For years, the Japanese Superflat movement – one of the most fascinating artistic phenomena of the past decades – has been mocking the traditional (from our perspective!) Western distinction between high and low art. Stubborn like a delighted child, it keeps evading all the familiar, tamed forms.
At the beginning of the third millennium, the Cool Japan trend was in full bloom. Its crowning jewel turned out to be a new direction in Japanese art. Its main creator, Takashi Murakami, called it Superflat.
Takashi Murakami’s name has become almost synonymous with Japanese modern art. The extremely smooth and glossy surfaces of his paintings and sculptures daze with a riot of neon hues, while the characters he creates seem to breathe colour. It’s a psychedelic world straight out of manga and anime – on steroids. One would be hard-pressed to find a more Japanese phenomenon that enjoys global recognition on a similar scale.
It all gained pace with the collective exhibition Superflat, assembled by Murakami in 2000, first presented at Parco Gallery in Nagoya and Tokyo. In January 2001, Murakami brought Superflat to the MOCA Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, and after that, to Minneapolis and Seattle. Over 100,000 people saw the exhibition in Los Angeles alone.
Naturally, Murakami’s works were the tone-setting pieces in the exhibition. From the very beginning, the artist was determined to present Superflat as an artistic direction, taking a route similar to that chosen by the creators of various avant-garde ‘isms’. As the exhibition curator, Murakami invited many artists he discovered himself to take part in his project. As a result, it included video works by Koji Morimoto, as well as pieces made by fashion designers from the 20471120 Collective. Another artist Murakami got to agree to participate was Yoshitomo Nara, known for his paintings featuring images of children with disproportionally large heads.
The new Japanese art was expected to be smooth, often glossy, and perfectly executed. Paintings and sculptures lured the viewers in with the richness of their worlds and characters, as if straight from manga and anime productions. The word flat referred to the centuries-old traditional Japanese aesthetic, operating in two dimensions rather than three, defined by a lack of perspective and depth, as well as by its bold contours and flat splotches of colour. The suffix super- brought to mind the post-war Japanese subcultures, as well as the fascination with anime and manga that many Japanese people never grow out of. Superflat also turned out to be the kind of art that soon became subject to mass production. For this reason, it was almost immediately hailed the new face of pop art, while Murakami became the new Andy Warhol.
Against all appearances, popular culture is not the only inspiration for this movement. In Superflat, high and low art fuse together; modernity meets antiquity; Western tradition meets Japanese heritage; colourful mass culture meets legends, Buddhism, and other traditional Japanese beliefs.
Murakami laid the intellectual foundation of the entire Superflat movement, but it was Yoshitomo Nara who infused it with emotion. While Murakami’s works are there to be studied, if not deciphered, Nara’s pieces can simply be experienced. His world is populated by children with exaggerated heads who – unlike Murakami’s cartoon characters – are filled with melancholia. In their wide-open eyes, we can see loneliness and, sometimes, defiance.
In 2004, Kitty Hauser wrote in Artforum that almost everyone can find something appealing in Superflat: enthusiasts of Japanese pop-exotica and, paradoxically, fans of traditional Japanese art are drawn to it alike. Art curators often juxtapose Murakami’s works with traditional Edo paintings and Hayao Miyazaki films; cultural critics examine the meanings of kawaii (meaning all things bizarre and simultaneously cute), while manga and anime fans, also known as otaku, enjoy spotting references to their favourite artists, games, films and characters. Superflat – a marriage of contemporary anime with ukiyo-e woodblock prints feels just at home in the museum hall as it does in the museum gift shop. After all, before becoming a pop-art superstar, Murakami got a PhD in traditional Nihonga painting.
The international success of the phenomenon known as Cool Japan was sealed by two more exhibitions, also curated by Murakami: the 2002 Coloriage exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, and Little Boy, presented in New York in 2005. Some say this allowed Murakami to monopolize the image of contemporary Japanese art by perfectly responding to the trends expressed by the growing international popularity of Studio Ghibli productions (especially Spirited Away) on the one hand, and such movies as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation on the other. In the early 2000s, it felt like Murakami was literally everywhere.
Today, even the Japanese classics are walking the path paved by Superflat. Keiichi Tanaami, known for his 1960s work with the American pop-art and psychedelic culture (he designed the Jefferson Airplane album covers), has recently been going for the distinctive smooth and shiny ‘flatness’ in his new paintings and sculptures.
Superflat surely attracted many followers also due to its financial success. When the economic crisis raged in Japan, the new artistic trend was expected to become an export good. To this day, Murakami is more popular abroad than he is in his own country, where he is known mostly for his depictions of adorable laughing cartoon flowers. From the very start, his works did well at international auctions, reaching one record price after another. And yet it was not enough for Murakami. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the artist revealed that he wanted to achieve as much as Walt Disney, but with a pinch of Duchamp’s humour and Warhol’s devilishness, and on top of that to create a business that could not be copied, as Steve Jobs did before him. Murakami said he also finds inspiration in the life stories of Bill Gates, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.
To make those dreams come true, he took advantage of the Superflat exhibitions’ success and set up a company he called Kaikai Kiki where he hired managers, experts, and tens of assistants. Murakami, the Superflat movement guru, is not only an artist and theorist, but also a born businessman, and Kaikai Kiki Co. was created, as he openly admits, to meet the needs and challenges of the mass market.
This is why the word flat carries a double meaning. It refers to the two-dimensional Japanese aesthetic (in traditional techniques and the newest technologies alike) on the one hand, and to the shallow nature of consumption culture on the other. Murakami seems to be celebrating consumerism (museum gift shops were never such an important fixture in galleries as they are now) while simultaneously exploiting it critically. If Andy Warhol considered business to be art, then Superflat brought us an ultimate blurring of the lines between high and commercial art. Murakami doesn’t seem to be concerned about whether a certain motif appears in painting, sculpture, graphic design, clothing or gadgets, often considered collectables. The artist offers a range of products that can appeal to customers from all consumer levels and are affordable for almost anyone. The wealthiest can purchase paintings and sculptures worth millions of dollars, those a bit less affluent might be interested in collectable toys worth several thousand each, and the rest get to buy clothes from the Japanese fashion chain Uniqlo.
That is precisely what differentiates Murakami from Warhol. The American drew inspiration from popular culture very liberally, especially from the areas of advertising, mass production and the tabloid press, but the works he created belonged to high culture. Meanwhile, Murakami is mixing and fusing various elements of high and popular culture in every possible way. He is just as passionate about creating paintings as he is key chains. It is the egalitarian approach that made Superflat so successful. Warhol’s studio was only a Factory by name – a place abuzz with never-ending parties and excess – while Kaikai Kiki is a professional, Ford-like production machine.
Kaikai Kiki also serves as a private gallery for other representatives of the Superflat movement. It involves, among many others, Mr., who paints video-game and manga girls, Choho Aoshima, a creator of surrealistic, dreamlike landscapes, and such artists as Chinatsu Ban and Aya Takano. On Instagram, Murakami discovered graffiti artist Madsaki, now one of the most sought-after street artists in the business, and recently, a young painter known as ‘ob’, born in 1992 who, like many Japanese teens, is fascinated with melancholic, big-eyed manga girls.
Since the very beginning of his career, Murakami has been eager to collaborate with famous brands and fashion designers, such as Issey Miyake. When contacted by Marc Jacobs, the artist wasn’t even sure who the man with an unassuming name was, but he did notice his co-workers’ excitement. That’s how the famous multi-coloured Lous Vuitton handbag was created. But his proper gateway to American pop culture were music stars. Murakami designed album cover art for Kanye West and directed an animated music video in which Kanye was depicted as a cartoon bear. Together with Pharrell Williams, he created a sculpture for Art Basel. Recently, Murakami made friends with Billie Eilish. Despite the 40-year age difference, they seem to be on the same page artistically – together, they designed a special collection for Uniqlo. Earlier, Murakami directed an animated music video for her song “You Should See Me In a Crown”. Billie Eilish fans can also purchase a collectable toy figure of the singer in her cartoon form – with lilac hair, trademark loose clothing and a pouting face, as if she was a manga character. Yet further proof that the Cool Japan magic is still there.
There would be no Murakami and Superflat if not for the subculture of otaku – superfans obsessed with manga and anime, whose fixation on this topic balances on the verge of madness. In Japan, the word otaku first gained negative connotations in the late 1980s, when the scale of the problem became clear – a whole generation of lonely teenagers was escaping reality into fantasy worlds populated by monsters, modern-day incarnations of yokai and yurei, robots, and salacious schoolgirls. Detached from reality, otaku soon gained a reputation as nihilists and escapists.
Murakami himself brought to life a whole menagerie of pop-art characters. His world is home to Mr. DOB, not unlike Mickey Mouse (but Japanese to the core), the nymphet Miss Ko2 (a sexy waitress with long legs and voluptuous breasts), as well as adorable panda bears, smiling flowers and, in recent years, cartoon octopuses. Murakami also likes to refer to characters created by other artists, such as Japanese fan-favourite Doraemon, a robot cat from Fujiko Fujio’s manga.
The artist admits he is an otaku himself. Sometimes, he becomes one of the characters in his paintings or lends his face to the Buddha sitting in a lotus position in a giant sculptural self-portrait. For public appearances and photographs, he often poses in outfits borrowed from his characters.
In the crowd of Superflat characters, girls have always had a special place: be it shy yet sex-dripping nymphets, or formidable rebels. In the times of Cool Japan, Western audiences perceived Japanese modern art through the filter of kawaii young women: schoolgirls, waitresses, superheroes. It’s not hard to notice that those very teenage characters are created mostly by middle-aged men, a phenomenon reflecting the otaku culture, viewed by its critics as consisting of ageing, helpless losers (sometimes also called dame) who spend their days and nights pining for unattainable idols (idoru) – the objects of their desire might be timid or dangerous, but they’ll always be young and attractive.
Even if the catalogue texts in the early Superflat exhibitions focused on the parallels between modern and traditional art, the collections drew attention to the perverse side of Japanese art, filled with the fantasy girls of manga-obsessed men. At the same time, the exhibitions assembled by Murakami made room for the female artists he promoted, such as Aya Takano and Chiho Aoshima. Interestingly, their works were also filled with the kawaii iconography typical of teenage girls – and often overlapped with dame fantasies.
Murakami is unafraid of controversial topics, especially since they draw attention from the media. His most famous sculpture, My Lonesome Cowboy from 1998, depicts a naked, masturbating young man holding his erect penis in one hand, looking like it came straight out of the pages of an erotic manga. He’s shooting a thick gush of sperm that forms a lasso over his head. It’s not an accident that the title of this piece refers to one of Andy Warhol’s most famous films. The Cowboy was paired with another sculpture by Murakami – Hiropon – depicting a woman whose enormous breasts are exploding with milk. Both figures could be interpreted as an expression of fascination with manga and anime culture, and as a satire mocking its childish sexual obsessions.
According to Murakami, this particular kind of childishness was induced by Japan’s loss in World War II, which led to the country’s dependence on the United States and American culture, combined with a suppressed feeling of guilt. The saccharine sentimentalism of many Superflat works is therefore rooted in unresolved trauma expressed by, among other phenomena, the otaku culture.
After the 2011 earthquake – known as Tōhoku in Japan – that led to the tragic tsunami, Murakami felt so helpless and hopeless that he decided to research artistic reactions to natural disasters, such as the 1855 Ansei earthquake. After the cataclysm, painter Kanō Kazunobu portrayed 500 arhats, the Buddhist spiritual protectors. In Japanese history, says Murakami, art, religion and catastrophes were always intertwined. Inspired by Kazunobu, he created a colossal installation that included a monumental replica of the sacred sanmon gate, featuring his own characters, such as Mr. DOB, together with the traditional guardian lions often encountered at the entrances of Buddhist temples. As if the catastrophe gave life to a new system of belief, merging the old myths with the artist’s own syncretic spirituality. The piece, titled 500 Arhats, is 100-metres long.
Large-format works with visible references to traditional Japanese art, such as the paintings of Soga Shōhaku, are without any doubt among Murakami’s most important works. They feature phoenixes made of old silk kimonos, and compositions picked up from traditional painting and ceramics – one of his most recent pieces, titled Qinghua, was created by enlarging the fish motive from an antique Chinese vase from the Ming dynasty.
Exit through the gift shop
Many art critics are still bothered by the mercantile side of the Superflat movement. Murakami claims the production was born as an artistic-conceptual project that simply kept on growing, pushed forward by growing demand. However, many of the artists’ endeavours seem to be powered exclusively by their interest in commercial success. It’s hard to draw a line that differentiates those two perspectives. Everything begins and ends in the gift shop, and the world of art (in both world-class museums and private galleries) doesn’t seem to notice any difference, anyway.
American artist Brian Donnelly, also known as KAWS, started out as a street artist in Jersey City. Today, just like Murakami and other Superflat artists, he’s creating his own characters whom he replicates in all possible media, including sculptures so large that they make even the largest museum halls burst at the seams. His exhibitions attract visitors like a magnet, and many guests leave with smaller models of his sculptures (still sold for upwards of $1000). Naturally, KAWS also works with famous brands, ranging from Dior to Uniqlo, and he designed the new MTV Video Music Awards trophy. By opposing the elitist museum structures, he democratizes his art.
On the surface, KAWS and Murakami seem to have a lot in common – they are both known for their casual approach to the meeting point of art and commerce, as well as their manga- and anime-inspired aesthetic. However, while Murakami’s works are based on his anthropological studies of Japanese art history and otaku culture, KAWS lacks the intellectual foundation.
If the success of KAWS can teach us anything, it is to refrain from treating the art of Murakami, Nara, or ‘ob’ too two-dimensionally. The Japanese do reject the typically Western division between high and popular art, but there isn’t much of a pop nihilism about it. Their art needs to be examined in-depth, despite its declarations of flatness, from the perspective of centuries-old traditions and the complex culture of their homeland. The gift shop is just the cherry on top.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
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