprehend the hard work and labor involved in the production of artwork. I make these promotional videos to show the aspiring artists of this generation that art production is solidly entwined with a lot of hard labor.
Your exhibition in Chicago, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, references the cannibalistic way an octopus may consume its own limb in order to survive a viral attack—though it eventually grows back. You've referenced the growing pains of your career in various candid Instagram posts. Is there a parallel between the octupus's painful act of self-preservation and your own recent "regeneration" of your practice?
Those comments came from my belief that the work of an artist only really flourishes after their death. It's hard for me to gauge the real impact of making these exhibitions while I'm alive. If my works were to maintain currency after my death, I believe that that would be my defining period. To this end, I feel that I have to push myself. However, social media has made everything seem instantaneously simple and "flat." People don't readily sympathize with the excruciating pain that can lie beneath an artist's practice. Now that I'm older, I can admit that I, as a human being, suffer, struggle, and sometimes wish to give up and die. Maybe I'm conveying these messages to instill in people's minds the mood of my generation, or just to state that I was an artist who used to say and feel such things.
You also mention, in confessional text on your new paintings, that you set impossible deadlines for yourself and the studio.
My production style dictates that I can't make a work if I'm not given a theme or a deadline. Usually when galleries and museums ask me to make something, the themes they suggest already exist in my previous work. When there are tight deadlines, I see my process as a "wringing out" non-existent wisdom. The higher the various hurdles are, the harder I have to wring, and the more hurdles I have to clear.
There is a saying, "to catch clouds" that applies to my initial brainstorming process. My mind is like a cluster of doodles; there are about three key words, and two or three visuals in the form of poorly done drawings. In the subsequent process of making those ideas more concrete, I realize that some of my initial ideas weren't what I was looking for.
What have you enjoyed about collaborating with graffiti artists like MADSAKI, snipe1, and UFO907 on your paintings, sculpture, and the entrance curtain at the Garage MCA? You defend the authenticity of these Japanese graffiti artists on Instagram and describe your fascination with their style as "drawn by a Westerner who loves Japanese anime."
Right now I'm invested in things that do not have much to do with me directly. One is the history of Japanese ceramics and the attempt to structure a future for that field. The other is establishing a firm position for Japanese graffiti artists. Their works are often imitations of American graffiti, like American anime fans drawing in the style of Japanese anime. I think that Japanese graffiti artists should really explore what compels them to make work. MADSAKI agreed with me and began making works that involved digging deep into his inner self. He introduced me to some of his close friends, and as I got know them, I gave them the same message. My hope has been to work with these artists so that we, together as Japanese artists, might achieve forms of creative expression grounded solidly in our own situation.
How are the Jellyfish Eyes films progressing? Why did you want to show the first film and the character sculptures/props that go with it at the Garage MCA?
My current goal is to make part two of the film series within the next couple of years, using more CGI than part one. When making the first Jellyfish Eyes film, the producer told me that the film could be made with about $300,000, which I thought was a doable sum, so I went with it. In the end, it took three years and cost $8 million.
When you look at Avengers or other DC/Marvel movies, we don't really think much about the CGI, but it's an incredibly difficult process. I now have about 60 employees in my company who work exclusively on CGI.
Can you talk about the debut of your 6HP anime TV series and why it was important to you to develop a new kind of narrative for that particular form? You describe it as "an anime that has everything in it," both "combat anime" and "magical anime," and made "without any consideration whatsoever to the entertainment market."
Though I am currently working as a fine artist, I originally wanted to become an animator but I wasn't talented enough, so making this series took a long time. As we finished the screenplay for 15 episodes, and the storyboards for 11 episodes, I started to see what I had wanted to make in the first place; I wanted to deconstruct and reconstruct a long history of animation made by various other directors in my own way. So I decided to mix elements from animations that I'd watched growing up, from the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and even early '90s.
As for not heeding the market, current feature-length Japanese animations, for example, omit shadows in favor of increased attention to movement. This is a method developed by Mamoru Hosoda and Shaft Inc. in order to enhance the characters' motion without burdening the animators with extra drawing work. I love '80s animations, so I can't resist the use of ubiquitous shadows. In general though, I'm aiming to make an art film that just happens to take the form of a TV anime.
Why is there now a painting of the famous Salt Bae chef installed in your bar, Bar Zingaro, on Tokyo's Naraka Broadway?
I'm fascinated by people who create buzz on social media. Salt Bae is a Turkish chef with a weird but oddly captivating sense of humor that somewhat resembles the slapstick, one-liner style of Japanese comedians. I find his act with steak hilarious! I think he has about 10,000,000 Instagram followers, and I relate to him deeply as I also strive to create that kind of buzz. He seems to have a rule that he doesn't talk at all in his Instagram videos. He always wears sunglasses and dresses up as a character from the Godfather series. His recent thing is going to New York, Miami, and elsewhere to film people mimicking his salt-throwing pose, then posting them on social media, again without uttering a word himself. So out of respect for his method, I decided to paint him. He finally noticed the portrait through an introduction by Pharrell. Salt Bae "liked" my post of the painting for the first time, eight months after I posted it. I was very happy.
You recently debuted Devil Ko 2, an evolution of your famous sculpture Miss Ko 2, at Wonder Festival.
Just as there are generational trends in animation, there are also generational trends in figurines and dolls. As I'm not a hardcore otaku, it's sometimes difficult for me to fully discern the differences. The Miss Ko 2 that I made 20 years ago and the ones I'm making now are completely different; the gap in quality is tremendous. The original Miss Ko 2 was a product of my project to tackle and reconstruct otaku sexuality. This sexuality has since become very complicated and increasingly difficult to pinpoint.
What are you planning for this year's ComplexCon in November, after debuting multiple projects (with Beats by Dre and Skrillex) and merchandise last year?
Something I was very surprised by when I attended last year's ComplexCon was the fact that so many people knew who I was. I'd never experienced this kind of welcome before, even when walking around galleries and museums. So for this year's ComplexCon, I'm making some works that cater to this expanded demographic. I'll also be introducing work by contemporary Japanese artists that I like such as MADSAKI and Otani Workshop.
Why do you wear sometimes a costume to exhibition openings and events?
The weakest point in my promotional activities abroad is my inability to speak English. But if I dress up in costume, it grabs attention and media coverage anyway. For this exhibition at the Garage MCA, I had a special outfit made just for the gala party.
Cedar Pasori is a US-based writer and editor.
Takashi Murakami: Under the Radiation Falls is on view at the GARAGE Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, through February 4, 2018. On October 18, Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics: A Collaboration with Nobuo Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston opens in Boston. On November 4, Takashi Murakami: The Deep End of the Universe opens at Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York. On February 3, Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, originally seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, will open at the Vancouver Art Gallery in Vancouver, Canada.