A Sociologist's Guided Tour of © MURAKAMI
The exhibition © MURAKAMI, which started in Los Angeles and will be at at the Brooklyn Museum of Art until July 13, gives Americans a fresh opportunity to indulge their passion for Takashi Murakami. As befits the artist who is often referred to as the Japanese Andy Warhol, opening night in Brooklyn drew hoards of celebrities, including the fashion designer Marc Jacobs, with whom Murakami has famously collaborated on a series of Louis Vuitton handbags. And for the past several months, thousands of people have been flocking to this major retrospective, which displays more than 90 works in various media that span the artist's entire career, in over 18,500 feet of gallery space.
Yet it is not immediately obvious why Murakami has become such a sensation outside of his native Japan. Even Murakami seems surprised at his own success—flaunting the fact that he is giving Westerners the Japan that they can cope with, one that seems cute and infantile, rather than the real Japan. By the same token, though, Murakami allows quite a bit of his Japaneseness to seep through his art—his obsession with Japan's otaku culture, the pervasive influence of traditional Nihonga. Such nuances are beyond the ken of the Western art-viewing public.
UCLA sociologist Adrian Favell is not a traditional Japan scholar but he has been studying the Murakami phenomenon with the help of an Abe Fellowship. One of the major fellowships administered by the SSRC, with funding from the Japan Foundation's Center for Global Partnership, the Abe Program encourages scholars who lack area studies expertise to study Japan from within a comparative or global framework. Accordingly, Favell spent last year in Japan talking to artists and others who have contributed to the flourishing of "Cool Japan" in Los Angeles and other major cities in the United States and Europe. He often gives public talks on this topic, including one last December at the Japan Foundation's headquarters, and is currently working on a book.
Highlights from our recent interview with Favell follow.
SSRC.org: Before we talk about Takashi Murakami, can you tell us something about your intellectual trajectory? Until you got to UCLA, most of your research was about migrants and minorities in Europe. Why the switch?
ADRIAN FAVELL: Actually, the move from studying
forms of migration and mobility in European and global contexts to
studying the Japanese art world was not as big a leap as it looks.
International mobility has played a big part in the career of nearly
all well-known Japanese contemporary artists, and I am especially
interested in the dynamics of international creative cities through
which these artists and creators pass.
But the real reason I have shifted to studying the Asia Pacific was a result of living in Los Angeles. The Asian influence there is impossible to avoid, and I was particularly fascinated by Japanese LA. I also wanted consciously to expand my range after so many years focusing only on European topics.
I got started on this subject initially after seeing Superflat, the breakthrough international show of Japanese art curated by Takashi Murakami. This opened in LA in early 2001, just as I was arriving at UCLA. It was the first time a lot of people saw this new wave of Japanese pop art, and after a few years, I was able to develop my ideas into a full academic project, for which I received the Abe funding.
You're not a traditional Japan scholar. Did you find the field intimidating at first?
As a non-specialist Japan scholar I was—still am—acutely aware of my limitations in terms of language and culture. On the other hand, by taking an interdisciplinary and global approach to the study of Japanese society, I can contextualize my observations within a broader framework. I have lived and worked in many different countries, and I quickly felt at home in Japan.
How did you relate your study of Japanese artists to your studies of migration?
The young Japanese who go to the United States or Europe for a few years are clearly transnational migrants. They enjoy a temporary and circular mobility. In the past, many felt so despondent about their opportunities to do creative or individualistic work in Japan that they settled in the West. Now I feel more of these young movers are returning and having a positive effect in the internal globalizing of Japan. By the same token, these individuals are helping to spread the influence of Japan offshore, as part of their mobile life and career choices.
Tell us more about LA's ties with Japan.
In general, America's West Coast is more oriented towards Asia; the presence of Europe is much less felt. The demographics tell the story. Now, around half of undergraduates at UCLA and Berkeley are Asian. Asian Americans are the fastest growing segment of Californian population, and on average they are younger and more socially mobile than any other group. Nearly all the breakthrough Asian pop culture in the United States has been as a result of young (second and third generation) Asian Americans building businesses around the rediscovery of their Asian connections.
In LA, the mix of Japanese Americans—including descendants of Japanese who came over a hundred years ago, corporate types who came over in the 1980s, and younger, free moving international sojourners from today's Japan—is unique, making it very much like an offshore Japan. LA of course enjoys a big geographical advantage as the major port for the Pacific in the United States—so many things come in through there.
New York has a fairly large Japanese expatriate population. Is it, too, a breeding ground for Japanese "cool" culture?
New York is important, too, as a gateway. It's particularly popular with the young "freeter" movers, who see it as a global hub, and New York-based organizations like the Japan Society have been important in promoting new culture from Japan. But the Japanese "cool" culture you see on the East Coast is a bit more Westernized and hybrid.
This transnational migration that you talk about between
Japan and the West: is it only one way? Or do young Westerners, too,
flock to Tokyo and use it as a launching pad for creative endeavors?
More and more, it's becoming both ways. While the number of foreigners in Japan still isn't very high compared to the numbers of Japanese here, a surprising number are working in the contemporary Japanese art world as curators or writers. A good example is the group who founded the alternative 101Tokyo art fair, an attempt to internationalize the rather insular Tokyo scene, and bring new international galleries to Japan. The director of this event was an American, Agatha Wara.
Another interesting example are "gaijin" bloggers who write about culture, art or design. The Canadian Jean Snow and American W. David Marx do terrific work as commentators on what is going on in Tokyo. As foreigners they have an edge and insight into the scene that gives them a unique voice.
Now let's turn to Murakami. You saw © MURAKAMI when it debuted in LA and have studied the artist's career extensively. Is he as big in Japan as he is in the West?
Murakami is, of course, famous in Japan, but he is an international phenomenon first and foremost, and still operates as an outsider, shuttling back and forth to the United States from his Tokyo base. Essentially, he is packaging work that came out of the 1990s for an international audience that is only now catching up with the extraordinary creative boom in Tokyo in the post-bubble period. The West simply ignored Japan for more than five years after the nation's financial collapse, but it was during that time that a whole new generation of creators, curators, and gallerists emerged, all of whom nurtured, and were nurtured by, a vibrant new art scene.
You often make the point that there are interesting artists
in Japan who don't get the same attention as Murakami. How do you rank
his work compared to theirs? Do you think they are more deserving?
Murakami’s work is important, but in 2008 seems a little dated. His pop art influences are fairly self evident. Jeff Koons was the key inspiration when he came to New York in the late 1990s. The idea of using sexually shocking images to grab attention also adopted the methods of the notorious YBAs ("Young British Artists") of the 1990s.
As for Murakami's artistic concepts, these are a fairly straight reworking of his hero, Andy Warhol: art as mass production. Murakami presents his ideas as radical and revolutionary, but his commercialism can also look very complacent. Yoshitomo Nara—the other big name Japanese pop artist of the 1990s—has, I think, been even more successful in this respect, with his ubiquitous toys, books, cards and tee shirts. And, unlike Murakami, he has kept his independent "punk rock" image intact.
Moreover, Murakami's kind of art—extravagant, artificial, mass produced, what might be called his "plastic world"—is, I think, increasingly out of touch with the much more fragile, environmentally conscious, global era we are now moving into. Younger artists in Japan admire Murakami as an entrepreneur but have no interest in his themes or styles. They are moving towards art that is more sustainable and economical, using everyday objects and natural materials, and that reinvents ideas of craft and renovation.
To some extent, the initial interest in Japan that occurred in the early 2000s, around the time of Superflat, the opening of the Yokohama Triennale and then the Mori Museum at Roppongi Hills, has now passed on to Chinese and other Asian art, which has been much bigger and more commercially visible than Japanese art in the last few years.
But my hope is that the West will soon be ready for something new from Japan. For example, I’d like to see attention given to Makoto Aida, a brilliant avant garde figure who is revered in Japan but almost unknown outside. He comes from the same generation as Murakami, and many of the same ideas can be seen in Murakami’s work. Aida, however, is an uncompromising, experimental and often shocking artist, who is challenging to understand as he refuses to package his work for easy consumption. One of the reasons is that Aida draws on the whole Japanese "owarai" culture of humor, which is very difficult to translate for foreigners.
But hasn't Murakami been a major figure in inspiring young Japanese artists to pursue international careers?
Murakami has been inspirational in challenging the slow moving Japanese art world and in bringing an entrepreneurial spirit into Japanese art. Thanks in large part to his example, young Japanese artists recognize the importance of international travel and communication with the international art world. He was one of a number of entrepreneurial figures from the 1990s—others include Hiroshi Fujiwara and Kashiwa Sato—to show how young people can opt out of the sterile corporate career world and develop their ideas as independent creators. That said, he also owes a lot to the gallerists who made his rise to fame possible: particularly Masami Shiraishi, Tomio Koyama and Tim Blum.
Tell us more about Murakami's entrepreneurial approach to
art. You make it sound like something new, but doesn't it belong to
Japan's long-standing tradition of mass producing woodblock prints,
pottery, and other crafts?
There are traditionalist connections in Murakami’s work, although these can be overplayed. But of course Superflat does connect back to the "ukiyo-e" printing tradition and styles, and illustrates the perennial Japanese mastery of combining elements of Eastern and Western aesthetics. An even bigger influence, I think, is commercial design. Japan has a huge international reputation in this creative field, and it is something Murakami very actively incorporated early on into his work via design collaborators, such as Groovisions and Enlightenment, both of whom he recruited into the Superflat movement.
Presumably, Web 2.0 (i.e., social networking sites, wikis, and blogs) has also played a role in propelling Murakami's success.
Murakami is an artist of the Internet 2.0 moment. He fits perfectly with a new conception of visual art production based on instantaneous scanning, Photoshop, and mass production. The idea of "superflat" fits perfectly with the idea of a "flat world" promoted by the globalization guru, Thomas Friedman. The kinds of images he—along with others such as Yoshitomo Nara—has popularized resemble the mass Internet art you can see everywhere on Web sites and visual art blogs, which themselves have grown out of global comics and cartoon culture.
In a sense, virtual reality represents just the latest stage in Walter Benjamin’s idea of modern art in the age of mechanical reproduction. What is interesting now is how artists younger than Murakami and Nara are responding to new technology and and its effects on the commercial art market. Rather than bowing to the mass production aspect, they are using technology to develop new methodologies that emphasize non-reproducibility, uniqueness and beauty again in the work they are doing.
In some of your lectures on Murakami, you seem to suggest
that he is playing a joke on the West—that he has a certain contempt
for Western gallerists, critics and art institutions.
Murakami self-consciously sees his art as an inversion of Orientalism. Like others of his generation (he was born in 1963), he grew up obsessed with America’s power over Japan, and with bitter memories of the wartime experience. There is a kind of "passive aggressive" attitude to the West in the work. He is, in fact, a Japanese nationalist, and as such sees his art as a way of playing up to Western stereotypes of Japan, of fooling Western tastes. There is something quite cynical about how he talks about his art strategy to a Japanese audience. Many of these ideas reflect the writings of the art critic Noi Sawaragi in the early 1990s, another key figure in Murakami’s emergence.
Murakami is essentially Lost in Translation for the American art-viewing public. His works capture perfectly the amazement and excitement that visitors to Tokyo experience for the first couple of days. But you quickly realize that this is a neo-Tokyo vision, for tourists only. There is so much more to Japanese contemporary art.
You also see Murakami as a kind of ambassador for the "soft power" of Japanese cultural innovation. Talk a little more about that.
Japanese government officials have latched on to the popularity of pop culture as a way of branding Japan at a time when its manufacturing power is in relative decline. Murakami is one of the "global performers" they like to use as a kind of advertisement for Japanese cultural innovation. It is quite ironic, perhaps, that a conservative government would resort to using pop art images to sell the nation—particularly when those images consist of things like cartoon maids and cute otaku figures; but their hope may be that such images serve as a kind of happy-go-lucky "screen" for their otherwise quite hard-line foreign policies.
It is difficult to evaluate how viable these policies are as a commercial strategy. Some ministries in Japan claim there is a great future for Japan internationally in the content industries, but the fact is that Japan still imports way more from the West than it exports, so it is hard to see the claim as anything more than wishful thinking. Still, tourism in Japan has increased, and there has been a big upswing in young people around the world learning Japanese.
We New Yorkers have just a couple of more weeks to view © MURAKAMI at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Do you have any personal picks from the show that you would recommend?
For my money, Murakami’s early "otaku" figurine sculptures and transformer models are his best works: the moment when his one big idea gels as an art form. I would therefore recommend seeing "Hiropon" and "My Lonesome Cowboy"—the latter recently sold for $13.5 million at Sotherbys in New York. Some of the paintings that incorporate Nihonga stylings impress, but by the time we get to his corporate branding flowers, oversized Buddhas (his Oval Buddha was too big to fit in the Brooklyn Museum so is housed in the indoor sculpture garden at 590 Madison, very near the SSRC's offices), and Kaikai Kiki cartoons, the joke is wearing thin.
I saw the Murakami show at MOCA in Los Angeles, where it opened, so I’m not sure how it looks in the Brooklyn space, which is more traditional. In LA, I liked the special room full of products and collaborations from his Kaikai Kiki company—you get a sense of the creative energy of the 1990s Tokyo from this. But the Louis Vuitton room/shop—a feature in both exhibitions (in fact, the shop was the idea of MOCA's chief curator, Paul Schimmel, who said that Murakami had put art in the store so he wanted to put the store in the art)—is totally crass.
Which other new wave Japanese artists would you recommend we look out for in the meantime?
Try to catch exhibitions of works by the new wave of Japanese women artists. They offer a vision of Japanese womanhood and society very different to the male-curated obsessions of the otaku artists. For those who have only seen Murakami’s cartoon images, or the adolescent work of his girl prodigy artists in Kaikai Kiki, the bold feminine independence and maturity of the work by these women artists will come as a surprise. Some of them are already quite well known—especially those working with photography or video, such as Mika Ninagawa, Mikiko Hara, Miwa Yanagi, or Tabaimo.
I am most excited, though, about the new generation of globally-minded artists who have yet to be seen much in the West. Among these, I would especially recommend the extraordinary experimental sculptor Kohei Nawa, and the installation artist Kei Takemura. A number of these young artists, under the name of "The Echo," will be putting on a group show in Yokohama during the upcoming triennale, organized in collaboration with the Tokyo gallery Magical Artroom. I’ve been working with them as an advisor, and we hope to explore possibilities for bringing the show to other international venues in the near future.
What's next for you? Is this study going to lead to more work in this direction?
I hope to finish a book on Japanese contemporary art since the 1990s by the end of the year. I made such good friends and connections during my year in Tokyo, so I need to make regular trips back! In many ways, too, the experience has opened my mind to the whole Asian region, and given me and my research a global dimension it never had before.
Interview conducted by Jessica Chong, condensed and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.