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The Eternal Whims Of Economics, As Seen By Japanese Artist Murakami

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has unveiled a large fresco capturing the history of economics, from the Sumerians to Elon Musk, at a gallery in the suburbs of Paris. French journalist Yann Rousseau met him in his studio near Tokyo.

Photo of Takashi Murakami in front of his art works

Takashi Murakami stands next to his famous smiley face flower at his exhibition in France

Yann Rousseau

PARISElon Musk is done. Keynes hangs on the wall. They’re killing Marx on the floor.

In the vast, windowless studio of Takashi Murakami, in Miyoshi, on the outskirts of Tokyo, about 10 assistants are working, kneeling on laminated cushions, above new giant portraits designed by the Japanese artist.

Barefoot, with a ponytail and washed-out jeans, the artist gives a few brief instructions, before heading to the back of the studio, where a separate team works on other projects.

Clothes for a new collaboration, paintings of blue and white carps inspired by Chinese porcelain, a new deck of cards or several tormented versions of his favorite character, Mr. Dob, a kind of avatar created in the 1990s — the artist never stops, too filled with ideas.

He sleeps a bit at night or during short naps in a corner of the studio, always in a cardboard box. “He also has a small space to cook his meals," whispers an assistant. There are no restaurants in the small industrial park where the studio is based, except for a McDonald’s.

On the wall, just like in a factory, organization charts and detailed schedules with the missions of each “artist." His company Kaikai Kiki has a total of 200 employees. On this Friday afternoon at the end of May, the last few squares of paint on the wig of Scottish economist Adam Smith have to be finished, as well as a blow-dry on the aqua t-shirt of Vitalik Buterin, creator of Ethereum and a final touch-up on the image of Chinese historian Sima Qian, before it all departs on a cargo plane for France.

The new ten portraits crudely pixelated, telling the chronological history of the economy over more than 3,000 years, were unveiled on June 10 at the Gagosian gallery of the Bourget, as part of the exhibition, “Understanding the New Cognitive Domain."

"During the pandemic, I spent more time in Kyoto, where my family lives, and I was surprised to see my daughter marvel at digital fireworks organized inside the Animal Crossing: New Horizons Nintendo game," says Murakami. “It was an extremely simple game — just dots, big pixels, nothing to do with the fineness of real fireworks, but my daughter thought it was gorgeous and it forced me to completely rethink our relationship to beauty in the digital era," he adds.

Dive into the metaverse 

It was almost a complete reversal of values. “Now that I’m in the last phase of my life, I can work on these new forms,” says the 61-year-old artist, who dreads the decline that precedes death. His father, a former cab driver in Tokyo, discovered that he had Alzheimer's just before his 70th birthday. He died in 2021.

Murakami has been immersing himself, since 2020, in understanding the metaverse.

Affected by gout since the age of 36, Murakami tries to take care of his health: he quit smoking and only allows himself half an occasional half glass of wine.

Fascinated by digital technology, but feeling that he lacks the skills to venture into the design of a complex video game, Murakami has been immersing himself, since 2020, in understanding the metaverse. He worked with the studio RTFKT on CloneX images and launched, last year, his own NFT collection based on pixelated versions of his colorful and laughing flowers, one of his most iconic yet misunderstood works. Many are still for sale on the OpenSea platform, for 0.45 Ethereum (about €800).

Photo of Murakami and artist Yokohama Silver

Murakami and artist Yokohama Silver preparing a project together


Pixel metaphysics

In his new fresco, composed of personalities who each, in their time, disrupted economic history, he uses those same thick pixels to question the value of future artworks. “My portraits are gigantic but painted with huge dots, as if their definition was very low. When you’re right in front of them, the technique used can seem very basic, so almost without value compared to classical paintings," he says.

Today, finances are still tight.

“But the idea is precisely to create this blur, to suggest a questioning in order to share the experience I feel when faced with digital works," he says. It’s not about judging, but understanding. “With this work, I’m going back to the first research on the relationship between art and capitalism,” says the designer, who has never seen a distinction between work for intimate galleries and that for luxury or street wear, or between fine arts, popular art and merchandising, as long as it means we continue to create and invent.

“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” said Andy Warhol. Murakami doesn’t hesitate to present himself as the boss of an enterprise that has to support 200 employees every month. Three years ago, when the pandemic froze circulation and projects, he confided in his 2.5 million Instagram followers that he was on the verge of bankruptcy, and had to put an end to an expensive animated movie project. “Today, finances are still tight,” says the artist, despite having enjoyed a series of successes.

Sense of the Nonsense of Sense

A graduate of Tokyo's National University of Fine Arts and Music, where he studied nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) and wrote a thesis titled "The Sense of the Nonsense of Sense," Murakami made a name for himself in the small Japanese contemporary art scene in the 1990s. His unique style combines references to the great classical Japanese paintings, American pop culture and local codes of manga and anime.

Western audiences were quickly captivated. He collaborated for years with Louis Vuitton, creating works with Virgil Abloh and Pharrell Williams, designed skateboards for Supreme, sneakers for Vans and t-shirts for Uniqlo. Kanye West entrusted him with the direction of his music video "Good Morning,” while Billie Eilish chose him for "You Should See Me in a Crown.” Kim Kardashian and her children visited the studio again just a few days ago.

With his generous use of color and simple forms, he is often perceived by the general public as an artist of joy and carefreeness, even if his philosophy is much darker. "I'm from the same generation as Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, but the big difference is that I come from a country that was defeated during World War II," explains Takashi Murakami, who says he is influenced by this period of Japanese history.

The "Superflat" theory 

That influence comes not necessarily from the defeat of 1945, but rather the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs, as well as his nation's inability to reflect on its crimes during the conflict and, subsequently, on the powerless nature of its relationship with American power. "We accepted everything without debate," he notes.

Stifling any serious introspection, Japanese society and its artists and creators took refuge in unique forms of expression, such as the infantilizing aesthetics of kawaii — "cuteness" — and otaku subcultures.

The Japanese don't like what I do.

A kawaii icon created 50 years ago by Yuko Shimizu, the Hello Kitty character, who is depicted without a mouth or expressions, still earns tens of billions of yens every year for the Sanrio company. And millions of young otakus — "fans" or "geeks" — mostly men, still obsessively turn to indoor hobbies, like video games, anime, manga or the cult of ultra-sexualized young idols.

Over the past 30 years, Murakami has explored these exaggerations and incorporated them into his "Superflat" artistic theory, in which he combines the two-dimensional, or flat, characteristics of Japanese pictorial tradition and manga with the overall flattening of Japanese society, to create a world without depth or relief.

His laughing flowers? He designed them to satirize kawaii. His innocent Mr. Dob is a parody of Mickey Mouse and Doraemon, mocking the futility of consumer society. And his "My Lonesome Cowboy" sculpture of a naked boy ejaculating a cloud of semen, lassoed over his Dragon Ball Z haircut, questions the perversions and frustrations of certain otakus. It sold for $15 million at Sotheby's in New York in 2008. But it has been little appreciated by Japanese critics, who have never been very fond of Murakami. Moreover, he is rarely exhibited in his own country. "The Japanese don't like what I do," he regularly says.

Photo of Murakami at the Bourget in the suburbs of Paris, France with one of his artworks

Murakami at the Bourget in the suburbs of Paris, France with one of his artworks


Japanese resilience

But over the years, he has lost some of his sternness about Japanese society and its apparent indolence. The triple disaster of 2011, when a powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami and then the Fukushima catastrophe, turned his thinking and work upside down. He suddenly admired the resilience of the population.

"I now think that the country is faced with so many disasters, whether natural, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, or human, such as war, that the population has developed a mentality that enables it to face and accept with humility the realities that are imposed upon it," he elaborates. "Of course, there’s a sort of fatalism, but there's also a great deal of modesty," insists the artist, who underlines the weight of the Archipelago's very particular spirituality in this endurance. It's a sort of Buddhist-Shinto syncretism which, for certain events in life, does not disregard Catholic ceremonial.

Every day, I take breaks to work on my breathing and remobilize my concentration.

Raised by his parents in the Buddhist Soka Gakkai movement, he long despised religions, which he associated with useless cults, before rediscovering them in the wake of the 2011 tragedy as a necessary comfort. “The tens of thousands of victims needed to believe in another reality," he likes to explain.

But he did not become more religious himself. He had a feng shui master, but doesn't meditate. "Every day, however, I take breaks of a few minutes to work on my breathing and remobilize my concentration," he says. "After the disaster, I started a second phase of creation with much more spiritual and narrative themes, far away from the study of the relationship between art and capitalism as in my early years," he explains.

He then developed his monumental frescoes, such as "The 500 Arhats," named after Buddha's disciples who had reached the ultimate stage of the spiritual path to healing human suffering. By focusing today on immense paintings, on the very question of beauty and value of art, he feels he has completed his creative work.

“We've now come full circle," he murmurs, eyes closed.

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When A Library Is Born On A Tiny Italian Island

Inside an old watchtower dangling over the crashing waves of the port of Capraia, dwell 6,000 books and their keeper: 33-year-old Viola, a librarian who took the time during the COVID-19 pandemic to ask herself, "What makes you truly happy?"

A photograph of a book about the importance of reading, held up against the tower of Capraia's library

In front of the library of Capraia, a woman hold up a book about the importance of reading

Biblioteca Isola Di Capraia/Facebook
Federico Taddia

CAPRAIA — "The waves crashing loudly against the cliffs, the bad weather that prevents the ferry from arriving for days, the strong northeast wind making its presence felt... And then a handful of men and women, each with a kettle and their own cup of tea brought from home, protected inside the tower, reading a novel together: this, for me, is the library; this, for me, is building a community - building an identity - starting from books."

It almost seems as if, off in the distance, one can glimpse the Corsairs sailing on their galleys. Meanwhile, with the passionate gaze of someone who loves their land and the enthusiasm of someone who adores their job — actually, of someone who has realized their dream — Viola Viteritti, the librarian of Capraia, explains how the tower, built by the Genoese in 1540 to defend against pirates, is now home of what the Center for the Book and Reading has dubbed the most extraordinary library in Italy.

"I've spent four months a year on this island since I was born," she explains. "It's my home; it's the place where I feel good, where I am myself. As a child, I devoured books, but on the island, there was no place for books. When I chose to move here permanently, the library project started simultaneously. There couldn't have been a better cosmic alignment."

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