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Ocula Conversation
In Collaboration with Tai Kwun Contemporary

Takashi Murakami on Collecting, Contracts, and Teamwork

Tobias Berger Hong Kong 23 August 2019

Takashi Murakami at MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June–1 September 2019). © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary. ©︎ Fujiko-Pro. Photo: Alex Maeland.

For three months from 1 June to 1 September 2019, Tai Kwun Contemporary in Hong Kong showcases MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, a major survey exhibition of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Curated by Tobias Berger, head of art at Tai Kwun, and Gunnar B Kvaran, director of Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo, the exhibition spans the three floors of Tai Kwun's JC Contemporary art gallery and showcases more than 60 works by the artist.

Key artworks in this exhibition include Murakami's iconic flower pieces, rendered in his characteristic cartoon style with psychedelic colours; cartoon characters such as Kaikai and Kiki, the animal-human hybrid children, and Mr Tan Tan Bo, the artist's alter-ego evoking a sinister version of Mickey Mouse; 'Enso' paintings (Ensō: Shangri-La, 2015; Zen Ensō Platinum, 2018) that make use of the ensō or circle motif, which symbolises emptiness and unity in Zen Buddhism; and post-apocalyptic paintings and sculptures such as The Birth Cry of a Universe (2014), a four-and-a-half-metre sculpture clad entirely in gold leaf that depicts a bulging tower of Murakami's characters compressed on top of one another.

MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI also provides an opportunity to encounter Murakami outside his international recognition as an artist. A selection from his extensive private art collection is on view, which encompasses ceramics, Japanese antiques, and contemporary art. Murakami, who is known for creating unique, outlandish costumes for his exhibitions, is also displaying them for the first time in this exhibition. Video screenings as part of the exhibition's public programming likewise reveal the artist's talent as a filmmaker, including his animation films and video works, among them his first debut feature film Jellyfish Eyes (2013).

Murakami gained recognition in the late 1990s for his bright-coloured paintings and sculptures featuring his large-eyed cartoon characters, a style that led to his coining of the term 'Superflat'. Formally, the term refers to the flattened perspective in Edo painting in Japan, which Takashi links to the flattened perspective in anime. Socially, the flat-ness is also that of high art and popular culture. In a sense, the icons/figures become free-floating (and not so representational)—and the key is the ability to proliferate through medias, including painting, prints, but also figurines, fashion, and merchandise. Indeed, the flow can originate in merchandise then flow into 'high art'.

This conversation is published in collaboration with Tai Kwun Contemporary and comprises the edited transcript of a talk between Murakami and Berger, which took place at the art institution on 1 June 2019. During the talk the two men discussed, among other things, the artist's eclectic collection; costumes; collaboration with music, and the 15-by-6-metre wall painting (AlUla DOB, 2019), one of the works Murakami created especially for the exhibition at Tai Kwun Contemporary—the contemporary art programming branch of Tai Kwun – Centre for Heritage and Arts, Hong Kong.

Takashi Murakami, Kaikai (2019). Platinum leaf on bronze. 300 x 178.6 x 108.4 cm; Kiki (2019). Platinum leaf on bronze. 241.5 x 179.5 x 117 cm (left to right). Exhibition view: MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June–1 September 2019). © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

One of the aims of this exhibition is to show all the different aspects that make up your practice—all the amazing specialities and ideas and faces that you always call 'the multiple facets of Takashi Murakami'. Spanning seven galleries, the exhibition includes pieces from your contemporary collection, along with animations, costumes, and a series of paintings inspired by the work of Francis Bacon. It also includes the 'Flower Room', and ends in a very spiritual way with the 'Gold Room'. How do all these things come together? Do they live in your mind in different departments? Or is it more like a unified, neurological network?

When I was 20 or 21 years old, I became interested in films like Star Wars, which was a big hit at the time, and Steven Spielberg's movies. There was an explosion of sci-fi. My mind was very childish and foolish, with a sci-fi feel. When you talk about mixing and how I coordinate my ideas—in fact my mind is almost like that of a 12-year-old sci-fi guy.

Sci-fi is very relevant at the moment. You might not remember, but Blade Runner was projected to this year; the first sequence says 'November 2019'. Being in Asia and talking about sci-fi, there are a lot of ideas that come together.

I didn't know that. Yes, yesterday I was walking in Central and it looked like Blade Runner—very noisy, and a lot of people looking at their mobile phones.

One of your Kaikai Kiki artists did some posters for the newest Blade Runner movie, you told me yesterday?

Oh, yes, James Jean—he did that.

Takashi Murakami, Bacon: Monsters (2019). Acrylic, gold leaf, and platinum leaf on canvas mounted on aluminium frame. 94 x 74 cm each (3 panels); Bacon: Three Studies of Lucian Freud, Red and Black (2017). Acrylic and platinum leaf on canvas mounted on aluminium frame. 197 x 147.5 x 5 cm each (3 panels) (left to right). Exhibition view: MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June–1 September 2019). © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

Your collection is very eclectic. The first time I think I saw part of it was in Oslo, where you showed your antiques at the Astrup Fearnley Museet for Murakami by Murakami (10 February–14 May 2017). There was also this amazing exhibition at Yokohama Museum of Art, Takashi Murakami's Superflat Collection (31 October 2015–6 March 2016), which included antiquities, ceramics, furniture, and contemporary art. How does your collecting influence you, and how does it help you develop your work?

One reason I collect is to study a collector's psychology behind spending money. I come from a poor family, with no collection. My dad's room was a mess, which I hated; but finally, my room is the same. It's in my DNA. This is my background, or one of my backgrounds.

When My Lonesome Cowboy (1998) sculpture sold for 16 million dollars at auction, I asked myself where that price came from. Why did people want to buy this really foolish sculpture? I didn't understand. At that same auction, I bought a Nara sculpture for over a million dollars. At the time, I didn't have any money. After I bid and won, I had to discuss with my gallery to lend me money. Money and art became a completely new experience in my life. I had to learn, and study myself and the relationship between money and value. This was a completely new experience for me. I then started the collection.

On the one hand collecting is a study, and on the other it's a hobby. Collecting ceramics, for example, is my hobby. I love ceramics, but for what reason I don't know. Contemporary art represents over 50 percent of my study. This study is very good in order for me to respond to my new pieces. People might suggest that this is marketing, and maybe it is. I've survived in this art world and its market for over 20 years. By vacuuming information about what it is that triggers people—with KAWS, at the moment, for example—I can make a new product.

Exhibition view: MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June–1 September 2019). © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

This obsessive idea of getting more and more knowledge and information in order to understand how the art market works, does that relate to your activity on social media? Do you use it to gather information as well as communicate?

When I was in high school, there was a big boom in midnight radio stations. I would send mail to the radio station—like a very stupid gag or something—and when it was announced, I would freak out, yelling, 'Yay, I did it!' My relationship with media is still the same. When I get reactions, I'm very happy. On social media, I had that first moment on Twitter, but Instagram is the best fit for me now as I'm a visual artist and I cannot operate in the English language. I'm a big fan of Instagram—it's like watching TV. I spend over two hours each day checking for hashtags, checking for images of myself, and checking how many people are pushing certain pieces. It's an addiction.

What seems new in this exhibition is the production of a lot of 'excuse paintings'. How did they develop and why are we so lucky to have all of them in this exhibition?

I came up with this idea two years ago. One day, I was checking a hit chart on iTunes and over 50 percent of it was hip hop. I wondered why, so I asked an assistant who told me it might have something to do with keeping up with gossip. For example, Drake saying that he has had a child with a prostitute and that he still loves her. Whether this is true or not, I don't know, but if it comes from the artist, it must be true, right? Gossip can destroy an artist's image, but the artist can also use it as a means to push back. Young people respect this.

Exhibition view: MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June–1 September 2019). © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

When social media came out, people believed it could create flatness, and flatten the social hierarchy. But now, there is a lot of fake news and algorithms that are creating new hierarchies. There has to be more honesty now. This is a museum show, not a gallery show. With a gallery show, the goal is to sell works to clients, but the museum show is for the public. This is a physical experience, like going to a concert. The audience wants to be listening to an honest voice from the artist; that's why I had to set up my honest voice. It might look artificial, but I believe this is very honest.

People with a strong education can understand painting, sculpture, and architecture—not concepts, but systems. But not everybody can see or understand these systems. That's why my 'excuse paintings' can help coordinate a point of view of my paintings.

For the monumental canvas in the main room of the third floor, I had naively asked you to come up with something as a background for that space. When you requested a canvas, I had no idea how beautiful the work would turn out. Can you talk a little bit about the production process of that huge canvas?

We received the big canvas roll from you guys in January or February. When it arrived at the studio, I screamed at my assistant, asking what it was; I couldn't remember why it had been sent to us. I asked Etsuko [Nakajima] from Perrotin, who reminded me that I had promised you I would make a wall painting. There was a lot of work to do, because I wanted 50 percent of the exhibition to be new work. February to May is a very short time. I didn't think I could do it, but I had to.

I had a small meeting with my team, and they suggested we dye the fabric with a chemical. First we thought we'd buy the chemical off Amazon or something, but then we realised we had to physically buy it from Kyoto. So we went back and forth on the Hikari super express; then I realised we hadn't discussed production costs. I thought, 'This is a huge amount of money, but I cannot say no, right?' We had to buy tonnes of this chemical. Then we started the dying process, doing the work outside. The rainy season started in Japan, and every day there was rain and the dye disappeared. I thought, 'Oh my god, this is a nightmare!' So then we brought it inside and dried it.

The whole process started to look like a slapstick comedy. After a lot of money and time, we finally made a very honest painting. It looks like complete chaos.

Exhibition view: MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June–1 September 2019). © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

I think it's an amazing piece, and I think it represents what Tai Kwun Contemporary should do—to give artists the possibility to do things that they cannot do in commercial galleries, and I think that piece is a perfect example. I mean, the galleries probably weren't happy because it took you a lot of time, during which you could've produced commercial works.

Thinking about process, I think it's very generous that you have included your drawings in this show, which show the production process. You can see how you edit everything. I remember my first visit to your studio, which is very clean and organised—not like what you described in relation to your father. I witnessed you sitting there and editing, looking at every flower and checking whether it was right or not. You can see how you went through different stages in the development of the canvas; it has a certain history.

My last question is about the costumes. For every event, you create new costumes, and the main costume for this event was made out of the canvas we were just talking about. The 'excuse paintings' were also made out of that canvas. We asked you if we could show these costumes in the exhibition, and we made the vitrines, but then you decided to make the 3D-printed mannequins yourself, and each one is in a different posture. Can you discuss why these costumes are so important for you? They are very elaborate—almost like paintings.

My first idea was to make mannequins moulded after myself, but the production cost was a fortune, so I gave up on that. Then I remembered that 20 years ago I was in communication with a mannequin company called Yamato. That company is still going well. I requested a quote and they gave me a production cost that was more reasonable but still very expensive. Each mannequin is an imitation of myself. My concept was to edit myself, rather than simply present the costumes. This reflects the title of the exhibition, MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI.

Exhibition view: MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI, Tai Kwun Contemporary, Hong Kong (1 June–1 September 2019). © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy Tai Kwun Contemporary. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli.

You said that it was very generous to show my drawings. After I die, perhaps I will show my production costs and how I run my company. People can laugh and understand how chaotic it is. The late president of Louis Vuitton, Yves Carcelle, and I had a very big battle over four years, and finally we fixed the contract and celebrated with one another. I told him, 'Hey Yves, this is our art piece. Our Louis Vuitton project is not a painting or a product. This contract is the concept of the design, so maybe we should show it in a museum in the future.'

The artists of our generation are not standalone; creating requires teamwork. That's why the contract should be shown in a museum. All of the background information about money and contracts could be helpful for people in the future.—[O]

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