PARIS — “In the West, contemporary art is a thing for the super-rich or the super-intellectual,” says Takashi Murakami, while overseeing the installation of his first major European exhibition at the Cartier Foundation. “But in post-war Japan, we never had a hierarchy of taste to elevate contemporary art to such a monolithic position.”
As one of the most visible members of the Neo-Pop movement that emerged in Japan in the Nineties, Murakami, 40, incorporates naïve cartoon-like animation and futuristic toys into his colorful paintings and sculptures. And Like Andy Warhol, who often explored the limits between art and business, Murakami runs two Factory-like studios, in Brooklyn and Tokyo, with the rigor of a multinational ceo. Called the Kaikai Kiki Corp., he employs about 30 people who produce his art and derivative T-shirts, hats, watches and even logos for pop groups. “In the end, everything has a business element to it,” he says. “Why deny it?”
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But behind Murakami’s cute aesthetic and commercial approach, a darker message lurks, often in the form of Mr. Dob, the iconic Mickey Mouse-like character who has appeared in his work for almost a decade. “Mr. Dob is my alter-ego. At first glance, the painting may not appear serious,” explains Murakami, pointing to a huge image of Mr. Dob vomiting. “But through Dob, I recount many dark things. It’s an image about life, about having to live — even if I have to puke to do it. I borrowed the theme from [Sir Francis] Bacon, that sickness is part of life and brings you slowly closer to death.”
The mushrooms Murakami depicts in many of his paintings suggest the atomic catastrophes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and work to subvert the the notion of “kawaii,” or cuteness, that is so important in contemporary Japan. “In the beginning it [kawaii] was pretty positive, expressing a fairy tale-like world,” the artist says. “But, with the current economic downslide, a certain dark side has replaced kawaii. The Japanese are very susceptible to dark, almost monstrous images.”
Murakami, whose solo show runs until Sept. 29 and is scheduled to move to London’s Serpentine Gallery in November, isn’t the only artist playing cuteness against cruelty. He has curated a group exhibition of contemporary Japanese artists, showing simultaneously at Cartier, which blends fashion, painting and drawing with toys and images of Pokémon.
“The idea was to show how everything is jumbled together in Japan today,” Murakami explains. “It’s a very Japanese vision: part naïve, part cute, part horrible and raw.”