Murakami's art is colorful, playful, and pretty damn complicated.
Murakami calls his art Superflat. It’s a self-conscious celebration of one-dimensionality. Funny thing is, Superflat is damn complicated. As the story goes, Murakami first came up with the term Superflat when a couple of gallerists in California got excited about one of his canvasses because it was “super flat, super high quality, and super clean!” So there is already a tinge of irony and bemusement in the term. Murakami is standing there smiling at the gallerists, partly amused, partly annoyed, wondering how to deal with the situation. Like Warhol in his adoption of Pop as an ethos, a way of life, Murakami decided to embrace the idea of Superflat. He makes it a virtue. But more so than Warhol, Murakami is negotiating some perilous territory in taking on the idea of Superflat.
First of all, he’s taking on the burden of being Japanese after World War II. Being Superflat isn’t simply a matter of fun and games. Being Superflat in Japan comes out of being superflattened. We’re talking about atom bombs here. We’re talking about the literal flattening of entire cities. After that comes a series of metaphorical flattenings. Japan is stripped, in a sense, of its adulthood. America becomes the big daddy, determining what Japan is allowed to do and not to do, taking control of the rebuilding of a nation, injecting a Western consumer culture that Japan gobbles up on the one hand, stewing in sublated resentments on the other. We like to smile at the extreme childishness of so many aspects of Japanese popular culture. Hello Kitty is amusing in its utterly empty banality. Turns out, though, that it isn’t quite so straightforward, or really very funny at all. Superflat resists depth, but it is packed full with tensions that belie the simplicity of its surfaces.
|Installation view of "Miss ko2" (Project ko2) (1997) at Wonder Festival, Summer 2000; Takashi Murakami.
But that is hardly the only flattening. The blocks of color in the panels are reminiscent of the flatness of classic Modernist paintings. This aspect of the work could be appreciated by Clement Greenberg, who argued that the great innovation of Modernist painting was its conscious acknowledgment of the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Painting, Greenberg thought, is always about the material conditions of paint being applied to a surface. To this Modernist background, Murakami adds the specific content of Mr. DOB, the half-mad product of Japanese post-war culture. And by adding “Surrealism” into the mix through the title, Murakami is producing another degree of flattening. His has smooshed the two divergent trends in 20th-century Western art into one canvass. On the one hand, the formal purity of Modernism in its Greenbergian register. On the other, the content-driven tradition of Surrealism and its meditation on the (disturbed) nature of modern consciousness. My flatness, Murakami is saying, can have both.
Still, there is more. The “PO+KU” in the title is a shortening of Pop and otaku. Pop we have already talked about. Murakami is Warholian in the degree to which he accepts popular culture as the playing field within which all of us are operating. Business art, said Warhol, is the next kind of art. Fine, says Murakami, I can accept those constraints and it won’t prevent me from doing anything I want to do.
Otaku is the broad term used to describe people obsessed with anime, manga, and similar styles in Japanese popular culture. The term is double-edged in that it carries the sense of being geeky and socially inept. If you’re an otaku, you’re something of a loser. But that’s also been turned around. Plenty of people are otaku and proud of it. Murakami goes further. Many critics, from Susan Sontag onward, have argued that the high art/low art divide blinds us to what is often most profound in our cultural products. For Murakami, though, otaku isn't just interesting, but the place where it all starts. It's in otaku that the traumas and contradictions of Japanese life are working themselves out. So, otaku is already just as deep as anything else could be, or to put it another way, the metaphor of depth is pointless and misleading. It's all right there on Mr. DOB's leering psycho-happy face. The surface is already just as complicated as we need it to be. Superflat.
I suppose it is fair, finally, to ask how successful Murakami is in his superflatness. Most Westerners, sophisticated art types or not, take him in one of two ways. From one perspective he's a blast. His characters are a delight, his colors are bright and lively. Whoopee. From the other perspective he is a clown for consumerism, a business artist in every way that’s a bad thing. He's a shill, a marketing machine. Both of those interpretations are, of course, completely missing the point, though Murakami is simultaneously a creator of delightful art and an absolute marketing machine. The real point, though, is that he has taken what he's been given — the landscape of Japanese post-war popular culture — and run with it as something that he couldn't get outside of even if he wanted to. Otaku isn't a choice so much as a condition. He's neither opposing that culture nor mindlessly affirming it. Instead, he's learned to swim in it, turned it into his natural environment. From there, he can practice expressing the pathos and contradictions and tortured dreams and nightmares of the very same culture of which he is a product. And that's Superflat. • 16 May 2008
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. Idle Chatter appears here weekly. Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Tan Tan Bo" (2001); Takashi Murakami; Acrylic on canvas mounted on board; 141 3/4 x 212 5/8 x 2 5/8 in.; Collection of John A. Smith and Victoria Hughes; Courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo; ©2001 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Installation view of "Miss ko2" (Project ko2) (1997) at Wonder Festival, Summer 2000; Takashi Murakami; Oil, acrylic, fiberglass, and iron
100 x 46 x 36 in.; Courtesy of Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris and Miami, and Tomio Koyama Gallery Tokyo; Photo by Kazuo Fukunaga; ©1997 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.