Takashi Murakami on human loss, hiding behind masks, the power of NFTs

Japanese artist Takashi Murakami is well known for his candy-colored, cartoon-like paintings and sculptures that blend traditional Japanese paintings, cartoons, and Western pop art. He has been called the Japanese Andy Warhol because his art blurs the line between great and small art.

Walk on the tail of a rainbowis Murakami’s first solo exhibition at The Broad in downtown Los Angeles. It features 18 works from the artist’s expansive universe, including his traditional anime-style characters and colossal paintings that deal with disasters, like the fallout from World War II and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Ed Schad is curator at The Broad. He says that while some of Murakami’s artwork is bright and anime-inspired, other pieces reflect the wake of war and natural disasters.

“The first and second galleries are devoted to anime, manga, and the creative energies that flowed from a booming Japanese economy that was embroiled in numerous imports and exports with the United States in the aftermath of the war. But through this cultural production, Takashi begins to look at how the horrors of war and the consequences in Japan are expressed through this culture. It does the same thing in 2011 with natural disasters,” Schad says.

“End of Line” by Takashi Murakami features acrylic on canvas and mounted on cardboard. Courtesy of The Broad.

Murakami’s latest paintings are an observation of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our view of the world.

“I think he’s doing the same now with COVID-19. And his interest in the metaverse and augmented realities and NFTs,” says Schad.

The exhibition is interactive and with your smartphone you can see some of Murakami’s most famous characters with this new technology.

“When you come to The Broad…scan your QR code on the side of a board, and an avatar will pop out of the ground and hover in front of a board. So watch the ground,” Schad says.

“Unknown people” emerged from the pandemic

“Unfamiliar People” is a painting on three pink panels that depicts a traditional nuclear family – a husband, wife and two children. Their faces are contorted into various states of disgust horror and bewildered amusement. They are surrounded by smaller figures, many of whom wear masks.

Takahashi Murakami’s “Unfamiliar People” was inspired during the COVID shutdowns when the artist watched his two children play Nintendo’s popular video game “Animal Crossing.” Photo by Joshua White.

Schad says the inspiration for this painting and its interactive component came during the COVID lockdowns while Murakami watched his two children play Nintendo’s popular video game “Animal Crossing.” The children watched a fireworks display in the game, and Murakami realized that due to the pandemic, his children had never seen real fireworks.

“He realized that cognitively, [the game] has been fireworks to his children. Even though it was in the metaverse, even though it was 100% digital. They had an endorphin rush physical experience seeing fireworks. He said, “That was one of the times when I started to recognize the change that what was happening in the pandemic, and the interest in the metaverse, and the interest in blockchain, and the interest for NFTs was coming to a head in society and I broke through, and it was there, and here to stay,” Schad says.

Standing in front of his “Unknown People” painting, Murakami says the piece reflects his own family and how it has changed during the pandemic.

“Now I want to wear a mask all the time because it’s a very easy way [way to hide]. You hide a change in the face – smiling, upset or calm. It really is [easy to] to hide.”

Murakami says that while Japan’s otaku have always worn versions of masks, he now understands why they might find joy in hiding.

“It’s really comfortable [to hide] right now,” Murakami says. “I understand why these people [hide their] Face.”

The link between disease and disaster

Next to the small confined painting of his family, Murakami looks at a huge painting he made just after the Fukushima disaster. It’s much larger in scope – it takes up an entire wall. And the piece features characters from Japanese mythology, huge waves and many colors. Still, Murakami says this one is related to “unknown people”.

The tsunami disaster made seeing and feeling the devastation tangible, Murakami says, but the trauma of the pandemic has been so quiet and personal.

“COVID-19 does not destroy on the surface… [the target] is a human being. So it’s quite different, but it’s the same thing. Natural disaster,” says Murakami.

“Tan Tan Bo aka Gerotan: Burned by the Inferno in Purgatory of Knowledge” by Takashi Murakami features acrylic on canvas, mounted on cardboard. Courtesy of The Broad.

NFTs are the future of art

Murakami has a deep fascination with NFTs. While many critics don’t know how NFTs fit into fine art, Murakami says they will be a turning point in how we think about art. He says that while people may not understand the value of NFTs now, they will later.

Inspired and perplexed by the minimalist art movement he experienced on his first visit to New York, Murakami remembers Robert Ryman’s famous all-white painting, “Bridge.”

“I couldn’t understand why this artist is famous and why this is an important piece,” says Murakami.

But after a few years of reflection, Murakami says he understood that Ryman’s work was a “turning point” that “pushed the art to the next level”.

“This is an evolution towards [change] the history of the art world,” Murakami says of NFTs.

Murakami says NFTs became popular during the pandemic because people couldn’t gather in museums and share the joy of physical art. He thinks that due to the pandemic isolation, it was important for people to access art on the internet to escape. More importantly, says Murakami, this new art form is a way for people to connect.

“So maybe in the near future, young artists will make way for mixed culture with NFT, blockchain, real performances and social media,” says Murakami. “People can connect to that.”

“DOB in the Strange Blue Forest (Blue DOB)” by Takashi Murakami features fiber-reinforced plastic, resin, fiberglass, acrylic, and iron. Courtesy of The Broad.

And while Murakami’s work delves into metaverse and augmented reality, his work is currently featured in a traditional art exhibit. He hopes art will continue to push the boundaries of form and technology, and he says people still yearn to connect with art in person.

“People want to come [see something real]. People want to be in touch with reality.

About Wendy Hall

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