Takashi Murakami is a prolific contemporary Japanese artist who works in both fine arts media, such as painting, as well as digital and commercial media. He attempts to blur the boundaries between high and low art. He appropriates popular themes from mass media and pop culture, then turns them into thirty-foot sculptures, “Superflat” paintings, or marketable commercial goods such as figurines or phone caddies.
Murakami attended the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, initially studying more traditionalist Japanese art. He pursued a doctorate in Nihonga, a mixture of Western and Eastern styles dating back to the late 19th century. However, due to the mass popularity of anime and manga, Japanese styles of animation and comic graphic stories, Murakami became disillusioned with Nihonga, and became fixated on otaku culture, which he felt was more representative of modern day Japanese life.
This resulted in Superflat, the style that Murakami is credited with starting. It developed from Poku, (Pop + otaku). Murakami has written that he aims to represent Poku culture because he expects that animation and otaku might create a new culture. This new culture being a rejuvenation of the contemporary Japanese art scene. This is what it is all about to Murakami; he has expressed in several interviews in the last five or six years the frustration that his art has risen from. It is a frustration rooted in the lack of a reliable and sustainable art market in post-war Japan, and the general view of Japanese art in and outside the country as having a low art status. He is quoted as saying that the market is nothing but “a shallow appropriation of Western trends”. His first reaction was to make art in non-fine arts media, but decided instead to focus on the market sustainability of art and promote himself first overseas. This marks the birth of KaiKai Kiki, LLC.
KaiKai Kiki LLC
In 1996, Murakami founded the “Hiropon factory,” a studio with assistants to produce his work. With success, the Hiropon factory gradually grew into a fully professionalized art production studio and also an artist management organization. In 2001, Murakami registered his organization as Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. Today it employs over 100 people, with operations in both the US (in Brooklyn, New York) and Japan. Kaikai Kiki puts on an art fair twice a year, GEISAI.
Murakami formulates ideas and actively supervises the production of work, but he does not directly paint or sculpt the finished works. In addition to producing art works for exhibition in galleries and museums, KaiKai Kiki is responsible for the design of an enormous range of mass-produced products featuring Murakami’s signature images: vinyl figurines, plush toys, keychains, t-shirts, posters, and more.
Kaikai Kiki also functions as an artist management organization and has seen remarkable success in creating a domestic and international market for new Japanese art. Many of Murakami’s assistants are also artists who are exhibiting their work internationally.
Murakami and Kaikai Kiki have organized a biannual art fair in Tokyo, “GEISAI”, which allows young artists to exhibit their work for a fee. Murakami said that GEISAI 10, held in September 2006, was a success in exposing young artists to the national and international art scene, but he regretted that Japanese Pop Art was completely ignored by the Japanese art establishment and by museums. Scenes from the fair and an interview with Murakami were featured in Series 3, Episode 3 of the BBC series Japanorama.
Murakami’s style, called Superflat, is characterized by flat planes of color and graphic images involving a character style derived from anime and manga. Superflat is an artistic style that comments on otaku lifestyle and subculture, as well as consumerism and sexual fetishism.
Like Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami takes low culture and repackages it, and sells it to the highest bidder in the “high-art” market. Unlike Warhol, Murakami also makes his repacked low culture available to all other markets in the form of paintings, sculptures, videos, T-shirts, key chains, mouse pads, plush dolls, cell phone caddies, and $5,000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton handbags. This is a comparable idea to Claes Oldenburg, who sold his own low art, high art pieces in his own store front in the 1960’s, but what makes Murakami different is his methods of production, and his work is not in one store front, but many ranging from toy stores, candy aisles, comic book stores, and the French design powerhouse of Louis Vuitton. Murakami’s style is an amalgam of his Western predecessors, Warhol, Oldenberg and Roy Lichtenstein as well as his Japanese predecessors and contemporaries of anime and manga. He has successfully marketed himself to Western culture and to Japan in the form of Kaikai Kiki and GEISAI.
Smooth Nightmare is an excellent example of a popular Murakami painting. The Superflat style is really obvious here. In this painting, there is one of Murakami’s reoccurring themes, the mushroom. The mushroom repetition is a good example of Murakami’s work’s connection with themes of the underground and alternative cultures. Murakami’s work is quoted as being among some of the most desired work in the world by ArtNews in November 2003. Chicago collector, Stefan Edis reportedly paid a record $567,500 for Murakami’s 1996 Miss ko2 , a life-size fiberglass cartoon figure, at Christie’s last May. Christie’s owner, Francois Pinault, reportedly paid around $1.5 million in June to acquire Tongarikun (2003), a 30-foot tall fiberglass sculpture, and four accompanying fiberglass mushroom figures, that were part of an installation at Rockefeller Center. (via)