Takashi Murakami explores meaning of art

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2003

ASAKA, Japan He's called ''Japan's Andy Warhol,'' and that suits pop artist Takashi Murakami just fine.

His 6-foot-tall fiberglass figure of a waitress in a miniskirt recently sold for $567,500 at a Christie's auction in New York City. The Louis Vuitton bags with his smiling-blossom designs are hot sellers. His cartoonish characters are mascots at a new Tokyo shopping mall that's drawing crowds like Disneyland.

It's with a hyperactive frenzy Japanese-style that Murakami raises the same disturbing and subversive questions reminiscent of Warhol: Where does lofty art end and money-grubbing commercialism begin? And if art can be found in lowly everyday things, isn't the potential for art in just about anything?

''He's being really honest about the fact that you can actually use the market if you are an artist,'' Amada Cruz, director of the Museum at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in New York, said in a telephone interview. ''There's such a divide in this country between fine art and commerce supposedly. And Murakami's work really bridges the two.''

The ponytailed, bespectacled Murakami, 41, has emerged the darling of the fashion and art world here, popping up on TV shows and in magazines.

Murakami says he's never stopped asking: ''What is art?'' He's determined to make art everywhere ''like flowers growing in the wilderness.''

''I want to be an artist who's truly respected after I die like Andy Warhol,'' Murakami said. ''What counts is the assessment you get after you're dead.''

For some, Murakami symbolizes a coming-of-age of modern Jap-anese art that takes its inspiration from urban street life, ''manga'' a detailed and stylized comic-book and animation style and the high-tech-obsessed geek subculture called ''otaku.''

It's a fame filled with irony as Murakami walks that precarious line between selling out and uncompromising art that's so risky for any artist.

''His images are so intensely powerful,'' said Kanae Kondo of Christie's in Tokyo. ''He has massive appeal on the international market.''

Murakami first won stardom abroad, which is proving a good way to win stardom in Japan.

He has had exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London. He is working on an installation project at the Rockefeller Center in New York set to be completed in September a 33-foot tall bubble-headed Buddha-like sculpture with a fat dopey face, colorful horn and dozens of tiny hands.

But his collaboration with luxury bag-maker Louis Vuitton, which produced vibrant pastel-hued versions of the classic brown bags, has catapulted him lately to talk-of-the-town here.

''Cute, colorful, pretty,'' gushes Japanese fashion magazine Spur. ''Takashi Murakami is now a worldwide sensation.''

Like his art, Murakami is the picture of ambivalence.

A student of traditional Japanese painting at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he wrote his doctorate thesis on ''The Meaning of Meaningless Meaning,'' Murakami believes his art is rooted in the legacy of the 18th century woodblock-print masters. But his art also has everything in common with Mickey Mouse.

One of Murakami's signature motifs is ''Mr. DOB,'' a zanily grinning animal whose name was derived from a Japanese phrase a la Lewis Carroll: ''Dobochite dobochite osham-anbe,'' which roughly translates as ''why?''

''They're icons,'' Murakami says. ''When people's hearts become weak, and like Japanese these days, they have no religion to turn to, then they start to rely on icons. They look to Mickey Mouse. It's natural.''

In some works, a blended neurotic morass of Mr. DOBs, some with extra eyes and fanglike teeth, spiral like a scientist's model of a chromosome. Sometimes, the body parts splatter in curling colors, an explosion of claustrophobic chaos.

Murakami's larger-than-life doe-eyed figures have popped right out of crass comic books but in their statuesque size and mischievous outlandishness are claiming a spot in a museum-centered art world.

Murakami has coined the phrase ''super-flat'' to describe the technique that links his works with the grandeur of Japan's artistic past, such as the emphasis of clear outlines that he says distinguishes his art from a Western attempt to realistically depict perspective and form.

Like Warhol, Murakami runs a studio that works as a factory in the Tokyo suburb of Asaka, where dedicated youngsters on a humble payroll toil and paint in prefabricated warehouses to the rhythm of techno music spewing from a stereo.

''I'm an animation otaku,'' says 24-year-old Tomohiro Hoshino, aka Shisho, which means ''The Master.'' ''Daily work here is a battle with Murakami. And because he never compromises and he's so demanding and his standards are so high, it really makes it worth it.''

Despite his success, Murakami's life hasn't changed much.

He still lives in a prefabricated building that's his studio and uses a sleeping bag. He spends his money on his art. One project in the works is an animation film he wants to finish in a couple of years.

Murakami has never bought a Louis Vuitton bag, which can cost several thousand dollars, although he now owns three, all gifts from Louis Vuitton. Murakami's Vuitton products range in price from $110 for a bandanna to $5,000 for a bag.

Before he was commissioned to design the bags, he acknowledged he didn't really understand people who bought them. But he looks baffled when asked: You did the bags then as a joke?

''Joke?'' he asks with innocence. ''I'm quite serious about my work. I express my feelings honestly, and sometimes there's irony, but basically they're all positive."

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