“Takashi Murakami’s Superflat Collection” is an exhibition of other people’s work, amassed as the result of one man’s phenomenally successful artistic career. It’s evidence that Murakami must have done something right, or wrong, depending on your view of culture. He’s sometimes portrayed as a kind of evil genius, presiding over the end of both Western civilization and Japanese tradition.
During an interview to discuss this excursion into curating, he is tired but happy, and at times I can’t tell if he is deep in thought or dozing off. His staff tell me that he hasn’t slept much in the three days before the opening. I ask if he needs an energy drink, but he says he has to avoid sugar since he has gout. We have a conspiratorial laugh over the fact that we’ve both been advised to give up beer. Channeling Okakura Tenshin, the turn-of-the-century Japanese scholar who did his best to combat Western modernity promoting the tea ceremony, “Japanese-style” painting and wearing old-fashioned scholarly garb to work, Murakami is dressed in a loose kimono-style robe, and his beard has gone from beatnik to Oriental-sage length.
It’s the first time that Murakami has been able to see his own collection displayed properly; he gives the impression that it’s usually piled high and deep in storage. His “connoisseurship” is not based on buying up canonical pieces, but more akin to the wanderings of Wall-E, picking through the artefacts of modern life, hoping that if enough data is amassed it may be possible to better understand the human condition.
As well as buying objects because they interest him visually or conceptually, Murakami also talks about observing their changing performance in the market place, as though this is also a formal property of a piece. The collection of other people’s work is, in this sense, a natural extension of his approach of acknowledging and promoting a connection between the business of making art and the art of business. Judging by the size and quality of his collection, business has been good for Murakami.
The stated purpose of the show is to bring up big issues; “What is art?,” “How is the value of art determined?” and “What is a collection?,” but these questions have the slight aroma of red herrings. The exhibition, at some level, is just something Murakami wants to do for the hell of it.
“To be honest, I really just want to show how I’m feeling right now, at the moment this is where I’m at. I’m not talking about democratizing art or anything like that,” he says.
What does he think of the “Cool Japan” campaign in relation to art?
“It’s stupid, super stupid,” he exclaims. “The name was good, but a huge amount of money was spent just on advertising, nothing really happened … the true process and effort of creating culture takes time, it’s a process that never ends.”
His collection in its entirety numbers more than 5,000 pieces, and it would be odd if Murakami didn’t want to show it off. We can see prehistoric Jomon pottery, a hand-written letter by 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Henry Darger sketches, photographs by Terry Richardson, Naoya Hatakeyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, prints by Andy Warhol, sculptures by Anselm Kiefer and Yoshitomo Nara.
“Amateur” butterfly paintings by Murakami’s dad appear next to Damien Hirst butterflies. In a room titled “The World Inside Takashi Murakami’s Brain,” shipping cases, art objects, antiques and bric-a-brac are jumbled together, but also ordered and stacked, as though presenting themselves for inspection. It’s a nice analogy of someone who seems to be both all over the place and highly organized at the same time.
A line of people is forming at the door to get his advice on last-minute issues. In the hope of taking a short cut through the unresolved issues of postmodernism and the ruins of high culture’s ivory tower, I ask, “What is not art?” Murakami replies with a parable: “There is a very strange guy, Sakata-san, who runs an antique shop in the Mejiro district. When I say ‘strange,’ I mean he’s a genius, because he finds new meaning and new beauty (in things). In the last 100 years the Japanese idea of beauty comes from rich people, like, for example, Muneyoshi Yanagi who founded the mingei (folk art) movement: He found Korean craft objects and chose — this is good, this is not good.
“Sakata san, he comes from the left-wing, he’s not rich, a kind of activist. So he’d be walking along the road, see a good stone and pick it up, put it in the store for a $100. It’s a new kind of lifestyle; he found from the garbage new beauty in the cheapest things.”
So, the answer to the question “What is not art?,” I ask, is not thinking, not processing?
“That’s it,” says Murakami.
“Takashi Murakami’s Superflat Collection: From Shohaku and Rosanjin to Anselm Kiefer” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs until April 3; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Thu. bit.ly/murakamicyma