Among the most prolific artists working today – producing million-dollar paintings alongside prints and merchandise –Takashi Murakami marries Japan’s history with contemporary pop culture and is known for his aesthetic universe populated by adorable-but-disturbing and ever-morphing cult characters, a hyper-saturated palette and painstaking attention to detail. If his art exhibition at Gagosian Le Bourget on the outskirts of Paris, on view through 22 December 2023, is entitled Understanding the New Cognitive Domain, it’s because he hopes to trigger a cognitive revolution in viewers’ minds, enabling them to expand their vision.
For him, what truly matters is whether or not his work offers a whole new cognitive field within art history. “Pop art, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the early ’70s, people hated that because it was too easy and they could not believe that was art,” he states. “But after 30 years, people recognised that as art, as they eventually understood the concept. My iconography is cuteness or contemporary Japanese manga culture, and I hope that, step by step, before I die, people will understand my Superflat concept. That is my one of the goals.”
Hanging on the gallery walls are a magnificent 5 x 23-metre canvas based on a stage curtain Murakami produced for a kabuki theatre in Tokyo – his second largest artwork ever after The 500 Arhats – and two oversized paintings of his trademark smiling rainbow daisies. They eliminate the boundary separating fine art and pop culture, a defining feature of his Superflat creations proposed as ultra-smooth, two-dimensional flattened compositions, while using classical Japanese painting techniques to arrive at the result (Murakami holds a PhD in nihonga).
Alternating between digital and physical production, he converted his Lucky Cat Coin Banks from NFTs into actual paintings and brought to life two futuristic anime-style avatars originally imagined for his Clone X NFTs collaboration with RTFKT Studios as life-size mirror-plated statues and painted portraits. Believing that NFTs, the gaming metaverse and the crypto space are a new cognitive domain that will be recognised in the near future, he finds parallels with his time spent in New York in the 1990s when he failed to understand Minimalist art, but after years researching it, the revelation was mind-blowing and compelled him to reevaluate his existing values. “My encounter with Minimal art completely opened my eyes,” he recalls. “At first, I couldn’t understand it, but art professionals said this was important art, and it changed art history, so I observed it for three years and then my brain understood it.”
Among Murakami’s recent works is a frieze-like painting depicting the leading figures of finance – from the Sumerians who invented the concept of currency to Karl Marx and Elon Musk – which appropriates Mike Kelley’s Pay for Your Pleasure banners portraying great artists and writers accompanied by quotes about the transgressive nature of creative genius, shown alongside a self-portrait by an incarcerated serial killer.
“It really plays with the value of great cultural figures and talks about the concept of criminality and artistic creativity, where there’s a thin line between those two things, whether an artist is above the law, and then a painting created by an actual criminal,” he explains. “I thought it would be very suitable for the critique I was trying to make because the topic of money is still really shunned in the art world. It’s almost like water and oil, even though money is involved so much in art.”
In 2002, Murakami reinterpreted Louis Vuitton’s signature monogram at the invitation of Marc Jacobs, kicking off a years-long collaboration with the brand and emphasising his long-standing goal to merge (or “flatten”) the distinction between high and low culture. While critics have panned him for his art-as-commerce approach, that is precisely part of his ingenuity. The easy availability of his t-shirts, posters, mugs, pillows or other trinkets allowing anyone to own a Murakami work rejects the notion of elitism in the art world, while at the same time, collectors are willing to shell out millions of dollars for his monumental paintings. For some, their passion for all things Murakami started with buying key chains or soft toys of his works to help them understand what they loved before progressing on to his paintings as they acquired greater spending power.
The fact is: anyone can be a collector of Murakami. On the opening day of Understanding the New Cognitive Domain, he gave away one of his NFT artworks for free to visitors who showed up in person. The Flower Jet Coin depicting a pixellated smiling flower was minted on the spot, Murakami having developed a fascination with the metaverse during the Covid-19 pandemic while watching his children play Animal Crossing.
“It could be a gift in the form of a digital token to bring people into my world and make them feel closer to my work in general,” he concludes. “It’s really important to me that people can experience my world and see into my work, not only through my paintings and sculptures, but above all through other forms, so that the public can have an experience. The NFT gift participates in the deepening of the knowledge of my work. It’s a deepening of an advanced understanding of my work.”
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