In recent years, it seems Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has gone all-in on street culture. There's his collaborations with Kanye West during the Graduation era, his 2015 Vans collaboration, and his work with ComplexCon. Recently he teamed up with Virgil Abloh on two exhibitions, one in London at the Gagosian and one at Murakami's Kaikai Kiki gallery in Tokyo. He also found the time to design the album art for Kids See Ghosts, the brand new album by Kanye West and Kid Cudi that debuted in a California ghost town last night.
Before Murakami left for the Kids See Ghosts listening party in California, we caught up with him in Ft. Worth, Texas, where his traveling exhibit, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, makes its final stop. The exhibit will be on view from June 10, 2018-September 16, 2018. Although the exhibition demonstrates the width and breadth of his creative accomplishments, our interview with him showed a different side of the artist, one that shows that creative struggle is a lifelong affliction, and even acclaimed artists that many view as having “made it” still deal with trying to come up with new ideas without resting on their past successes.
This transparent vulnerability provides a portrait of Murakami as an artist who is finding inspiration in the most unlikely places. It explains why he seems to be ingratiating himself into street culture to an even deeper capacity, as he feels its participants are his true constituency.
This exhibit, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, is a retrospective of your past works. Would you consider yourself the type of artist that keeps looking towards the future, or do you revisit the past often?
Takashi Murakami: So as you know, this show started last year at the Institute of Chicago, and then it toured to Vancouver Art Gallery, and then Fort Worth. The Modern Art Museum at Fort Worth is the third and last venue for this show. And originally, the theme of this show is to look back at the history of my paintings, and I keep repeatedly using similar motifs. And usually film directors, Japanese manga artists, or even novelists, they would continue to tackle different themes, probably. But in my case, I try to move forward by recycling over and over again, what I've already done before. So as a creator, I feel very embarrassed about it. And because the show looks back at the painting history of my career, so I took that sense of embarrassment into the title.
I'm not the type of person that keeps looking back at my own past. I don't even have too much memory of my own past. So I think about what I can do going forward in the future, based on what I've done already. And the show curator, Michael Darling, looked at the overview of my painting history, but for me, looking back just brings up the sentiment of embarrassment. But for example, when I started painting the Arhat paintings after the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan, it really made me refreshed in myself making those new works. But since then, I have been repeating the same techniques over and over again. So that freshness is again gone. So in the exhibition, I am looking back at my past career, but my own sentiment is more about: “Oh, I'm into Instagram now, and it's working, so that's lucky.” That sort of current state of mind.
The name ties into the notion of the ouroboros a bit—the snake eating itself—but the octopus is a better analogy, because your work touches so many different facets, from painting to sculpture to other mediums like film.
TM: I did think of the analogy with the ouroboros, but it has such a philosophical connotation, too. So I actually avoided using that as a title. And it's more about the straightforward imagery of octopus eating its own leg. And I have made works and stuffed animals with just one leg already eaten, but in reality I feel like an octopus with almost all the legs eaten, even then just one leg left, so I just feel very embarrassed about this type of recycling of what I've done in the past.
Earlier you said you were into Instagram. What's your relationship with social media?
I find myself really just purely lucky. I got into Instagram and social media, and I was just purely enjoying them as sort of a hobby. But then they turned out to be very effective in advertising exhibitions. But at the same time, if I try to promote something intentionally, it's very difficult and time-consuming.
A retrospective like this indicates how far you've come in the art world. Your trajectory was sort of a roundabout approach, drawing on low culture and traditional Japanese art and essentially re-importing it into the country. Was there a moment when you realized you had “made it?”
TM: I first started taking interest in contemporary art when I started studying it at university, and I was just managing to draw realistically and I was being able to sketch lifelike images. I started to think: “Isn't art something much more complex and complicated?”
That's why I started entering into the world of contemporary art. And it was in fact, very complicated, it took about ten years to really master what it means and become a contemporary artist. But now that I am one, and am sort of navigating the contemporary art world, I feel some sort of embarrassment, but I am also managing to sort of figure out how to survive—the context of survival in this field. So I'm sort of creating my own energy and putting that into my own engine and trying to keep myself moving forward.
You presented your superflat theory in 2000, positing that culture was starting to flatten in the art world, drawing on both high and low culture as reference points. Given the rise of streetwear, which you're a fan of, do you think there's a similar movement happening in fashion?
TM: When it comes to fashion, I've always had sort of an inferiority complex about my own physicality. So I was not very actively seeking out fashion and clothing, in terms of what I wore myself. But maybe after ten years, after my first collaboration with Louis Vuitton, I started realizing that there are elements that are similar between fashion and contemporary art.
The context is very important, and the future of fashion is also being created through the study of its history, and adding something onto it. So the word “fashion” still sort of embarrasses me and intimidates me, but I feel like in the street culture world, I can sort of navigate myself.
And so you asked me about the word and theory of “superflat.” The word was more like an intentional curse on myself, where I will personally be cursed by it until the end of my life. So I do feel like that's all come true, for me. But I don't think so for society in general.
You recently visited Toho Studios, who created Godzilla. I feel like art and Japanese culture has been a way of working through national disasters, like the Tsunami that influenced the Arhat series, or the recent Fukushima meltdown that reinvigorated Godzilla as a harbinger of nuclear war. To what extent does your work function as catharsis?
TM: I often speak about this, but I think between before Japan lost the second world war and after, the Japanese mentality is just structurally very different. Before, when Japan was winning wars against Russia, China, at least on surface, and also after the Meiji restoration, Japan really emulated Western culture and society, and it created the aristocratic classes and created social hierarchies intentionally. That was before the war.
But after losing World War II, United States came in to sort of deconstruct companies, and family wealth, so through the tax system, society couldn't pass on wealth within the family, from generation to generation, which led to people not collecting valuable items like artwork. And so there's not much of a custom of collecting art now. And so I characterize that as a superflat, known hierarchal society—one of the superflat elements. But it's kind of the aesthetic of “loser,” in the sense that we've lost something.
You've worked with a myriad of collaborators, from Kanye West to Virgil Abloh, to most recently, Uniqlo and Doraemon. The latter is inspired by this idea that if people think something is cool, they should also do it themselves. Do you have any advice for this new generation of creators that are inspired by you?
TM: So in the past, I spent 12 years producing the art event called GEISAI. I was doing this sort of art festival twice a year in order cultivate young talent and to guide them through their debut and stuff like that. Over 12 years, I cumulatively had about $16 million deficit, and I was not very successful in also helping young artists. So in those 12 years, I really spent all my expectations and hopes for younger generation creatives. So right now, I don't have any positive feelings left for younger creators.
But I empathize with sneakerheads, because I feel like they're not in the center of the society, they're sort of in the periphery. And I myself was anime otaku, very much in the periphery of Japanese society, as part of the subculture. So I felt this strong affinity with this group of people. And when I saw them for the first time at ComplexCon, and they came to me, as my fans, I really felt like I met my real clients and customers for the first time. And it made me really happy. So in that sense, through them, I feel like I'm very connected to maybe the younger generation, but I actually don't any longer feel like I want to contribute to the betterment of a younger generation creators, because I've had so many bad experiences.
Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg is on exhibition at The Modern in Ft. Worth, Texas from June 10-September 16, 2018. Now, check out Murakami's interview with Virgil Abloh about their “Future History” exhibition.