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Interview with Japanese Artist Takashi Murakami

Aired January 11, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voiceover): He's known as Japan's answer to Andy Warhol and as one of the East's hottest contemporary artists. And an international art world phenomenon.

Meet Takashi Murakami. Known for blending art and Japanese Anime, the result is this. It's called Superflat - an art movement involving a fantastical, grotesque, and sometimes dark universe of creatures like "Mr. Dob", "Smiley-Face Flowers", and colorful mushrooms.

It's also a technique that propelled him to fame in the '90s and caught the eye of Louis Vuitton's creative director, who used Murakami's vision to update the traditional LV logo. A hugely successful move that would see his art cross the line into commerce and catapult Murakami to internationally recognized art world rock star.

Since then, he's taken his art into other mediums, inflating his creations for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and -


STOUT (voiceover): -- has animated his work for Kanye West both for this music video and corresponding album cover.

This week on "Talk Asia", we enter the colorful world of Takashi Murakami and get up close and personal with the creator.

STOUT: I could see, up close, what you mean by "the honesty in the self portrait". Because your nose hairs -


STOUT: -- each one.

STOUT (voiceover): Plus, we get a rare look into his studio in Japan - find out what he's got in store next.


STOUT: So, Takashi, this is your very first exhibition with the Gagosian here, in Hong Kong. And it's called "Flowers and Skulls". There, I see the skulls. Can you describe what you were thinking when you created this piece?

TAKASHI MURAKAMI, ARTIST: My concept is "Superflat" - that is came up using for that technique for the three dimensional stuff. Like everything is Superflat, but, you know, our audience want to be looking at, you know, how deep, you know, can go into the, you know, painting. Everything is a different technique. It does mean, you know, audience can go into the, you know, different dimension.

STOUT: I see it now. And it's a paradox. Because it's Superflat -


STOUT: -- but it has so many layers.


STOUT: And there is depth.

MURAKAMI: When I can say, "This is the finish", that mean looks like flatness.


MURAKAMI: But in the process, it looks like a three-dimensional.

STOUT: Yes. Yes, you can get lost inside.


STOUT: Two years ago - it's the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And two of your characters - "KaiKai" and "KiKi" -- they join a cast of other characters in the parade. And they're alongside Snoopy and Mickey Mouse - I mean, these truly iconic characters. Was that your goal as an artist? To one day be as big as Disney?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Well. Well, I wish to create what I would call structures that would allow me to present art as Disney does. Structures that would keep my characters alive as long as theirs. But I guess that would be extremely challenging. Something I realized especially when George Lucas sold his rights to Star Wars to Disney. I won't be able to be as big as they are.

STOUT: Now, year 2000 is a very significant year for you. In Milan, you introduced the ideas and the thinking behind Superflat. How do you define "'Superflat"?

MURAKAMI (through translator): At first, in 2000, I was only talking about the drawing methods used in the traditional painting, manga, and anime. But then, right after releasing a book about Superflat, I started receiving various comments from cultural figures.

One said that the expression applies to the Japanese social structure, while others suggested that there is a concept mixed with abstract expressionism in the world of Western Contemporary Arts. So, many different meanings have been added to the term, Superflat. At first I thought I was just trying to define how the Superflat drawing methods, but hugely different from the Western three-dimensional drawing methods.

STOUT: In 2001, a Superflat exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles attracted some 95 thousand people. Did that reaction surprise you?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Yes, it really did. As you said, my career really got started when that Superflat exhibition was held as part of the Los Angeles MOCA at the Pacific Design Center. So I think I was lucky.

It was those people in Los Angeles that tried to understand and add ideas to the theses I presented. Though half-cooked it was, I was really lucky.

STOUT: Now, in 2002, you were invited by Marc Jacobs to design a line of Louis Vuitton bags. How did he approach you and were you game to do it from the very beginning?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Initially, an email was sent by Marc Jacobs' assistant to my and my assistant's email addresses with just two lines of message asking me if I was interested in working with Louis Vuitton.

Well, I didn't know much about Louis Vuitton and didn't know anything about Marc Jacobs. When I asked my female assistants about that, they were freaked out and they were all like, "We've got to take it". So I returned a brief message expressing our interest. The next day, we received our air tickets from Vuitton Japan and the flight was on the very following day. And that's how the collaboration got started.

STOUT: Now scores of women around the world have the Louis Vuitton- Murakami bag. And not only that, the merchandising. For example - I have a Takashi Murakami mouse pad that I use in the office. My four-year-old daughter - she has a Takashi Murakami stuffed toy - an alien is on her bed. Do you like blurring the line between the commercial and the artistic?

MURAKAMI (through translator): When I was trying to produce my different merchandise, I found that very few artists were doing the same thing out there. And I saw myself on the front lines doing it. So I started the merchandising as a pretty conceptual project.

And then, just because it sold so well, we were a little sidetracked and started to think of ways to sell more. Nevertheless, it all got started within the context of contemporary arts.

STOUT: Let's talk about "Miss Ko2" - a sculpture of yours. And it's this very voluptuous blond waitress - very busty - she's borderline pornographic. And I'm wondering, is this something else that you like to toy with? The line between cute and crass?

MURAKAMI (through translator): In fact, the works that had the strongest impact on me in New York were those of Bob Flanagan, exhibited at Soho's Museum. He was infirm and had been receiving shots to cope with the weakness as long as he could remember.

He had his penis nailed and displayed on a huge screen at the museum. When the nail was pulled out, blood would splash all over. That was an eye-opener of how crass it was in New York. I decided to bring forward the sort of crassness in the Japanese Otaku culture.

That's why I got involved in the figurine project. But the figurine creator wasn't willing to work on really crass ones. So he tried to grasp my concept and then we worked together to, you know, create the least-crude version of what is now Koko-Chan, or Miss Koko.


STOUT: In the mid-to-late 90s, he started the Hiropon Factory. How is art created in the factory?





STOUT: In the mid-to-late 90s, you started the Hiropon Factory in both Japan and Brooklyn, New York. How is art created in the factory?

MURAKAMI (through translator): The production process I go through in the studio hasn't really changed since I opened my first studio. First, I get a rough drawing done and let the assistants know how much of it will be enlarged.

Back then, no large printers were available. So we would get that motif enlarged at a convenience store. Then my assistants color it how they like. After two weeks or so, I would put back in order the messed-up drawing using tools like a rasp.

After the final direction is set, we place an order. In the meantime, I have the time to promote the works in the US.

STOUT: You were born in Tokyo in 1962. What were you like as a kid?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Well, my parents came from the Kyushu Island in the Southern part of Japan to find work in Tokyo. So we could only afford to live downtown, in a low-income area. It was just by the river and whenever a typhoon came around, we were under water up to, like, here. That's the kind of place we lived in.

STOUT: And as a little kid, when did you realize that you were interested in art? Were you interested in anime or manga?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Like many other kids, I liked watching anime. And in the late 1960s and 70s, museums with impressionist works by Renoir and such were gaining popularity. So my parents took me there, and I guess that educated me a bit.

I wasn't interested in that art at all, though. It was just through my parents that I was forced to see these exhibitions. I kept on reading and watching them as it was something I was interested in.

STOUT: So you were exposed to fine art though your parents as a child. But were you also an Otaku? Were you a little bit geeky?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Well, when I was little, I guess I was just an ordinary kid. But then things changed when I was in junior high. You know kids that become geeks become one because of something. Like, they aren't good at sports or girls don't like them. I, too, for some reason, got into things like science fiction and, well, especially science fiction as an escape.

STOUT: You went to university at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts. And originally, you wanted to be an animator, but you ultimately studied Nihonga, which is a very traditional style of Japanese painting. Why did that appeal to you?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Well, becoming an animator or cartoonist takes a lot of talent, whereas studying Nihonga doesn't require much of it. So I was just thinking in terms of a process of elimination and came down to this occupation.

STOUT: You graduated with a Ph.D. in Nihonga, but then afterwards, you abandoned that and took on contemporary art instead. Why?

MURAKAMI (through translator): I actually didn't have any particular reason for earning the Ph.D. in Nihonga. What motivated me to become a contemporary artist was the passion I saw in new paintings in the 80s. I also wanted to be an artist that does show performances. So earning my Ph.D. in Nihonga had nothing to do with me becoming a contemporary artist.

STOUT: In 1994, you went to New York and you received an artist residency there. What impact did it have on you as an artist and on your work?

MURAKAMI (through translator): When I first became a contemporary artist, I knew New York was the capitol of contemporary arts. So I was trying to imagine what New York was like when creating my works. But when I actually arrived in New York, I found myself at the very center of it all. There was a huge gap between what I had imagined and what I actually saw. And I was able to experiment on how I could possibly make those dreams a reality.

Although there was a huge difference between working with your mere imagination in Japan, and experimenting with the realities in New York.


STOUT: I can see, up close, what you mean by the honesty in the self- portrait. Because your nose hairs -


STOUT: Each one -




STOUT: Over here - this is a self-portrait. And you're not afraid to - to make yourself look really silly.


MURAKAMI: No no. No, no. This is honest.

STOUT: This is honesty?

MURAKAMI: Yes, yes.


MURAKAMI: So, you know, I can imitate that for a, you know, self- portrait shot. Something like that face. Like a, you know, exactly the same -

STOUT: Yes, yes. I can see, up close, what you mean by the honesty in the self-portrait. Because your nose hairs -


STOUT: Each one - they're quite apparent.

STOUT: This is a symbol that has been a Takashi Murakami icon for over a decade.


STOUT: How did this symbol come about?

MURAKAMI: I got the technique from the skull painting. And this is a test - experimental. But that's why you spend the time - like over one year - to many layers. So face is happy, but actually, you know, when I was painting, it's super unhappy.

MURAKAMI: This technique with, you know, first time to looks like a Picasso (ph)?


MURAKAMI: So what this is - everything is hand-made. So that means we have to training for the staff at two, three years. So that is also really painful.

STOUT: It looks like a sticker, but it's not.

MURAKAMI: Yes, the hand paint.

STOUT: That's incredible.

MURAKAMI: Yes, painful. And a few people can do that. But mostly, they are, you know, ladies. No - no guys cannot.


STOUT: Now, your work has also been described as very psychedelic. But you have said that you don't do drugs. So where do the visions come from?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Oh, that touches on a painful part of my story. When I was doing painting as a freshman in university, an older female student came and told me that I severely lacked a sense of color. It just so happened that her boyfriend was known for the use of outstanding sense of color in the Nihonga field. And she was boasting about it, though I have no idea why.

It's true, I used to always wear brown clothing. And even now, look at me, I'm wearing moss green. I really hadn't been exposed to many different colorful things until then. Now you can imagine, I was hoping to make a living as a painter and how upset that comment made me. From that day on, I started studying the fundamentals of color. When I arrived in New York, my works were received very well. So I went on to reinforce that element in my later works.

STOUT: In 2007, you designed the cover to the Kanye West album, "Graduation". And you also directed the music video for the song "Good Morning" and you depict Kanye West as this DeLorean-driving teddy bear. It's pretty cute. Could you describe - what was it like to collaborate and work with Kanye West?

MURAKAMI (through translator): I first got a phone call from an editor of a music magazine, asking if I knew Kanye West. So I replied, I didn't. He said Kanye West wanted to see Murakami's Hiropon - the sculpture with huge breasts - and asked if it was ready in my studio.

It actually was in my storehouse and not in the studio. But I thought another fun collaboration could start from this. So I welcomed them. They came the next day and we took Hiropon out and got it ready for Kanye West to have a look. As soon as he arrived, without even saying hello to me, he was carried away by the sculpture - taking photos with his camera.

Everyone, including his mother, manager, and others were taking his photos - walking around the studio. When I gave him some of my merchandise as a gift, he was like this - while taking them. And they left, and that was it. I was quite disappointed, as it seemed like no collaboration came from it. But then, after a month, he returned to us to see if we could do anything together - saying that they were definitely going to meet us the next time they went to Japan.

That's when we started speaking about a collaboration for an album jacket, a music video and so forth. When we talked, he would look like this - and give us ideas. And then I would take it in and respond to them. That's how it went.

STOUT: In 2009, you worked with another hip-hop star, Pharrell Williams. An art project called, "The Simple Things". And it's Pharrell's favorite things, like a bag of Doritos or a Pepsi can, but encrusted with precious gems and all put inside the mouth of a Murakami monster. What was the meaning of it?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Pharrell asked me to create a showcase of the jewel-toned art piece he had created. The order was to produce a showcase. So initially, I was coming up with different square box-shaped designs. But I started to think that it didn't fit.

Then, after the fall of the Lehman Brothers and amidst the financial crisis, people were starting to cast a doubt over the culture of mass- production. Pringles - those type of things. So I thought I'd better package this piece with a bit of critical tone, rather than celebrating that culture.

That's why something like a symbol of Japanese character is devouring the gems. When I made the twist in what I presented him - something different to what he initially ordered, he was really happy. And we went ahead with the production.

STOUT: Now, "The Simple Things" ultimately sold for $2.8 million. Do you think the buyer understood the intended meaning of the piece?

MURAKAMI (through translator): Well, I am an art collector, too. And I can say, when you buy an art piece, it's like falling in love with it. Once you want it, you simply can't hold your feelings. So understand the meaning behind it or not, so I guess the buyer did fall in love with it.

STOUT: 2012, in Doha, you presented a 100 meter long paining depicting the suffering of the Japanese people after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. How has that disaster affected you as an artist?

MURAKAMI (through translator): I think the tsunami disaster really made intellectuals in Japan stop and think. And I had that realization as well. I dared to call the Japanese culture Superflat, whereas the reality wasn't that simple. I stopped and realized how shallow my thinking was. But, as someone that can influence others, I thought, "I have to do the best I can. Then what can I do?"

After eliminating what I couldn't do and focusing on what I could do, it came down to creating the huge painting - Gohiaku (ph) Racken (ph). What's depicted there is the superstition of the Gods to believe to keep off disasters and diseases being worshipped in the Edo era. With that theme in mind, the 100 meter-long piece was created.

STOUT: It sounds like you're at a point of personal evolution as an artist. What will be your next big project?

MURAKAMI (through translator): What I am working on now is a film for public release. On the surface, it's a mere monster movie. But the theme goes deeper. The boys and girls in confusion after the Fukushima disaster make their way out on their own to hold on to hope and build a future. I'm working to get it released by next spring.

STOUT: Well, Takashi Murakami, your work is dazzling and it's also very honest. So thank you for joining me here, on "Talk Asia".