Takashi Murakami | Behind Smiling Flowers

On the morning of August 9th 1945, two American pilots carried out a mission to bomb Japan’s city of Kokura. But given poor weather conditions, the mission was re-routed to their secondary target, Nagasaki. “Growing up, Takashi Murakami’s mother constantly reminded him that had the weather been good in her home town of Kokura that day, she would not be here today and neither would he,” explains Nick Simunovic, Director of the Gagosian gallery in Hong Kong where Murakami’s ‘Flowers and Skulls’ exhibition was held recently. “There are elements of repression, trauma and anxiety in Murakami’s paintings but also a strong sense of renewal, optimism and rebirth.”

Simunovic is standing in front of a piece titled ‘Time Bokan’. Painted on a shocking lime green background, the work features a mushroom cloud in the form of a skull. The eyes are wreaths made up of Murakami’s signature smiling flowers. “The message Murakami aims to convey in this piece is that no fear is irredeemable,” states Simunovic.

The painting’s namesake is a Japanese children’s television anime from the 1970’s in which every episode ends with an apocalyptic explosion. “There’s a reason that Manga obsessively shows images of the atomic bomb,” Murakami stated in the BBC Four documentary ‘Takashi Murakami – Birth of Super flat’ “We Japanese are the only people who have ever actually experienced the atomic bomb where everything disappears in a flash, thanks to a man-made force more powerful than the Gods. This has made us numb; past feeling and past caring. The smiling flowers are just like, ‘Ok! We give up!'”

It’s mid-afternoon on the opening day of ‘Flowers and Skulls’ and possibly one of the gloomiest days Hong Kong has seen for a while. Like school children on an excursion, a group of journalists and photographers huddle together in the foyer of Hong Kong’s Gagosian gallery, waiting to meet the man behind the smiling flowers, psychedelic pandas and glittering skulls.

Despite the nature of ‘Flowers and Skulls’, upon meeting Murakami there is no hint of a tortured or dark artist. He is cheeky, charismatic and animated; a ne representation of the whimsical characters in his paintings that the world has come to know and, on better days, love.

Armed with our pens, pads, recording devices and cameras, we follow the portly, goateed Murakami as he leads us through the exhibition, which is slightly smaller than expected. On display are a total of 14 pieces, nine of which are new. The artist tells us that he is backed by a team of 10 to 15 people working 12-hour shifts at his 24-hour studio in Tokyo and even then, the smaller pieces still take at least six to nine months to complete, due to Murakami’s meticulous perfectionism, which has been described over and over again as legendary. The artist also has a studio in New York, and word on the street is that he is set to open an animation studio in Los Angeles.

“How can I do?” Murakami asks as he stands in front of ‘Flower Ball Cosmos’, one of his most recognisable pieces. A chain of camera ashes follows, leaving him feeling visibly awkward, but he begins to have fun with the photographers, striking comical poses and making faces. His charm and playfulness rubs off and the gallery goes from stiff and quiet to echoing with laughter.

Murakami then takes us to the back of the gallery where the piece de resistance – a whopping 300 x 600 cm painting - takes up the entire back wall. He sits down cross-legged in front of the painting and begins to tell the story behind the epic piece entitled ‘Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls and Fountains’. It’s a re-iteration of an 800 year-old Chinese painting by a Japanese artist which Murakami completed in 2011, the same year as the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. “The message is that nature is winning,” he says as he gestures to the smiling Chinese lion in the painting, which stands over a bridge of skulls. Murakami keeps his translator close to avoid any linguistic slip-ups. “Human beings are gone, but the lion stays and the waterfall also stays. Nature always wins.”

Murakami is a Bachelor and Master of ne Arts and holds a PhD from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music where he studied Nihonga, a traditional Japanese painting technique dating back to the Meiji period of Imperial Japan. There is a hilarity and irony in his work that has developed as a result of Murakami’s fascination with mixing traditional forms of Japanese ne art with kitsch elements of contemporary Japanese culture.

The paradoxes between the two have ultimately led to Murakami’s theory-turned-phenomenon ‘Super at’, which is based on the idea that art and society in Japan have collapsed in depth after decades of submission and repression, becoming attened and super cial. “Basically, Japan has been emasculated and castrated.” Murakami told BBC Four host Ben Lewis in ‘Birth of Super at’.

There’s no question that Murakami has single-handedly changed the way in which the world views contemporary Japanese art. Many critics and curators have dubbed him Japan’s answer to Andy Warhol, who, similar to Murakami, paid homage to icons in popular culture and translated them into ne art. “This sort of chintzy, kitschy, over-the-top pop iconography - that’s the stuff he takes,” says Paul Schimmel, Chief Curator at MoCA in Los Angeles, of Murakami’s art. “The fashion world, the world of glitz and glamour, the consumerist aesthetic; these are all dirty words that become the stuff of his work.”

In 2008, Murakami was the only visual artist to make Time Magazine’s 100 Most In uential People. Since pioneering ‘Super at’, Murakami has paved the way for a new generation of artists who share his views on what has become of Japan’s culture since the end of World War II. Common subjects in ‘Super at’ are Otaku, a term used to describe Japanese adults who behave like children and Japan’s obsession with incorporating cute characters into everyday life. In his book published in 2005, Murakami concludes, “The theory of ‘Super at’ is all about Japan’s loss of national identity.” But perhaps the work of Takashi Murakami may ultimately play a role in bringing that identity back...