Murakami: That Obscure Object of Desire

by Lucy Cantwell , Summer 2011

As a world famous artist who works partly by mimicking the commercialism he sees around us, collaborations by Takashi Murakami can be expected. It was after all his work with Louis Vuitton in 2003 that set him on the international stage, suddenly appealing to those who didn’t even know his name. In the past several years however, he has taken this engagement much further. Murakami worked with Kanye West on the album cover for his 2008 CD Graduation, the estate of Versailles by installing twenty-two of his sculptures in fifteen of the palace rooms in September 2010, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade by including two balloons of his creations Kaikai and Kiki in 2010 and Google by designing their home page logo for the solstices on June 21, 2011. The sheer reach of these collaborations seems a threat to Murakami’s brand as a fine artist, approved by the art world—and yet despite the incredible range of his output, Murakami has remained a favorite, with auction prices reaching far into the millions. While his affinity for the dominant appeal of commercialism is generally taken for granted in reception of his work, our interest is in exploring how exactly this commercialism operates: how it is that he can team with so many global companies and maintain a cohesive artistic brand.

Murakami was trained as a nihonga painter, a style that emerged after the opening of Japanese borders in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and this is evident in his work. Nihonga was created to deal with the domination of Japanese painting by Western conventions; a backlash to yoga painting that wholeheartedly adopted these conventions as the future of all painting, Japanese included. Nihonga painting maintained Japanese visual style and subject matter, but was informed by certain Western conventions, such as shading and narrative constructions. This is interesting in the context of Murakami’s art as he integrates the dominant globalized obsession with consumption into an undeniably Japanese world of animemanga and other character-based work. When Murakami describes that he wants his Mr. DOB character to be like Mickey Mouse, he chooses that example because of its ubiquity, but in reality Mr. DOB has more affinity with the millions of Japanese advertising characters that ALL want to be like Mickey Mouse. Murakami tackles the worlds of American marketing and Japanese culture, and manages to show the feedback loop that connects one to another.

In a discussion centered on Murakami’s commercialism, it is first necessary to examine those that he chooses to work with. They are each representative of different aspects of a modern, that is to say globalized, life: fashion, music, tourism, Americana and information. These five were either at the top of their respective games at the time of collaboration or beyond such fluctuations in taste (Versailles is a pretty steady sell). Murakami’s collaborations then are interesting in no small part for who he was able to collaborate with, or the skill with which he curated his relationships.

The way these collaborations operate is of interest as well. In part because of the incredible dominance in their respective markets, the marks of his collaborators initially overshadow Murakami’s contribution. His bags for Louis Vuitton employ the same visual language of logo and bag shape as all their other bags, so they are understood initially as Louis Vuitton bags by Louis Vuitton customers. And while Murakami’s mark might be similarly recognized by his fans on these bags with the bright colors and eye spots, their appeal remains bounded by the Louis Vuitton logo, store and product line. In actuality, most people likely bought this bag with no knowledge of Murakami’s role, place within the art world or his relationship to Louis Vuitton at all—they consumed Louis Vuitton first and Murakami as an invisible add-on. This is compounded when one considers the rampant counterfeit bags sold with the same designs; even further from his name, consumed by less discerning customers. What is noteworthy is that this pattern of Murakami’s easily overlooked contribution is repeated with all other collaborations as well.

The cover that Murakami did for Kanye West’s 2008 album Graduation is certainly a secondary consideration for a potential consumer. As naturally exclusive goods, the audio remains the primary product and the cover art a secondary after- (if ever) thought. Despite the name recognition of both Murakami and West, and the precedent of other visual artists designing album covers for aesthetically aligned musicians, Murakami cannot be considered a selling point for this CD. You consume something else and end up with a little piece of Murakami.

Versailles similarly remains the point of interest and Murakami the interloper. Although the installations of twenty-two sculptures was marketed as the first retrospective of his work in France, the exaggerations of both artist and site meld in such a way that Versailles appears to be simply updating to include the excesses of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, along with the seventeenth. Murakami here is a decorator, not a guest. The largely negative reviews of that collaboration pick up on this without quite articulating it, because neither Versailles nor Murakami can be independently appreciated, and both fail when compared to the other for what they necessarily lack. Versailles has a grandeur and authority that trumps Murakami’s emblems of contemporary Japan, while he provides an accessible and recognizable access to modernity that tours of any historical site like Versailles so often miss. In any case, Versailles remains the dominating pull and Murakami a somewhat confusing diversion.

The balloons of Kaikai and Kiki included in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade work in the same way, although more successfully. Trading on the appeal of this hallmark of Americana, Murakami gets to use Kaikai and Kiki the way they were intended to operate. Like Mr. DOB, these characters were designed to have market impact and household name iconicity, and now they are blown-up exactly like Mickey Mouse. Despite this connection finally realized, the parade remains a much larger draw, and the inflatable sculptures only a passing amusement, soon succeeded by the next float.

His doodled contribution to Google’s homepage on June 21, 2011 is yet another example of the same sublimation of his work into a larger whole. Even if you did visit Google on that day expressly to look at the drawing, there is no way to capture or quantify that experience, and most people necessarily passed it by, in favor of the information they came looking for.

Although these collaborations worked with varying degrees of success, there remains the common thread that the consumption of Murakami’s work remains secondary to the consumption of the dominant structure to which it is attached. The success and appeal and marketability of these collaborations depend upon the continued consumption of the goods of his collaborators, rather than on his good name. His interest in this manner of working is in the access to consumption that his partners afford him: consumption of fashion, of music, of French culture, of American-ness, of information. The bright colors and accessible characters make a spectacle out of this consumption, because in terms of the goods being consumed, he offers very little else.

Murakami takes the world around him and makes objects that are called art to reflect it. He does not mimic the world around him because model-makers design his life-size models like Hiropon and My Lonesome Cowboy and his paintings are produced by painters at a factory—lower-case—that took the artist’s factory past the celebrity-centric world of Andy Warhol and back into the regimented realm of market capitalism. It is easy to read a duplicity, an awareness into Murakami’s work, and an awareness he does have. But it is not a critical awareness, insofar as Murakami is not critiquing the world. The chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, Paul Schimmel claimed that Murakami was performing “institutional critique” by installing a working Louis Vuitton boutique in the museum during his 2008 retrospective, but this is not the whole picture. No doubt it felt like a violation of the institution, from the point of view of someone within that system. Instead, however, because Murakami’s creations expand normally constrained boundaries by providing such a detailed mirror to the system, it makes sense to include a boutique that sells a different form of his work in a retrospective of his work. MOCA is not being critiqued or challenged, except as the only avenue through which one might consume an object created in part by Murakami.

Ultimately, it would seem that Murakami’s appeal does not come from his innovation. He creates out of the world available to him. Sometimes that means exaggerating tropes of sexuality from anime and manga, and sometimes that means exaggerating his own interest in selling artwork by selling it to cultural cornerstones of France or America (not coincidentally, dominant forces in the definition of the avant-garde), to Louis Vuitton, to Kanye West and to Google. His art-of-selling-out comes now that he has the international stature to do so; when his reputation was smaller he explored the world around him by selling T-shirts, patches, dolls, stickers and other kitschy standbys found on any touristy corner. The thrust of his work is not a critique but a celebration of elements as disparate as modern Japanese geek culture, international art-world status and consumerism, extending and amplifying trends and patterns and things that interest the artist himself. These are personal obsessions on a large scale.