IN a nondescript apartment in the unfashionable part of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, the Japanese art sensation Takashi Murakami is meticulously plotting to take over the world. Following in the footsteps of Andy Warhol, he wants to become, as he says, ”a bridge between the two areas of entertainment and pure art.” So far it’s going well.
In the last year alone he had shows at the Fondation Cartier in Paris and at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, served a stint as popular guest designer for Louis Vuitton and prepared to move his base of operations to New York City. And most recently Mr. Murakami, along with his staff, has been putting the finishing touches on a large-scale installation that will open Sept. 9 in Rockefeller Center.
The installation, ”Reverse Double Helix,” uses flags, giant balloons, a scattering of mushroom-shaped benches and four centurion-like statues surrounding a 23-foot alien who’s sitting atop a giant frog, and is meant to turn the famous plaza into a temple devoted to the artist’s own benevolent deity.
It may sound like an attention-getting stunt. And in a sense it is.
Over four years, Mr. Murakami, 41, has made a rapid ascent through the American art market. In May, Stephan Edlis, an influential Chicago collector, paid $567,500 for a sculpture called ”Miss ko2 ,” and an another authority has predicted that Mr. Murakami will be as influential in this decade as Warhol, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst were in theirs. But Mr. Murakami seems more concerned with reaching beyond the art world to speak directly to a mass audience. A giant cartoon fantasy right in the middle of midtown Manhattan might just do that.
It worked for Mr. Koons, whose 43-foot floral ”Puppy” drew huge crowds of tourists in 2000. While ”Puppy” was a send-up of middle-class taste (even if the tourists didn’t get the joke), Mr. Murakami is very much in earnest. The deity, which owes as much to the monsters of Pokemon as it does to Buddhism, is a chance for the bad-boy artist to see, as he says, ”how far the world will accept me for being myself.”
With a Japanese television crew setting up around him, Mr. Murakami, dressed indifferently in cargo shorts and a T-shirt, looks more like a student than head of a far-flung operation that has more than a dozen artisans on two continents. The image is sealed by the longish hair he wears pulled back into a sloppy ponytail, his large round eyeglasses, his pointy little goatee.
As a young boy growing up in a family that reveres art, Mr. Murakami dreamed of drawing manga, the Japanese graphic novels that represent a large part of popular culture. In college, he flirted with the world of anime, the large-eyed animated cartoon style that is another pillar of Japanese entertainment. But he went on to get a doctorate in nihonga painting, a traditional genre in which his brother is a practicing expert. Mr. Murakami’s interests returned to mass culture, however, and to comics, in which he found a two-dimensional world as real as the three-dimensional one we live in. In particular, he was drawn to a computer-screen-obsessed subculture called otaku.
Roughly translated as computer geek culture, the otaku fetishizes the images that appear in manga and anime, and features characters that are both highly sexualized and absurdly cute. In the late 1990’s, with the help of members of the otaku demimonde, Mr. Murakami produced a series of sculptures that — translating characters from the world of two dimensions back into three — became some of his most famous and valuable works. The first series revolved around a super-agent character named Miss ko2 , who appears clothed in one version, naked and morphing into a winged android in another. Two later works, ”My Lonesome Cowboy” and ”Hiropon,” are startling in their sexuality. ”My Lonesome Cowboy” depicts a wholesome-looking boy twirling a lariat of his own sperm; the chirpy girl in ”Hiropon” skips a rope of milk emanating from her impossibly large breasts.
Part of Mr. Murakami’s artistic interest in otaku involved its low status. ”Otaku is an original subculture of Japan,” Mr. Murakami observes, speaking through a translator. ”Even though its link with Japanese culture is strong and firm, highly educated or ‘cultured’ Japanese people have not started to take it seriously.” Though Mr. Murakami happily describes his otaku work as a strategic bid to get noticed in the West, it also expresses the real subject of Mr. Murakami’s art, the place wherepainstaking technique and pop images meet, erasing the divide between high and low culture.
”It’s all about Japanese identity,” says Kent Logan, an influential collector. ”His references are all grounded in classical Japanese art, but he’s alluding to postwar Japan’s search for an original cultural identity. What’s original now in Japanese culture is this computer geek culture.”
Outside Japan, Mr. Murakami’s work exploits its Japanese-ness. Inside Japan, he complains, ”there’s no market” for contemporary art: ”There’s no criticism. There’s no audience.” The situation clearly bothers him, but he’s found another way to get mass recognition, through his work in fashion. The pastel-painted handbags he designed for Louis Vuitton were one of the most coveted accessories of the season. And if Louis Vuitton considers him important enough to hire, he says, then status-oriented Japanese consumers are sure to take an intense interest in him as well.
Having fused fashion, merchandising and spectacle, Mr. Murakami now looks to turn the Rockefeller Center installation — as Mr. Koons did in that same spot, and Warhol did everywhere else — into a pop culture event, establishing himself as a personality beyond the art world. Which is just what he’s counting on. ”At this rate, art might become a lame medium without the energy to stir anyone’s interest in the contemporary society,” he says. ”I believe that anyone involved in the art business who thinks seriously about the future of the medium called ‘art’ must feel this way.”