Earlier this year, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami collaborated with multi-hyphenate creative Virgil Abloh on an art exhibit at London’s Gagosian Gallery. Titled “Future History,” the exhibition will be on display until April 7. The works, produced in Murakami’s Tokyo studio, sees some of their signature symbols and practices meld together to create a unique synergy.
Take for example, Life Itself, described as an “architectural carapace” of Abloh’s design that houses one of Murakami’s flower sculptures. The title of the work is displayed prominently on the side in a white sans serif typeface surrounded by quotation marks, another one of Abloh’s go-to motifs. Another piece, Glance past the future, reworks a 1623 self-portrait by Gian Lorenzo Bernini with a hot pink screenprint of Murakami’s Mickey Mouse-esque Mr. DOB character, simultaneously commenting on street culture’s penchant for sampling and repurposing, while calling to mind the image of a faded wheatpasted poster allowed to languish over time on a bustling city street.
Undoubtedly, the two represent different spectrums of modern culture, and the rapidly blurring intersection between high art, street art, and fashion and streetwear. No strangers to collaboration, Murakami in the past has collaborated with Issey Miyake, Louis Vuitton, and Vans, while Abloh’s equally exhaustive list of collaborators includes Nike, Jimmy Choo, and Swedish readymade furniture company IKEA.
There was even a limited run of 400 collaborative T-shirts produced to fete the exhibition. Perhaps that’s why this exhibit exudes a particular air of timeliness, toeing the lines between hyped product and aspirational art. In the ensuing interview, Abloh and Murakami speak to what “collaboration” means today, creating with intent, and reveal that their partnership is extending to Abloh’s first solo show in Japan at Murakami’s gallery.
In an interview with Elle, Takashi Murakami says the idea for “Future History” started at ComplexCon. Virgil, how did this collaboration begin from your perspective?
Virgil Abloh: I met Takashi about eight years ago, working in an art director role for the Graduation album cover. That was the first time I had been to his studio and seen how he was working. I was a fan of his work even long before that. I bought a Marc Jacobs Louis Vuitton wallet with the monogram that he had done. From that point, it sort of evolved into being aware of his work. Then last fall—at ComplexCon—one of the reasons for me to do something like that is to think of a valid idea that makes it interesting. That was an installation that I curated with him, sort of a performance art piece.
You went to the Illinois Institute of Design, which has its roots in Berlin’s New Bauhaus school. Can you tell me a little bit about how this rich design and art history specific to Chicago has become an ongoing influence for you, and how you’re taking that to a larger platform?
VA: It’s sort of a basic premise, in the terms of how we live with art and architecture. It’s my background. It’s the founding text or founding innovation that I always try to apply. The premise is like Mies Van Der Rohe international design, and some of the investigations that Rem Koolhaas has been doing. That’s always what I’ve been trying to articulate to make my version of “streetwear” be valid—have a underlying text, or reason for existing.
One of the philosophies of that New Bauhaus school is that art can be learned. It’s not about being prodigious; it’s about willing to educate yourself, whether it’s in academic institutions or outside of them. I think that applies to your System interview, where you mention making art and products that appeal to “tourists and purists.” Can you expand on that?
VA: My own research and findings have been how I rationalize making things. I identified that there’s two stratospheres of people that—in large part—products, art, are circled into meaning for one or the other. I’ve been intrigued by trying to make something that does that for both. I see it as almost like two distinct subsections of people: Those that know, and those that are casually interested in learning but aren’t necessarily focused on it. That’s helped me, as a device, think creatively, no matter what the genre.
You both comment on pop culture and consumerism in your own ways, Murakami has done a work featuring Nusret “Salt Bae” Gokce, and your recent Nike collaboration reinvents some of the label’s most popular silhouettes in a modern context. Is there still a line between pure commerce and pure creativity?
Takashi Murakami: The verdict on the line between pure commerce and pure creativity can only be left to the future history; that’s my conclusion.
VA: That’s what I love about Murakami. The DNA of him is he’s limitless in his freedom just to articulate his vision across different platforms. We don’t really distinguish the line between art and commerce. We have ideas between both, and it’s up to us to define what our standard is in each realm. Me and my artwork has a different look and feel than his, and that show shows how they can combine, but they’re two distinct notions. Next week, on the 16th, I open my own solo exhibition in Tokyo, which will be the first glimpse into what me—as a contemporary artist—looks and feels like. It’s a distillation of things that have been seen before, but the raw ethos on how I think. I’m doing that so that it exists.
Where will the exhibition be?
VA: In Tokyo. It’s at Takashi’s gallery, Kaikai Kiki.
What does collaboration mean nowadays?
TM: I don’t know about nowadays, but I have been doing many collaborations with a variety of companies and creators ever since I had made my debut as an artist. The merit of doing a collaboration is that it lets you find a new field for your work’s potentials. For example, the collaboration with Issey Miyake was my first with a clothing company, and I discovered that my work could be made into a textile pattern. And in turn, bringing that pattern back into the realm of art, I also discovered that I could create a minimalistic painting with it. There were so many new discoveries just in that project that I came to fully appreciate the benefit of collaborating.
VA: With anything, collaboration can be done on the surface level or it can have a deeper meaning. I’m only interested in defining a deeper meaning, and trying to make another level of product that couldn’t exist without that study.
How has the importance of iconography evolved in a digital ecosystem so dependent on visuals? Characters like Mr. DOB and the Murakami flower have become recognizable as OFF-WHITE’s multi-directional arrow. Does it speak to an evolved brand awareness in 2018?
TM: From early on, I had taken note of the significance and the need for an icon in the art world, and thought that I needed to make something into an icon in my work as well. For example, Picasso’s icon is the distorted upper body, especially the face, of the Cubism woman. When you see it, you immediately know who the artist is. Easily recognizable icons such as Marylin [Monroe] and Warhol’s self-portraits, in hindsight, make the artist easier to understand. In reverse, then, I thought it would help me establish my identity as an artist if I found an easy-to-understand iconography first, and so I created one.
VA: That’s what the show is generally about. It’s a number of notions; some of it’s decorative conversation to link two worlds. My referencing of the OFF-WHITE “Industrial Belt” graphic—but in a new context—is a physical, existing example of how that can be done. That’s why the show is called “Future History.” We wanted to put this flag in the ground so that now it can be accepted, rejected, iterated upon, but it’s no longer a theory.
It could be as profound as the first idea of putting graphic on a T-shirt. That was a leap in terms of birthing streetwear in a significant way. We’re all descendants of a box logo, and everyone has their attempt to make a Polo horse. My existence has been to always try to extend the definition of “streetwear,” so it becomes an encompassing term for the intellect that I think it’s based upon.
How has the advent of Instagram and knowledge that even a temporary work leaves a digital footprint affect the creative process? Though the works are only on display for a limited time, they will already have a legacy through hashtags, geotags, and the like.
TM: The beauty of Instagram boils down to the fact that it has rendered the superfluous element of advertisement between the viewer and the artist unnecessary. It’s wonderful that the creators can convey just what they want to convey, and the receivers also now desire such raw information.
VA: Those are things that I consider while creating almost everything, that exhibition included. I think it’s vital in creating work that exists now—to sort of understand its life cycle, how people consume things. That’s a fact of our modern circumstance.
Building on the previous question, what is art’s role as a demonstrable evolution for the so-called “conscious consumer?” The aspiration of course is to go from being an appreciator of nice things to the eventual owner of them, but with exhibitions like this, being able to physically visit the space versus see the work online provides a different context and in many ways a “digital flex” for those fortunate enough to attend.
TM: Part of the experience of collecting has to do with the desire to show what you have obtained and share your joy with others, and Instagram lets you achieve this. In turn, we notice collectible items through information discovered on Instagram, acquire them, hold them in our possessions, photograph them, share them, discover those who share our passions, and spread the joy. I think this cycle of experiences has just been established so that everyone is excited and is enjoying it.
VA: I think that the sense of community [is] what that root in our generation impacts—whether it’s a lineup at a store, a lineup for a sneaker release, or in the mosh pit at the Travis Scott show. If culturally, we’re gonna evolve and have monuments, there needs to be specificity. That’s another ambition. I agreed to do this exhibit because the 300 kids that have been outside probably have never used their phone to Google where Gagosian was; they might not even know necessarily what it is.
That’s the metric that intrigues me. It’s that by saying “no” to doing that, that just forfeited 300. And as you said, digitally, how many people have consumed the show? A gallery employee who’d worked at Gagosian for 12 years said they’d never seen that many people at an opening, let alone young people who’d never been before. Of course, we can question anything, but one metric that can’t be questioned is that we have—by doing this type of project—we’ve perhaps opened a door that previously was closed.
Virgil, how do you see that reverse synergy evolving? Where someone who might not go to the Gagosian or might not be aware of the width and breadth of what Murakami has done, is then reverse-engineering what he’s doing; what you’re doing. “Giving them the tools” or “cheat codes,” as you say.
VA: My theory is that it’ll lead to more inroads later. That’s the best thing you can ask for in a creative lifetime—to have some lasting impact when you’re gone.
Virgil Abloh and Takashi Murakami’s “Future History” exhibit is on display at the Gagosian in London through April 7. Virgil Abloh’s solo exhibit at Tokyo’s Kaikai Kiki Gallery is expected to open March 16. Now check out more from “Future History.”