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A networked daydream

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London-based artist and filmmaker David Surman explores the parallels between Alice in Wonderland and Takashi Murakami’s 'Superflat Monogram' for Louis Vuitton.

‘Who am I, then? Tell me that first …’ Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland stories are about many things, but their theme of strange identity resonates today. It makes sense that an artist interested in manga culture might riff on Lewis Carroll’s character of Alice. Takashi Murakami creates paintings, sculptures and media that are both celebratory and critical of Japanese culture. He draws on the deep pool of imagery that flows continuously from the pop-art cottage industries of Japan’s subcultural scene: manga comics, anime and toy and figurine designs.

The term otaku, which is now used globally, refers to the obsessive fandom of those who readily consume these entertainments. For Murakami, the ebb and flow of otaku trends and eccentricities reveals the underlying forces shaping Japanese society. Murakami creates pop art and, while he entertains, there is also a profoundly questioning stance in his work. His approach to appropriation always seeks to leverage the immediacy of certain forms, which then act as a vehicle for his more nuanced meanings. His engagement with the topsy-turvy world of Alice follows the same formula, and he clearly draws a parallel between the digital ‘superflat’ hyperreality of contemporary culture and the surreal literary and cinematic worlds he appropriates.

A middle-aged Japanese man smiling in front of a colourful wall of art wearing an octopus-shaped hat

Takashi Murakami photographed in 2018

In 2003, the fashion brand Louis Vuitton revealed their collaboration with Takashi Murakami: the Monogram Multicolore range of fashion goods. Following the credo of Andy Warhol that ‘good business is the best art’, Murakami directly confronted the commercial aspects of the contemporary art world by following the commercial pop-art ventures of figures like Warhol and, later, Keith Haring. Understanding that the line between commercialism and fine art is particularly tense in the Western art world, Murakami mischievously pulls back the curtain on the fierce commercialism at the heart of globalised contemporary art.

Murakami engaged ambitious anime director Mamoru Hosoda to direct Superflat Monogram, a five-minute animation promoting the Louis Vuitton–Murakami collaboration. Hosoda has since established himself as a major name in the Japanese film industry, directing The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) and Summer Wars (2009). In 2000, he directed the Digimon: The Movie, which set up some distinctive visual tropes that are evident in Monogram and that we associate with Hosoda’s work: digital culture, the networked society, cyber terrorism – not the kind of anime we might readily associate with Louis Vuitton.

A side-by-side comparison of two battles on the internet from The Digimon Movie and Summer Wars

The climatic battles in virtual worlds of Hosoda's 'Summer Wars' (left) and 'Digimon: The Movie' (right)

Monogram follows a simple plot. A young girl waits outside a Louis Vuitton store, checks her watch and starts to text on her mobile phone. While she writes, a small spirit, shaped like a flower blossom caught on the air, emerges from the facade of the store. In a glance, the creature disappears, and the girl’s mobile phone floats from her hand teasingly before dropping to the floor. Perplexed, she reaches for the phone, but is then beaten to it by a mysterious multi-coloured panda.

Is the panda another spirit, or a mascot for the Louis Vuitton–Murakami collaboration? It greedily gobbles up the mobile phone and the girl as she reaches for it. The ambiguous space of the mascot is revealed – what is inside a cartoon character? This internal cavity might be filled by a worker performing as one of the many yuru-kyara, laid-back mascot characters that are emblematic of brands across Japan.

The throat of this ursine enigma is in fact the rabbit hole to another world. Our heroine falls through a digital chequerboard portal that is more LED than LSD. From there, she is downloaded into a large chamber, the walls adorned with Murakami’s signature flower motif intermingled with the monogram LV of Louis Vuitton. These spherical spaces are connected through the vertiginous pupil of Murakami’s eye motif, which, like Alice’s looking glass, becomes a passage to another space.

This rhizomatic world of networked chambers is one of the signature motifs of Hosoda’s animation, a kind of virtual world in which characters become digital avatars and communication data floats freely like a swarm of jellyfish in the deep ocean. The soundtrack of shibuya-kei-style beats by Fantastic Plastic Machine enhance this sense of living technology, with digital percussion combining with irreverent flute motifs.

After a bout of boisterous play with her panda companion (who takes leave to eat virtual bamboo), our heroine arrives in a room with a great docile figure at the centre, an anthropomorphised system controller spewing tiny data flowers that form long strings of information through the space. This figure recalls ancient Japanese dogu sculptures, and the artist Taro Okamoto’s iconic sculpture Tower of Sun (1970). He sits like a Buddha (but also like Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar) on a lotus flower that feeds him data from below, and, atop his head, an aerial receives signals ready to be exhaled as data streams. Our heroine snaps photos on her mobile phone and sends them to her friends, and this secret virtual world goes viral. Messages come in like billboards, and with that a flower spirit returns her to the real. Awaking from her daydream, she opens her phone to find a photo of panda and a bamboo leaf.

In an interview, Murakami explained that ‘[e]very flower is smiling, but it looks more like the sign for a smile. So my message for the kids is “please find out what is real”. If your parents are laughing or not laughing … maybe the heart is sad or something different.’[1] Much like the impropriety of contrary characters in Carroll’s Alice, the creatures that populate the world of Murakami and Hosoda appear cute, but that appeal belies a deeper mischief, a nihilistic nonsensical attitude that takes the commercial dimensions of cute and wryly turns them inside out. Hosoda and Murakami each respectively return to the theme of emptiness in their work, and Monogram is no exception. In the fantasy dreamworld of LV, messages come and go, but there is nothing there except the anthropomorphic machinery of data and branding. This is a virtual non-place; the mascot suit is empty, but beautifully lined.

- David Surman

Fall down the rabbit hole in Wonderland until 7 October.

 


[1] P Williams, ‘Takashi Murakami Explains Why His Dog is an Integral Part of His Vans Collaboration’, High Snobiety, 3 July 2015, www.highsnobiety.com/2015/07/02/takashi-murakami-vans-interview/.