When these two giants met, things went wild. The first collection of bags Murakami designed for the fashion house (at the order of creative director, Marc Jacobs) rejuvenated the brand–Louis Vuitton wasn’t just high-end French couture anymore, it was kawaii! Everyone loved the collection, and the West took notice–suddenly, Murakami and his Superflatness became a big name, and not just for those in the Art scene. In fact, Murakami was worried that his initial association with LV would mislead his new found fans into thinking he was simply a hand bag designer. In a TIME Magazine article, he said that he was going to take a break from the commercial and re-establish himself as a fine artist. This reaction is strange, considering that Murakami widely promotes his art as commercial–as only commercial–as if there was no difference between the two. He even included a mini Louis Vuitton boutique in his traveling ©Murakami show, which toured around the US. It’s this idea of superflat and commercial consumption as indistinguishable that seems, well, a little more complicated than that.
Truly, there are darker meanings behind much of Murakami’s work, along with the artists he’s recruited to be a part of his superflat movement. Though his art, and this collaboration with Louis Vuitton, seem like Warholian simulacrum (a meaningless, fun copy of something that isn’t good or bad)it really isn’t ambiguous at all, and that’s what makes the art complicated. Either it’s subversive, or it’s some kind of unfunny perpetuation of Japan-as-empty, because, well, it’s the cuteness, not the meaning, that sells—and boy, does it sell!
Empty or Full?
What appears to be especially troubling about this Murakami/Vuitton collaboration is this idea (proposed by Marc Jacobs) that Louis Vuitton provides the “history” and Murakami provides the image that’s overlaid. Indeed, Murakami didn’t design a new LV logo—as that would misplace (or entirely remove) what is signified by the logo—“classic”, “French”, “cultured”, “wealthy” etc. Murakami’s addition, one could argue, is so successfully connected with such a loaded logo because it fails to signify anything other than “cute!” We’ve encountered cultural oderlessness before, and this certainly fits into that pattern of things that are vaguely Japanese; and while Jacobs and the brand didn’t try to undermine Murakami’s Japanese-ness, it’s not a big part of the collaboration. This is like superflat gone way, way too flat—there’s nothing political left, nothing serious left. To return to that TIME magazine article, perhaps Murakami was concerned that the West cannot recognize the politics behind his superflat movement as easily as, say, a Japanese audience can—and that this artist, who claims he doesn’t distinguish between art and commerce, well, really—he does. There is thought behind superflatness, even though most take his work as psychedelic eye candy.
If we look at the advertisements Murakami created to “celebrate” his six year collaboration with Louis Vuitton, there are some striking aspects that can lead you to think, well, maybe it’s subversive (on Murakami’s part) after all? Is Murakami playing a trick on all of is, is he laughing all the way to the bank? Let’s look at one: What’s really going on here? The panda physically literally consumes the girl, and then she falls into this insane fantasy of color and surface—the entire commercial perpetuates this idea of Japan-as-fantasy, this Japan-for-kids, and, much more importantly, this Japan-as-entirely-unreadable. If we buy this Murakami-Vuitton bag, do we get to consume the girl (read: Japanese mystique, Japanese cute) entirely? By owning a Murakami bag, do we own a part of this fantasy? Yes, we do—at least, that’s what they want us to think. Is this a good thing?
Indeed, UCLA Sociologist Adrian Farell, who has spent time studying the Murakami “phenomenon”, has this to say about the idea of Murakami “tricking” or “playing a joke on” the Western consumer:
Murakami self-consciously sees his art as an inversion of Orientalism. Like others of his generation (he was born in 1963), he grew up obsessed with America’s power over Japan, and with bitter memories of the wartime experience. There is a kind of “passive aggressive” attitude to the West in the work. He is, in fact, a Japanese nationalist, and as such sees his art as a way of playing up to Western stereotypes of Japan, of fooling Western tastes. There is something quite cynical about how he talks about his art strategy to a Japanese audience.
Truly, this attitude must bleed over—there must be some of this passive-aggressive sentiment within Murakami’s work with Louis Vuitton—even though it seems like he respects the fashion house, perhaps he sees it as a double-dupe: not only is he making millions of dollars defacing this glimmering stereotype of Western wealth, he’s also acquiring millions of Western fans who cannot understand what he’s actually doing, making them, not Japan, the infantile, underdeveloped ones. Yet, how successful is this as a political comment (or really, attack) on Western attitudes towards Japan, if most of Murakami’s critiques go unnoticed? Murakami has put himself in a culturally difficult position here, and it will be interesting to see if he ever clearly positions himself against the West.
In the end, does this (ongoing!) collaboration with Louis Vuitton undermine the artistic (political, social) “legitimacy” of superflatness, or does it work perfectly with it? Is the essence of superflat supposed to hide further meaning from the Western consumer, making the real meaning only accessible to the Japanese? These discrepancies are indeed troubling, and sooner or later Murakami either going to have to fully admit or fully deny the meaning behind his art work, or else this simulacrum will become responsible for not only flattening “art”, but also contemporary Japanese culture.
Do people like Murakami (arguably the one of the most famous modern Japanese artists) add to the “fullness” of Japan, or is it the opposite? Is everything truly superflat? If superflat art lacks meaning (or denies meaning), what does this say about contemporary Japan? Is this culture something that can be bought and sold to any consuming–can we own “Japaneseness”–or is this all just a big joke?
Do you think there is something subversive about the Murakami Louis Vuitton advertisement? Or is it simply more of the same?
Darling, Michael. “Plumbing the Depths of Superflatness.” Art Journal 60.3 (2001): 77-89. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.
Chong, Jessica. “A Sociologist’s Guided Tour of © MURAKAMI.” SSRC. Ed. Mary-Lea Cox. The Social Science Research Council. Web. 28 Apr. 2010. .
Frederick, Jim. “Move Over, Andy Warhol.” www.time.com. TIME Magazine, 19 May 2003. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
& Various Youtube Videos:
1. Murakami Vuittion Advertisment, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqaXxSBZTZc
2. New York Magazine’s Art critic Jerry Saltz on Murakami’s ©Murakami show, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxmMxi-lelg&feature=related
3. Interview with Marc Jacobs about Murakami collaboration, done by MOCA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qWbt_Ao_d0
Links for further discovery:
Art collector upset over Murakami print!
Some of Murakami’s designs on the Louis Vuittion website & one of the original Murakami bags for sale (used!)
Entry contributed by Eugenia Hannon