BY James Roberts in Frieze | 10 OCT 02
Featured in
Issue 70

Magic Mushrooms

Takashi Murakami

BY James Roberts in Frieze | 10 OCT 02

Yet Delacroix himself failed to complete very much at all; as his diaries notoriously narrate, he found it difficult to suppress his desire long enough to keep away from his models, and once sated he found it impossible to do any work. Perhaps complete expression requires sublimation - a compression of desire into the re-fashioning of the subject.

Like perfectly polished Pop music, with its samples shaped and filtered to glisten and shimmer in the hiss-free sonic vacuum from which they emerge, creating the perfect outline with the subtlest of variations, the perfect colour combinations and an immaculate, unblemished surface take you to another level of aesthetic experience entirely. It's not raw and gutsy - if you like that kind of thing - but raw and gutsy often tends to be saying 'we'll struggle through somehow, things are okay how they are'. Maybe they aren't. Complete expression is about making things the way they ought to be, or should have been, or already are when you rebuild the world in your own imagination.

Take a look at Takashi Murakami's Kawaii! Vacances d'été (Cute! Summer Holidays, 2002), an immersive 9 metre long wall panel, and you are welcomed by serried rows of gleeful, open-mouthed flowers. An occasional bloom might be contentedly asleep or wincing in surprise - and there is even a stray tear drop escaping from a floral eyelid - but the overall effect is one of happy, nostalgic reverie - everything that memories of summer are meant to be about. You can't get away from the sense of benign placidity: the cartoon blue sky, the blossoms carried on an imaginary breeze and the gentle ascendant clouds that lift you up into the image. There are so few basic elements to the picture that it is surprising it is able to create such a tangible sense of mood. It does so in a way that is almost a complete reversal of capturing the optical impression of a real place at a particular moment. Instead it is a distillation down to the simplest, most stylized graphic elements that are able to suggest a shimmering summer day with not a care in the world. This is a feeling that appears elsewhere in contemporary Japanese culture (literature, photography, video game scenarios ...) and seems to hark back lovingly to hazy school summer holidays, days of drifting along in the warmth before the very different concerns of adult life have had a chance to bite.

Formally Kawaii! Vacances d'été is a work not so much about what things look like but how ideas of things might look - in the West that's a pre-Renaissance, post-industrial kind of thing. Exhibited alongside it at Murakami's recent show 'Kaikai Kiki' at the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in Paris was Kumo-Kun (Mr Cloud, 2002). A painted fibreglass relief of a cloud with smiling mouth and eyes, the sculpture shares the same kind of anthropomorphism of the flowers in the neighbouring painting. Projecting human characteristics onto animals, plants and inanimate objects is one way of relating to them, absorbing them into the inner world of the imagination. I had a niece who used to anthropomorphize her food and would talk about 'ebi-kun' (Mr Shrimp) before eating him. It was childish (most children are), but an important step in the transformation of reality into fantasy. Fantasy requires coherence - it needs to be glued together with a mythology, or cast of characters, and a convincing aesthetic.

The erotic side of fantasy is touched on in Murakami's sculptures such as Hiropon (1997), My Lonesome Cowboy (1998) and Second Mission Project Ko2 (1999), which play upon some of the more extreme stylistic bodily transformations found not only in Japanese amateur erotic comics but in pre-Modern Japanese erotic imagery in general. They are about sex as a visual fantasy rather than physical activity - eroticism as an aesthetic. But sublimation is not only about desire, it is also about fear - sometimes both at the same time. If you can come to possess something by delineating it perfectly, with no vague areas or fudged, broken outlines, then maybe it is also possible to contain anxiety in the same way, by making it visible and precisely described. It is hard to think of Murakami's recent paintings with mushroom characters, such as Super Nova (1999), without relating them to his earlier series of atomic cloud images entitled 'Mushroom Bomb'(2001). If you can give a face to the fear that hangs over the 21st century does it become easier to live with? If you can stylize angst - as in the series 'Homage to Francis Bacon' (2002) - does this allow you to step back from it?

Discussion of Murakami's work often tends to revolve around the relationship between the peculiarities of the enervated Japanese fine art world and the country's more vigorous popular and subcultures. In fact Murakami has described himself as an anime otaku who abandoned his roots in favour of the contemporary art world and was only drawn back into the fold while living in New York and becoming homesick for his favourite films. But there are otaku and otaku. If you read a lot of fan fiction, or browse through much fan art, it becomes glaringly obvious that it requires a very particular cast of mind and a great deal of discipline to create something that transcends the medium concerned - whether it's Pop, anime, manga or video games. Perhaps otaku is the wrong word - it ties everything to a specific cultural context when there is much more involved. There isn't really an appropriate word in English: 'hobbyist' sounds low-budget and ham-fisted, while 'perfectionist' has too many extraneous connotations. (Was the Prince of Around the World in a Day, 1985, ensconced in Paisley Park and fastidiously honing every note on the album, an otaku?) In some ways Murakami's practise is not at all characteristic of otaku culture: it's keenly self-aware in relation to contemporary Japanese culture as a whole and it is created not in frenzied isolation but in collaboration with teams of assistants and technicians with an extremely high level of skill. It's not presented to an audience steeped in popular culture but to a contemporary art one (which is not to say that the contemporary art world isn't itself a subculture).

Perhaps Murakami's work only reveals itself in the full range of his activities: character design; manufacture of low-cost artist's merchandise; exhibition curation - 'Ero Pop Tokyo' (1998), 'Superflat' (2000) and 'Nurie' (Colouring Book, 2002) amongst others - which draws together strands of popular Japanese culture, past and present, in an attempt to outline what the framework for a contemporary Japanese visual culture might be. But there is a sense that behind all this is an image of the world - pristine and perfectly finished - that is slowly seeping out into the light of day.