Progression of Art
In the center of this contemporary triptych is Murakami's avatar named Mr. DOB. His open mouth reveals razor sharp teeth, as his multiple eyes roam maniacally across his environs. Japanese anime is known for cartoon characters with unusually large eyes, which frequently encompass a large portion of their face. The roving eyes in this piece take anime's exaggeration even further.
Mr. DOB, created by Murakami in 1993, is derived from the Japanese slang term "dobozite" which roughly translates as "why?" The maniacal smile of Mr. DOB can be understood as Murkami's laughing stance towards the art world, and also towards the West. The title itself, 727, is a reference to the Boeing American airplanes that flew over his childhood home while heading to U.S. military bases. In this sense, the title is a direct reference to the U.S. presence in post-WWII Japan that Murakami is so keen to both explore and critique in his art.
The stylized wave upon which Mr. DOB sits is an obvious reference to the 19th-century Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai, who was incredibly influential for future Japanese artists and manga comics alike due to his bold colors and flattened compositions. The abstract background, created by scrapping away many layers of paint, is reminiscent of a Japanese folding screen done in the nihonga style. The soothing use of paint in the background of this work is in stark contrast to the cartoonish Mr. D.O.B. atop a parodied version of Hokusai's wave. With a Ph.D. degree in nihonga, Murakami masterfully merges the worlds of historical Japanese aesthetics and popular contemporary Japanese cartoons.
Murakami began the Mr. DOB series with the purpose of creating a great icon of the contemporary world, comparable to Mickey Mouse, Miffy, or Hello Kitty. This recurring motif is Murakami's first "artistic DNA" that is spread across different media and cultural levels, from fine-art paintings and gigantic 3D sculptures to mass-produced t-shirts, posters, and key-chains. Mr. DOB is very much a brand mascot. The intention is to make the artist disappear, as he declares, "the audience doesn't need the artist, only the character." Resonating with the anonymous Japanese artisans of the past, Murakami adds, "I despair of the possibility that the world will not purify, and that art is an effective medium to survive cheerfully, even after my death." Mr. DOB's global success gave Murakami the confidence to elevate himself to the status of Cézanne, Duchamp, Warhol, and Picasso who, in his words, "had their characters (in their work and in themselves) to survive many dozens of years beyond their lifetimes." Mr. DOB is simultaneously a celebration as well as critique of contemporary culture, and this paradox is what makes this figure so intriguing.
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas board, three panels - Museum of Modern Art, New York
This overtly sexualized sculpture, with her tiny waist and voluminous pink pig-tails, has breasts that are so large that they burst out of her skimpy bikini top to spray a jet-stream of milk that encircles her figure. While this sculpture resembles a cartoon character, her looming physical presence and positioning on a clean white vitrine reminds viewers that this is "high art." Combining a feminine cuteness and shocking perversion, this sculpture reflects Murakami's deep engagement with otaku subculture, and in particular, its pornographic underbelly, known as "loli-com" (short for "Lolita Complex") in which innocence and girlhood are paradoxically prized, as well as fetishized.
Hiropon is a one of Murakami's anime-inspired characters that also include a masturbating sculpture of a boy named My Lonesome Cowboy. Murakami explains these sculptures simply as a celebration of his own love for anime during teen years, "I became an otaku when I was in high school and absorbed many different things from anime like its erotic and fantasy elements... that very process resulted in this work."
However, beneath its cartoonish and seemingly vapid surface, this sculpture functions as a crippling critique of post-WWII Japanese culture. Murakami repeatedly states in his interviews and writings that Japan was infantilized by the U.S. presence following WWII, that it became the "little boy" in comparison to the U.S. Murakami states that following the end of the WWII Japan was "kept from participating fully in global geopolitics, Japanese aesthetic-political impulses imploded into fantasies of monsters and superheroes, galactic wars, cyborgs, and schoolgirls - all the displays of anime, manga, video games." He describes this as having a castrating effect on Japan, and as a result, Japan's culture became obsessed with youth, cuteness, and with it, came a darker and violent sexual manifestation of this obsession.
The title itself alludes to the darker aspects of Japanese culture - "hiropon" is Japanese slang for the narcotic - crystal methamphetamine. This literal connection to the drug culture reveals Murakami's examination of otaku culture as an illicit form of entertainment.
This now iconic sculpture articulates, in three-dimensional form, Murakami's "Superflat" manifesto - that is, a merging (or "flattening") of the high and the low, of fine arts and pop culture - by extracting the erotic from "low" anime culture and inserting it into fine-art sculpture meant for influential collectors and prestigious art institutions. This sculpture sold for $427,500 at Christie's auction house in 2002 and helped transform Murakami into a superstar in the global art world.
Fiberglass - Multiple versions sold at auction houses
Executed in Murakami's signature Superflat style that combines referents to historical Japanese painting alongside contemporary pop culture, this multi-paneled painting of mushrooms, titled Supernova, at first glance, seems like a playful, childhood fantasy. However, these creatures' mutant eyeballs, fang-like spikes, psychedelic colors, and distorted forms hint at sinister undercurrents. The title of the work refers to a song by the British band Oasis called "Champagne Supernova" from 1995. The association with the song - containing allusions to drug culture - suggests that these fanciful images could also be interpreted as hallucinogenic (magic) mushrooms.
At the center is a giant mushroom with a monstrously beautiful, eyeball-covered cap and shard-like teeth. A horizontal band of smaller mushrooms spreads over its seven panels. The composition is inspired by the eighteenth-century artist Ito Jakuchu's Compendium of Vegetables and Insects (1761) that focuses on mushrooms - mushrooms have been long revered in Japan for their gastronomic qualities, diversity, and reference to longevity.
However, within the context of post-WWII Japan, the mushroom is also an ominous reminder of the mushroom-like cloud produced by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in 1945. The mushroom's mutant status evokes the horrific and lasting side-effects of nuclear radiation. Throughout Murakami's works, mushrooms are prominently featured. Their whimsical presentation of a glossy cheerfulness are a subtle critique to Japan's youth-obsessed culture in which both innocence and cuteness are prized. This manifests itself in this work through its bright colors and cartoonish forms.
Acrylic on canvas mounted on board - Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan
Intruding on the formal elegance of Grand Central Station in New York City, giant bubbles adorned with Murakami's signature eye-balls and flowers give the appearance of effortlessly floating around the large room like balloons, while two grounded sculptures appear to be rising up from the floor. This installation, presented by Creative Time, creates a paradoxical and ironic co-existence of the Japanese Neo-Pop and the formal elegance of the classical Beaux-Arts architecture of Grand Central Terminal. The sculptures cast a winking glance to the curious, amused, or busy passersby, inviting them into a lighthearted conversation. As Murakami's first public installation in the U.S., Wink ambitiously introduced Japanese Neo-Pop to the wider American audience. Murakami said of the cartoon eyes on the glowing orbs that: "when you look at these pictures, they look back at you."
The art critic Roberta Smith argues against this public project, suggesting that "it is compromised by its inappropriate setting, a vast former waiting room bereft of its wood benches, which feels all wrong for contemporary art." However, this strange cultural mash-up is precisely what Murakami intends. In his increasing desire to expose the interconnected worlds of fine art and commerce, this installation stems from Murakami's desire to appeal to a mass audience, as he states: "I have learned in Europe and America the way of the fine-art scene. Few people come to museums. Much bigger are the movie theaters. The museum, that space is kind of old-style media, like opera. That's why I am really interested in making merchandise for ordinary people."
Balloons - Grand Central Station, New York
Eye Love SUPERFLAT
In 2002, at the invitation of the designer Marc Jacobs, Murakami started his 13-year long collaboration with the fashion brand Louis Vuitton. One of Murakami's designs features the LV signature monogram in ninety-seven different colors with his own signature jellyfish eyes repeated on black or white backgrounds. Through this popular project, Murakami has successfully become a pioneer of promoting art as a commercial brand. This landmark collaboration also brought in over 300 million dollars for Louis Vuitton. While many art critics and collectors scoffed at his blatant commercialization, for the artist it is simply the business manifestation of his approach to art.
Choosing to work with Murakami, Marc Jacobs, who at the time was the head designer at Louis Vuitton, aimed to draw a new generation of Japanese youth into the arms of the luxury bag-maker. Murakami, on the other hand, believes that fashion can be a visual reflection of the era, arguing that "subcultures and specific incidents in various countries mix together to create the atmosphere of an era and that, in turn, begets fashion." This ambition of presenting our era conforms to his larger artistic goal - confronting and revealing the essence of the current Japanese society to the global audience.
Shortly following the launch of his line at Louis Vuitton, Murakami then re-appropriated the exact same images printed onto bags into paintings meant for prestigious art institutions and famed collectors, further blurring the distinction between art and commodity. In the 2007 "© Murakami" show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, a Louis Vuitton boutique was part of the exhibition, which, like the art critic Dave Hickey commented, "has turned the museum into an upscale Macy's."
Looked from another angle, the Louis Vuitton / Murakami collection creates another elitist world for the rich. As the art historian Kristen Sharp comments, "Murakami is playfully (and potentially cynically) immersed in the processes of late capitalism, in proposing that he is challenging the distinction of art, while at the same time exploiting and celebrating the processes of commodification and symbolic exchange that exist in the postmodern."
Acrylic on canvas mounted on board - Kaikai Kiki Co., Tokyo
Blue Flowers & Skulls
Death and youth collide in this work as smiling daisies and large-eyed skulls overwhelm the picture plane and chaotically blend together with the aid of the work's blue color scheme. The digitally composed flowers are reminiscent of the yellow "happy face" emoji, as well as computer graphics used in video games. The mash-up of cuteness and death are Murakami's way of both engaging with - and critiquing - the Japanese obsession with Kawaii (cuteness). Murakami states that "Kawaii culture has become a living entity that pervades everything. With a population heedless of the cost of embracing immaturity, the nation is in the throes of a dilemma: a preoccupation with anti-aging may conquer not only the human heart, but also the body." In this quote, Murakami reveals a darker engagement with these cheerful and juvenile flowers that takes its aim directly at contemporary society. The role of the skull throughout Western art history has functioned as a memento mori, or a reminder of one's own eventual death. This also coincides with the Japanese Buddhist conception of Shogyo mujo that roughly translates as "Everything is transient." Murakami interprets this saying as partially signifying that, in the end "everyone will die, so you shouldn't worry."
While this work looks incredibly contemporary in both style and content, the process of its creation through serialized production and the use of computer databases of vector drawings is directly connected to the copying culture in pre-modern Japan. To Western critics, this culture was considered as pejorative and lacking unique substance. However, when bijutsu (literally meaning "fine arts," a concept borrowed from the West during the Meiji period) was adopted in Japan, the copying culture was embraced and heralded as a legitimate art form. Murakami revives the traditional concepts of collaborative creativity, expression, and execution, manifesting a difference to the Western modernist notion of artist as singular genius, as noted by the art historian Kristen Sharp. This work is reflective of many of Murakami's paintings, installations, and sculptural projects in which smiling daisies and skulls repeat across his large oeuvre, and in his obsessive repetition of these motifs his darker and more subversive themes are expanded and re-contextualized over and over to the point of visual exhaustion. This is precisely what Murakami intends.
Acrylic on canvas mounted on board
The 500 Arhats
Grotesquely drawn old men, chains of smaller human figures, and depictions of the Chinese guardians of the four celestial directions - blue dragon (east), white tiger (west), red bird (south), and black tortoise (north) - overwhelm the viewer in this monumentally sized work that is over 320 feet long and 10 feet high.
These old men are arhats, which roughly translates as "one who is worthy," and refers to monks who have achieved enlightenment in Buddhism. These arhats, however, appear devious and almost evil as they loom larger-than-life over the viewer, casting dubious glances. The smaller figures at the base of the painting are those to whom the arhats want to reach - Buddhist followers. Murakami is just as merciless in their depiction as well, offering a troubling inversion of beauty and serenity that is ordinarily associated with the prized mental state of enlightenment. Their skeletal frames, hunched bodies, and red-rimmed eyes reveal Murakami's deep cynicism.
The title refers to the Japanese legend which states that 500 Buddhist monks led by a celebrated Chinese Buddhist priest helped spread Buddhism throughout Japan. Also important to this work is Murakami's fascination with the Heian period (794-1185 CE) in Japan, when the country was rocked with multiple earthquakes and tsunamis. As a response to these natural disasters, Buddhist monks created artworks that appealed to the grieved victims. These artworks depicted the same celestial guardians and arhats as are shown in this enormous piece. It is this tradition of making art for victims of natural disaster is one that Murakami furthers and re-contextualizes with this piece: the painting was conceived after 3/11, or the Japanese earthquake in 2011. The earthquake and resulting tsunami killed over 15,000 people in Japan, in addition to causing a level 7 meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. This forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents. Murakami initially sketched out his idea directly after 3/11, and handed it over first to a team of researchers, and then to his art assistants, who then made over 1,000 sketches of the work. It took over 200 people working 24/7 in shifts to complete. Murakami states, "I consider the hundred-meter painting an equivalent to those historical works. It's a consolatory painting and a way for me to understand my place in nature and in history."
It was first shown in Doha, out of gratitude to the nation of Qatar, who was one of the first countries to offer assistance after the Tsunami in 2011. Qatar also factored heavily into the style of the piece itself. Murakami notes that he was struck by the Sci-fi-like appearance of Doha, a dazzlingly city in the middle of a desert. This piece also marks a shift from Murakami's previous aims at presenting Japanese culture to a primarily Western audience. He states, "it was very difficult to relate this exhibition to the usual Western art audience. Instead I was trying to understand what the Qatari audience would be interested in seeing. So I started to fantasize about a crossover between Western culture, the Middle East, and Asia. And I wanted to compete with this sci-fi city that is outside the museum. That's why I thought of the exhibition as a gigantic amusement park." This work represents a milestone in Murakami's career, exploring topics of religion, mortality and the limitations of humans in the face of natural disaster.
Acrylic on canvas, mounted on board - Private collection