JAPANESE ART LECTURE HONG KONG
On November 28 2008 world-renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami gave a lecture organised by Christie’s as an ancillary event appended to their November sales in Hong Kong. He is the only visual artist in Time’s 2008 list of the 100 most influential people in art.
Single greatest catalyst for explosion of interest in art
In the introduction to the lecture by Edward Dolman CEO of Christie’s, Dolman thanked Takashi Murakami for being the ‘single greatest catalyst’ for the ‘explosion of interest’ in the art world in the last ten years. He explained that twenty years ago art was sold to just ‘a few very privileged communities’ but today art and design have become part of the popular culture and Takashi Murakami has played a ‘huge’ part in bringing art to the people and making it accessible for them.
Murakami’s recession concerns
Murakami opened with the some comments on the current financial recession expressing concern for the market and the 130 sculptors, artists and animators employed by his Kaikai Kiki company. In all 400 peple are connected to the organisation. But he stressed these circumstances are normal to him as an artist implying that the marketing of art is always a challenge.
Murakami identifies himself as ‘otaku’
The substance of the lecture was about the main movements in Japanese popular culture principally ‘otaku’, a culture of young men isolated from mainstream society who are unmarried and often live at home spending hours on video games. Murakami clearly wants to be identified with the group mentioning a couple of times during the lecture that ‘I myself am unmarried’. It is difficult to know whether this is the disingenuous ploy of a marketing genius however he did seem at pains to explain the movement which he tried to communicate with words, images and one and a half minute videos. But in repeated asides to his audience ‘you probably won’t understand this’ there was a subtext of futility.
Malaise in Japanese society
The sense of not being understood which pervaded the lecture prompted a question from the audience at the end: “How important is it to you that people who see your work understand your culture?” This triggered more explanations delivered with some passion. “Japanese people cannot identify themselves as Japanese so they share the ‘otaku’ culture as an alternative. To be part of community is a fundamental human need. Japanese society is now peaceful and noone is starving. Noone needs to worry about what to eat the next day but there is still a malaise, it is difficult to find satisfaction.”
So ‘Otaku’ is about filling that hole.
Otaku is like a drug
A breathy young woman said she had noticed that were lots of women in the animation asked if there was a link between this phenomenon and why ‘otaku’ men remained unmarried and whether Murakami himself planned to stay unmarried. The translator deftly ignored the latter question. Murakami explained that the life of an ‘otaku’ male is like the life of a drug addict. Hours are spent on video games to get a dopamine like high but they need to spend more and more hours to get the same kick, like ‘hard-core junkies’. ‘Otaku’ guys find it difficult to communicate with girls, they are hard to approach.
The tendency to idolatry expressed by ‘otaku’ followers was not explicitly stated by Murakami but came across strongly in the videos. Women are portrayed as inaccessible over-feminine superheroines with magical powers, flat and unreal. Oh Murakami mentioned here, in an interesting aside, that ‘otaku’ men don’t like computer-generated animation, they like their women drawn by hand. Is this as close to the physical as they can comfortably get?
But it is not just women who are idolised….the behaviour spans the genders. We were shown a curious, almost alarming video – but then we had been warned that we probably wouldn’t understand – in which a group of guys surrounded one young man on a small stand whose dancing they were imitating. The dance disintegrated into what seemed to be genufluctions and adulation. There were no women; the men were awkward and, to use Murakami’s word, ‘uncool’.
Otaku has roots in defeat of Japan in World War II
So where does this intriguing culture of geeky rites, addictions and fantasy characters come from? Murakami has a surprising theory. He believes that the defeat of the Japanese in World War II led to a rejection of the Japanese identity, a turning away from Japanese culture. “Winning countries were able to maintain their culture but we had to break the link with our past, we had to create something completely new”. That the War is even offered as an explanation of a movement which arose 50 years after the event is startling. National shame is still an issue for Murakami and, so he claims, for all of Japan. This is an interesting theory but not altogether convincing: after all why is ‘otaku’ and Japanese culture becoming such a popular export to the rest of the world including the World War II winners?
What will we see next from Japan and otaku?
And what can the rest of the world expect to see as the next export? Well some of the ‘otaku’ fads Murakami mentions are ‘itasha’ (car sticker art) and ‘itansha’ (bicycle and motorbike art). ‘Otaku’ males who are unmarried have plenty of spare money and they spend it on the latest ‘otaku’ fad. Giant car stickers of cartoon cute manga and video game heroines adorn vehicles. There are ‘otaku’ spots with shops dedicated to ‘otaku’ gear.
‘Otaku’ girls are developing their own culture in which they experience unreal love for male fantasy characters which they express by dressing up as the object of their desire. In the female version of the ‘otaku’ culture, again alarmingly but we won’t go into that further here, there are elements of masochism and pain.
Art is a bloodless revolution for Murakami
So what is art to do in this culture? How is art responding? These questions haunt Murakami who says they have made him question the purpose of art. He keeps a sticker on the wall of his office setting out defintions of art. In sum he says “Art is a bloodless revolution – that is the most important thing for me”.
So war, blood and fighting are never far from Murakam’s mind it seems. He showed us another video created by MR. a member of Kai Kai Ki Ki in which cute schoolgirl-aged females played with cuddly toys and then appeared dressed up as fantasy characters shooting eachother in survival games. “Japanese perceive war as unreal”, explained Murakami, “they play at war games they are just playing, war is just a sport. Japanese people don’t link war with death and pain.”
Murakami embraces Japanese identity
While it is more of a stretch to accept Murakami’s self-proclaimed identity as an ‘otaku’ male – after all how can you spend hours playing video games alone in your bedroom if you run a multi-million dollar art factory – there can be no doubt that Murakami’s identity as Japanese is keenly felt. On more than one occasion he came to the defense of Japan. That the Japanese treat war as a fantasy game “is not good or bad” he says” it is just the situation”. In defense of criticism – raised by himself a propos of nothing obvious – that the Japanese do not donate to charities he says that the Japanese prefer to contribute their time not money.
Takashi Murakami is a complex man. Speaking quietly, he is articulate but, in true ‘otaku’ style, somewhat uncomfortable in himself- at the beginning of the lecture to the organisers “I am sitting here, what do you want me to do”. Dressed in grungy artist clothes surrounded by Christie’s suits, speaking slickly and acting awkwardly: who is Takashi Murakami? Many things: a businessman, an ‘otaku’ nerd, a Japanese national, an artist but most important of all he is a phenomenon who is having a profound influence on the course of global culture.
- Asians, women show momentum and banks tumble in Art Review’s Power 100 2008 – Oct 2008
- Takashi Murakami’s one-of-a-kind art fair Gesai grows in size – Saatchi – Sep 2008
Related links: Takashi Murakami in wikipedia