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Superflat: Kitty Hauser on fan fare.

Like the answered prayers of a cargo cult, a consignment of shiny robots, pneumatic girls, and celluloid explosions landed at LA MOCA'S newest satellite gallery at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood in January 2001, as if dropped from Japanese supply planes. "Superflat," which would later descend on Minneapolis and Seattle, was the brainchild of artist-impresario Takashi Murakami, who had honed his curatorial concept in two shows at Parco department stores in Nagoya and Tokyo's Shibuya district the year before. Though the American incarnation was bigger (and included some different artists and works), it was primarily for the Japanese exhibitions that the bilingual Super Flat catalogue had been conceived and printed. The same year that the show traveled stateside, Murakami exhibited his own line of superflat art in Paris, Boston, New York (at Marianne Boesky Gallery and in Grand Central Station), and on the cover of the June edition of Art in America. "He's here; he's there; he's everywhere," proclaimed the New York Times. By the summer of 2003, Murakami really was everywhere. While his large-scale paintings and sculptures were selling for more than half a million dollars at auction, smaller Murakami collectibles could be snapped up for a few dollars on the Internet, and the collection of limited-edition bags and accessories he designed for Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton had already become the fetishes of the global fashionista.




Never has a self-proclaimed art movement had better market coverage from the outset or more successful niche marketing at every level. Murakami's assault on the Western art world was calculated for maximum cultural impact and profitability. Superflat (the two words of the Japanese catalogue became one Google-friendly neologism on arrival in America) was a branded art phenomenon designed primarily for Western audiences and markets at a time when the Japanese contemporary art market had been decimated by the bursting of the economic bubble. Murakami is, after all, a man who read Bill Gates for management tips when setting up his artmaking company, Kaikai Kiki, based--with a nod to Warhol--at the Hiropon Factory in the suburbs of Tokyo, where he employs a business manager in addition to forty-odd assistants who execute paintings and other tasks according to Murakami's specifications.

"Superflat" was the name given by Murakami to a sensibility he discerned in Japanese culture, past and present, characterized, by a lack of perspective, an extreme planarity, and an interest in particular kinds of movement, expressed graphically. It was evident in the traditional nihonga painting in which Murakami himself was trained (to PhD level) and in the ukiyo-e prints of Hiroshige; it pervaded the fantasy worlds of manga and anime; and it informed the work of a new generation of artists, illustrators, designers, and animators whose products were showcased in the "Superflat" exhibition that toured America. These included Yoshitomo Nara's strangely menacing paintings of bulbous-headed infants; the groovisions design collective's "chappies"--an army of expressionless mannequins; the videos of animator Koji Morimoto (who worked on the seminal anime film Akira); and work by the fashion group 20471120.

Murakami's writings on superflat charmingly--and cleverly--position it within a history of art in which it is the successor to both Japanese visual traditions and Western Pop art, while also displaying an insider's knowledge of so-called otaku subcultures. Otaku (the English word closest in meaning is "geek," or perhaps "fan") are fanatic consumers, collectors, and purveyors of manga, anime, and video games. In Japan, mainstream usage of the word has had negative connotations since the late '80s, when four little girls were murdered by Tsutomu Miyazaki, whose loner lifestyle and cultural obsessions were described by an alarmed media as otaku. The case highlighted fears about a generation of kids who seemed to be disappearing into an unreal world peopled by shape-shifting monsters, robots, and eroticized schoolgirls; who obsessively memorized pop trivia, drew their own amateur manga, and dressed up as their favorite characters on Sundays (an activity known as cosplay). This complex and hermetic world--a fantasy-fueled parallel universe peopled with warriors, tree-spirits, astronauts, demons, and cuties--is safely insulated from reality, in which otaku have little faith.

The world of the otaku has a growing cult appeal around the globe, and Murakami has cashed in on its drawing power. Otaku imagery and genres permeated "Superflat," with its manga girls drawn on the backs of old receipts by the artist known mysteriously as Mr.; cult films by animator Yoshinori Kanada; anime figurines by Bome, well-known as the creator of DIY anime model kits; and Murakami's own cast of characters, most notably the grinning, Mickey Mouse-like Mr. DOB, available on paintings, dolls, cell phone straps, key chains, and mouse pads. Murakami's genius was to package elements of otaku culture, cunningly framing them for the delectation of a Western artgoing public well versed in art history and theory and intrigued by the pop-exotica of Japan. Superflat art is surprisingly flexible. It is graciously and knowingly amenable to art historical, cultural, theoretical, and non-theoretical readings alike. Art critics can try out their Lacanian/Derridean/Deleuzian moves on it with impunity; curators can juxtapose it with traditional Edo paintings and films by legendary anime director Hayao Miyazaki; cultural critics can muse on the significance of kawaii (Japanese cuteness), pop versus high culture, or art's commodification; otaku wannabes can spot allusions to their favorite artists, games, or films; and just about everyone can delight in the high production values, the glistening surfaces, and the unexpected shocks of sex--and of artful beauty--as they make their way to the museum shop.

None of this is accidental, or incidental: Murakami makes it his business to appeal to a broad audience by carrying out what he calls "research about the art market" (he seems to have paid particularly close attention to the success of Damien Hirst) and by anxiously courting new audiences, consumers, and age groups. In interviews he is by turns flippant and serious, politically earnest and cynically expedient. At times he has claimed, only fairly convincingly, to "express hopelessness," speaking for an alienated and politically inert generation of otaku; at other times (within the same interview) he has admitted that some of his assertions are "sophistry in order to market my work," exploiting the fact that Japanese subcultures have a fascination, especially in the West. ("Is it OK for you to say that?" asked his interviewer, nervously.) His work is similarly designed to appeal on a number of levels. My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998, for example, is a by-now familiar larger-than-life manga-style figurine of a naked blonde boy gleefully ejaculating a lasso of semen above his head. The figure's scale and subject matter are clearly sensational, ensuring media visibility; the title is taken from a Warhol film, lending a playful art-historical gravitas for those who care about such things; the face--as some might recognize--is lifted straight from the Nintendo video game Final Fantasy.

Critics with a mind to can find here a sly critique of the spectacular but arcane and self-gratifying world of the otaku. My Lonesome Cowboy and his lactating companion Hiropon, 1997, take an otaku genre--the figurine--and by blowing it up to what, for otaku "purists," seem grotesque proportions and endowing it with semen lassos and breast-milk jump ropes, satirize the puerile obsessions of anime and manga subcultures. But they also simply magnify those obsessions, and the line between critique and celebration is so fine it hardly seems worth pursuing. This indeterminacy is, of course, characteristic of pop art in general, as Murakami is surely well aware. But it also serves his purpose of market saturation to leave his critical options open, enabling him to play the role of international artist, brand manager, sage, and apologist for a subculture which he presents--when it suits him--as "discriminated against" in mainstream Japan.

There are signs, though, that Murakami may not be quite on top of his game. Having announced widely that it "may be a little old-fashioned" to separate art and consumerism, Murakami seems thrown, slightly, by the fallout of the phenomenal success of the Vuitton bags and their ubiquitous Main Street copies. Worried that his high-art credentials might be eclipsed, he thinks perhaps he should return to more traditional subject matter and media. Back in 2001, Murakami looked rather more confident.

Yet the real source of the appeal of superflat art is surely the popular culture off which it feeds, and to which it has--in the end--little to add. Otaku culture may be nihilistic, escapist, and regressive, but it can also be as allusive, inventive, reflexive, and sophisticated as anything high art--or, for that matter, Hollywood--can come up with these days. Add to that startling beauty, cult appeal, accessibility, and commerical success in a growing global market, and it's hard to see how the art world--including Murakami--can compete. And as the ever-multiplying Monogram Multicolore handbags indicate, it's worth remembering that however promiscuously an artist may seek to mix art and commerce, high and low, no one does it better than the market itself.

Kitty Hauser is a writer based in Sydney. Her book on archaeologist and photographer O.G.S. Crawford, Bloody Old Britain, is forthcoming from Granta.
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Title Annotation:Popisms
Author:Hauser, Kitty
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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