Palazzo Reale and the Comune di Milano is pleased to present the “Arhat Cycle” by Takashi Murakami. Curated by Francesco Bonami and organized by Blum & Poe and Kaikai Kiki, the “Arhat Cycle” is a quintessential offering of Murakami’s ability to conflate historical, contemporary, and futuristic Japanese references with a myriad of styles, methodologies, and forms—trademarks of one of the most celebrated artists of our time.
You’re exhibiting the “Arhat” series, which you made after the tragedy of Fukushima. Should the “Arhat” series be considered a turning point in your work, or just another step, or a parenthesis?
You know, the earthquake had a very big impact on me: that’s why there was a big change in my painting style, another style was born, and the movie also came from this.
I think every country has its own way of resisting or reacting to an enemy or a trauma: is there, in your opinion, a uniquely Japanese way of doing so?
From the early Seventies until the earthquake, the average person never demonstrated, because everything was clam, flat, there were no problems, everything was balanced out, even the things that made you mad. When the big earthquake came, it wasn’t so much the earthquake that frightened us. Of course we were stunned by the number of deaths, the fires, but it was the the shock of the tsunami that was devastating. And as regards the nuclear power plant, the government did nothing, and we realized that it was doing nothing, so we had to do something ourselves, otherwise we would never be safe: we realized this. So after the earthquake, there were many protests and demonstrations; there was a reaction towards the political world that there had never been up to that point. So people’s way of communicating and acting is very childlike: they settle for things, and you can’t influence politics that way. But that’s their way of doing things, there’s a block towards politics. This block on action, this feeling of impotence, has been around since the Edo period, before the World Wars. There’s always been this sense of uncertainty, of hesitation. That’s the portrait of postwar Japan. We lost against America, so politics went forward without our involvement, like art, like music. This reaction was unique in a negative way, it’s what I’ve called superflat. Now this era of peace is over. And what has destroyed this period of peace? Why do people create society, why does religion emerge? We realized, I myself realized all these things when the tsunami came. the series of the 500 Arhats represents the moment in which religion emerges. Unfortunately, due to a natural catastrophe, many people died, many people lost their loved ones, we had to soothe our pain, and so in that moment religion was born. So with a story. To me, religions are a story. The 500 Arhats protect us from disease, catastrophe, from nature. In China, there were traditionally a hundred Arhats, in Japan they grew to 500. Natural catastrophes, earthquakes, are things caused by nature. Evil is natural, but we have to fight it somehow, and so we had to invent these deities, and I wanted to paint them. And this was a major shift.
Are you religious?
Honestly I have my own religion, which is making art. When I’m making a painting, that moment for me is a healing, a kind of mental circulation, but you know, my position is very specific: normal people have to go to work, go to school, and don’t have that circulation. But when they go back home, and have a quiet moment, having dinner, one or two hours of silence, they feel empty, and that is very sad. They remember they lost their family and remember the tsunami, so that is super-depressing, and they cannot really comfort themselves. In that moment, religion gives them an example, a story: they want to understand what’s happening right now. People can’t believe this story easily, but from time to time they want to believe it, because it’s easier to heal.
Is there a connection between you embarking on this spiritual path in your art and your interest in self-portraits?
Self-portraits are very common in art history, Rembrandt, Warhol… There are many artists making portraits, so I wanted to try, too, to engage with art history: that’s what I’m looking for all the time with my self-portraits. But in these past two years, since the earthquake, I’ve been able to make them very easily, there’s a very natural feeling about making my self-portraits. A more open feeling. I used to think too much about how I could involve art history, but now my life feels quite short. There was an earthquake in Tokyo, thousands of people died instantly, so I completely changed my way of thinking, and I can make portraits in a much more natural way. So if you look at my self-portraits in this show they are kandinku, which are dead souls in a kind of sci-fi black hole. This subject is considered stupid in the art world, it looks too easy, like a childish comic-book story, but I think I can approach it with great freedom, it’s a subject I can choose. And that came from the earthquake.
The trailer for Jellyfish Eyes says it is a portrayal of Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster: what exactly does that mean?
In this story, the big monster is finally coming and people are wandering around, that’s it. No story, right? Just confusion! But some characters believe in science, so I can believe in their science. Some characters believe in their religion, so I can believe in this religion. Some people are children, the main characters are children. These children can see monsters, the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Why have monsters come into the real world? Children cannot believe that they can be friends with each other. That’s why these creatures were created. They look like pocket monsters, like a kind of translation device. I love this character and I love this other character, so they can make friends: it’s like an adaptation to aid communication between people.
What about your cooperation with Pharrell Williams for Last Night Good Night?
This movie has a theme song by a Japanese vocaloid: it’s a kind of synthesizer, called Hatsune Miku, which has become very famous in Japan in the last five years. This vocal system is not alive and the voice is completely unnatural; it’s like a mechanical soundtrack, so it captures the imagination of Japanese geeks. It’s kind of a robot who wants to be turned into a human being, because a human being is much more precious. Geeky people basically don’t believe in themselves, but when they look at the robot, they understand they’re human beings: if the robot wants to become human, that means we can believe in ourselves a little. Because of this psychological mechanism, the vocaloid has become very famous and popular: Hatsune Miku accompanied Lady Gaga on her the spring U.S. tour. This is not a human being, but a robot copying a human being. Pharrell Williams makes very big hit songs, so he can send a much more global message with his sounds. A vocaloid plus Pharrell is a good way to get across to the general public, so I asked him to remix this theme song, and then I made the video.
What are the historical references in the “Arhat” series?
I did a lot of research. I created a research team of six people, and the research took two years; it took so much time for them to understand everything: the art form, the religious history, the general history, how communication is culturally different – in Chinese/Korean and Western culture. We had some books to research the characters, but every character in the paintings is a mix of several different characters. Every single monk in the paintings has a lot of history: I didn’t want to make an extremely serious thing, they look like mutants, like pocket monsters. Pokemons are very cute, but every pokemon came from historical Japanese and Eastern traditional monsters. But children can believe they’re real monsters, it’s a kind of religion, like icons. I wanted to use a similar process: for the Pokemon, they took the historical monster and added a little bit of cuteness: wings, eyeballs, and that kind of stuff, very unnatural. So the monks in the paintings have new stories, they don’t have a history.
Is there a connection, in your opinion, between the figures of monks and the hikikomori?
Hikikomori is a generational thing: the youngest hikikomori generation is more and less between 17 and 35 years old. Japanese society used to be really right-wing, they went to war, the economy crashed and could not keep up, the government decided to follow the U.S. in some ways and make weapons, so young people couldn’t be hikikomori, they had to survive.
For this new generation, everything is sitting there. You can buy everything very easily in a store, and surviving now is a mental thing, but before, for young people, it was not only mental. They didn’t want to go to war, some of them were poor, they had to look for food, so the way to survive has changed. People from 17 to 35 have to survive the artificial story. In the end, I think monks and hikikomori are completely opposite. Still I would say yes, they’re similar in a way. Monks question and answer themselves again, again and again, it’s a circulation. Hikikomori do the same, but they have devices, they have the internet, where you find hate speech. Hikikomori are like pets, like goldfish: very fast, very strong, but if goldfish are put in the sea they can’t survive. A goldfish looking in a mirror would say “Oh my God, I’m a fish? I can swim in a river? This is a fish?” That is the question and answer of hikikomori people.
Takashi Murakami interviewed by Stella Succi
until 7 September 2014
Dark Matter & Me, 2014
Takashi Murakami, “Super Murakami” installation views at Palazzo Reale, Milan, 2014
©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Photos: Andrea Rossetti