If you tried to count on one hand the number of internationally acclaimed Japanese visual artists who have penetrated today’s upper patina of mainstream Western tastes, you probably wouldn’t even need all your culturally astute digits. What is certain is that your list would almost certainly begin with Tokyo native Takashi Murakami.
Born in 1962, smack dab in the middle of Japan’s transformative Showa Era, in many ways the artist epitomizes the post-World War II iteration of Japanese modernity. During Murakami’s childhood the nation’s inexorable yet tentative pan-global aesthetic transmissions simultaneously sought to make peace, literally and figuratively, with a new reality while synthesizing Western influences into rigid Japanese cultural DNA in a manner that has produced what many call a country of wonderful contradictions. It is all too common in Tokyo to see relics from Japan’s past—temples, kimonos, ryokans, and the occasional (albeit, touristy) rickshaw—merged seamlessly with the bleeding edge technology and pop culture ephemera of today.
These cultural vibrations had an effect on the early Murakami, leading him to eventually study the traditional 19th century Japanese painting style known as Nihonga, a form he mastered while pursuing his Ph.D. at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. But while Murakami’s reverence for Japan’s traditional art was clear, the ever-present disruptive Showa Era signal within demanded change, mutation, synthesis and eventually, the remixing of an entire category of Japanese commercial art known as manga and anime. Murakami’s fine art approach to what many had written off as pop culture detritus is what ultimately distinguished his work in a country packed so full of talented artists that even the casual Japanese citizen is expected to have at least some sense of visual style.
Taking the kaleidoscopic color palate of anime and blending it with the dark hyperbolic themes of manga, Murakami managed to recontextualize these commercial forms in packaging that was timed perfectly for consumption by an art establishment still mourning the passing of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art reign that ended in the 1980s.
The shared “subverting of commercial art” origins of Warhol and Murakami has led to many comparisons, and not surprisingly there are in fact a number of similarities between the two. After initial successes, both quickly repositioned themselves as “art directors,” essentially allowing a massive team to construct their paintings rather than toiling away solo, both understood the power of celebrity collaborations (Warhol had Edie Sedgwick, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Grace Jones; Murakami has fashion designer Marc Jacobs, and now rapper Kanye West), and both had absolutely no reservations about corporatizing their art for mass consumption, from t-shirts, to postcards, to multimedia.
The Western art establishment initially resisted Warhol’s blatant commercialism, but in Japan the demarcation line between high art and mass consumerism is thin at best. This is why one can easily walk into a Tokyo Don Quixote store (the equivalent of America’s Wal-Mart discount chain store) and pick up a box of Oreo cookies on the first floor, and then buy a $6,000 Rolex watch just a few floors above. Similarly, it is not uncommon to find expensive works by acclaimed artists (including Warhol) gracing the walls of affordable restaurants such as Shiroganedai’s Blue Point. This uniquely Japanese attitude towards consumerism and high art made Murakami’s particularly pop culture-fueled ascent that much easier.
Nevertheless, that art versus commerce line still exists in the West. During a recent New York exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, there where protests from the local art community regarding the sale of Louis Vuitton boutique merchandise along with Murakami’s exhibit inside the museum. When asked about the controversy, Murakami remarks confidently, “Controversy is always essential to art.” Adding to Murakami’s “controversy is essential” theory, the show was also marred by community activists protesting local gentrification by one of the museum’s honorees that night, all while street cred-drenched rapper Kanye West performed for Murakami and the assembled art patrons and celebrities inside. The fine art meets brand merchandising would not be stopped. And, according to Murakami, when it comes to involving musicians and filmmakers more closely in his multimedia works, this is just the beginning, “I definitely want to continue doing projects like this in the future.”
Ever the shrewd businessman, Murakami demurs when questioned about other artists, such as UK subversive street artist Banksy, who he calls, “Interesting.” But that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking deeply about the impact his work, and the work of his contemporaries, is having on the art world. After a recent Warhol exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York, attended by this writer, the museum docent commented that Warhol’s commodification and mass-produced art techniques were possibly the last frontier for pop art. Posed with such a notion, Murakami says, “I agree… I’ve been criticized often in the debate regarding copyright, but in the near future, art—like music and movies—will enter an age where the copyright becomes the artwork. When it reaches that age, the social meaning of the collaborations that I and other artists are doing now will become clear. I think this is the same assertion.”
While Warhol defined a new Western art movement called Pop Art, when Murakami’s unflinchingly Japanese aesthetics hit the scene the style required a new moniker: Superflat. The term refers to the notion of taking Japanese high culture/art and low culture/art and compressing the two into one dense, colorfully strange presentation.
Philosophically, the term is also a nod to the two-dimensional void of Japanese popular culture that saturates nearly every facet of life with painfully cute smiles, sardonic giggles, rainbow neon tapestries that change weekly, the never-ending dread of The Big One (a massive, catastrophic earthquake scheduled to hit Tokyo any day now) and a rising suicide rate that has consistently topped 30,000 deaths  per year for the last ten years.
Whatever is leading so many people to fatally succumb to depression, in a country as small as Japan (with a falling birthrate no less), one would be foolish not to look for clues to the culture’s maladies in the work of its most celebrated visual artist. And the clues are there. From the mutated (Yet cute!) creatures in “Smooth Nightmare,” to the literally naked hedonism of “My Lonesome Cowboy” (which recently sold for $13.5 million at a Sotheby’s art auction), to the stark bleakness of “Time Bokan” (a painting that features bright flowers hovering within the eye sockets of a deformed skeleton), Murakami’s work is indeed a telling glimpse at the conflict of ganbare optimism and postmodern existential angst currently gripping Japan.
Now with massive studios in Brooklyn, New York and Minato-ku, the artist’s team produces new Murakami works and various KaiKai Kiki promotions and events with ruthless efficiency, yet another Warholism. Currently, Murakami’s team is preparing for the upcoming GEISAI show (www.geisai.net) in Tokyo on the 14th of September. “‘GEISAI’” is a name taken from art festivals held at art schools in Japan,” says Murakami. “When we first started running this event, we wanted to create a training ground in the Tokyo art scene that would cultivate a new surge in Japanese art. Japan does not have an art market like in the West; we were aiming to create an original Japanese art market.”
What might surprise some veteran Japan-based expats familiar with the local art scene is Murakami’s decision to launch the Japan GEISAI as an international vehicle rather than strictly Japanese. “We just launched a large-scale GEISAI in America for the first time last year at the PULSE art fair in Miami,” says Murakami. “PULSE invited us to a joint sponsorship, and that sparked everything off… There was always the idea of GEISAI being a place where Japanese art could be shown to the world, so rather than there being any special reason, I think it was just the natural flow of things. However, GEISAI Miami also took place during a one-year break of GEISAI in Japan, and I had been seeking out the possibility of a completely new GEISAI as a jumping off point for doing something new. We received this opportunity, and that’s how we came to hold the event.”
But despite Murakami’s solid art world track record, some might wonder if the GEISAI event is the surest path to distinguishing one’s work in an oversaturated market. But Murakami, of course, thinks differently. “Various artists who have exhibited at GEISAI have gone on to make their debuts as pros at galleries and museums all over the world,” says Murakami. “Just recently, the artist Keita Sugiura, who was selected at GEISAI Museum 2 for a Juror’s Personal Award by Victor Pinchuk, Philanthropist and Founder of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation in Kiev, is now scheduled to display his work at Mr. Pinchuk’s Foundation. There are many examples of artists who have seized chances like this and gone on to debut in the art world.” And, although there are no guarantees, it appears that entering GEISAI might even land you a coveted spot in one of Murakami’s studios, “Mahomi Kunikata, Rei Sato and Akane Koide (all KaiKai Kiki employees at some point) were all GEISAI participants,” says Murakami.
Upon further examination, if one were to examine Murakami’s entire portfolio of activities, it would seem obvious that GEISAI might one day morph into an international art school. “Whether or not GEISAI is interpreted as an international art school in the future is really up to the world of criticism. It doesn’t matter to me,” says Murakami. “GEISAI in Japanese means ‘art festival,’ and I want to make it the sort of event where anything goes, where all you need as an alibi is art. As such, I’m not afraid at all if it becomes a sort of mass entertainment linked with media or whatever. Good artists understand their own path and create fantastic works regardless of environment. When industries pass through the sieve of the general public, no matter what happens, nothing but the good stuff should remain. Within that framework, we are greedy to chew on anything, and we fearlessly try anything. That is the concept and ultimate goal of GEISAI.”
Peering into the future of Japanese society is Murakami’s stock and trade, but ironically, despite all the robot fetishists, and the rise of the technology otaku, Murakami says, “I don’t think [Japan] will be very much different in 20 years.” But that does not reflect his feelings regarding the future of Japanese artists. To his aesthetic heir apparents hoping to make the same international impact that has characterized his career, Murakami offers sage advice, “Listen to what your teachers say. Whether you are in your teens or your twenties, never forget your original intentions, and make sure to accomplish what you set out to do. Endeavor to discover your identity.”

Story by Adario Strange
From J SELECT Magazine, September 2008