Few artists have risen to global fame via a handbag but everyone knows Takashi Murakami’s art thanks to the multi-coloured bags he designed for Louis Vuitton – bootlegs of which you can buy from African tradesmen in any Mediterranean city.
Murakami recoloured the Vuitton logo pattern in his own instantly-recognisable lurid palette of turquoise, green and pink. It was a simple idea (perhaps too simple) but it was one of those turning points in contemporary art (some say a wrong turn!). An artist could now sell a branded look to a mass market as art. The colours on the bag indicated little more than the presence of the artist they were just a sign of an oeuvre that lay elsewhere. Art had become a perfume that could be sprayed on anything.
The designer accessories are just the tip of the Murakami iceberg. The forty-three-year-old Japanese artist has written a new chapter in the history of pop art. He is often described as the Japanese Andy Warhol. But he is a step beyond. If Warhol had a factory, Murakami has a corporation. With two large studios in New York and Tokyo, he has created a critique of Japanese culture based on images developed from Manga (Japanese cartoons).
On top of that, he has reinvented the notion of an artist’s oeuvre as an ever-expanding product range to carry ideas. Murakamis take the form of huge murals, public sculptures, a full-length animated film, wallpapers, paintings and prints, miniature collectibles and branded candies. For some critics this crosses the line of art – they say his exhibitions are theme-parks and his artworks toys. But other influential art theorists and curators say the point of the work is that it is Capitalist in both its content and its form. It’s fine art as luxury brand.
Murakami’s work itself could be described as a translation of the Japanese ‘Manga’ comic book and animated film into the forms of contemporary art. He has created his own set of cartoon characters which fill his paintings or become sculptures – a Mickey-Mouse-like Mr Dob, cute and cuddly Kai-Kai and Ki-Ki and the ever-present smiling flowers. He abstracts the distinctive motifs of Manga – like the wide-open childlike eyes and uses them as forms in abstract paintings. Of course it wouldn’t be art if it didn’t have a theory and Murakami has a suitably big one.
In various essays he and supporting critics have outlined “A Theory of Superflat Japanese Art”. According to this theory, Murakami’s art and Japanese culture are flat in lots of ways. Firstly, formally there is a link between the the traditional flatness of Japanese masters like Hokusai and the contemporary flat-screen aesthetic of computers and video games and the colourful flatness of Murakami’s art. Secondly, the cultural Superflat – the atomic bombs dropped on Japan produced, the artist says, a cultural fall-out that has persisted to the present day. Japanese culture has become frozen in a kind of childishness taking the form of Manga-obssessed ‘otaku’ (‘nerds’) youths. Japan has never come to terms with the trauma of the bomb and the happiness presented in its animated fantasy worlds conceals alienation.
Murakami has had solo shows at the Serpentine in London, Foundation Cartier in Paris, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art and most recently a retrospective at MOCA in LA.