Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Cosy Bedfellows in a Postmodern World
by Carmen Nge

When Andy Warhol first introduced the humble Campbell soup can to the high brow American art scene of the sixties, he attained the kind of instant notoriety many artists spend years to achieve. While art aficionados today remember his silkscreen homages to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and serious film students recall his interminably long single-take films, the occasional layperson will likely have a vague visual memory of red and white Campbell soup cans lined up in rows on a large white canvas and not much else. While the genius of Warhol is the hallmark of Pop Art, the limited reach of consumer culture’s global enterprise during the 60s and 70s contained his work largely within the hallowed walls of Western art galleries and museums. Not so for Takashi Murakami, who has often been touted as Japan’s version of Andy Warhol.

Murakami, who in the early 1990s used to make what he terms “activist art” to protest the American occupation of Iraq, has since been embraced by the worlds of New York couture and American art. While a lover of Japanese anime and kitsch is bound to have encountered the wickedly whimsical and sometimes maniacal creation of Murakami’s called Mr. D.O.B. (which looks surprisingly like an anime version of Mickey Mouse), the average window shopper or fashion consumer is most likely to have heard of the latest line of handbags expressly designed by Murakami for Louis Vuitton. In 2002, Marc Jacobs, the creative director for Louis Vuitton, invited Murakami to design accessories for their spring 2003 collection. The latter was also commissioned to recolor LV’s century-old monogram logo, which now has the bright, pastel-coloured appeal that is quintessentially Murakami, and which gives the LV image a lighter touch.

In an interview with The Edge, Murakami admits to being impressed by earlier collaborations between Jacobs and other artists. “I accepted Mark’s offer because it sounded very exciting and irresistible,” he tells us. Whether dangling from the arm of Victoria Beckham or carefully clutched by the likes of Elizabeth Hurley, these specially commissioned handbags are a hot commodity for those who can afford to fork out a few thousand ringgit for an original "Monogram Multicolore," "Eye Love" or "Cherry Blossom." The LV commission can be seen as a strategic move for Murakami, elevating his status as visual/animation artist to that of global pop-fashion phenomena.

Like Warhol, Murakami grew up in a working-class family. As a young man, he was beguiled by the Disneys and Spielbergs of the world—artists-entrepreneurs who managed to bridge the gap between art, culture, and commerce. In his own work, Murakami creates characters and objects that exhibit an almost cartoon-like simplicity on the surface but that in actuality articulate the complex relationship between postwar Japanese culture, American hegemony, and the ethos of consumerism. His multi-hued, larger-than-life toadstools and mushroom wall paintings and sculpture in the late 1990s may appear cute and colourful but they also subtly reference the not-so cheerful mushroom clouds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s nuclear holocaust. However, once divorced from their depressing reference point, these symbols of kawaii (meaning cute in Japanese) are free to be replicated, marketed and sold to a multitude of consumers, eager to embrace the latest icon of adorability.

Murakami has stated, time and again, that it is “old-fashioned” to distinguish between art and commerce; like Warhol, he understands that such a distinction is merely a construct predicated on the already tenuous status of fine arts itself. For the objects of high art to remain valuable, they have to retain their cult of exclusivity—hence the existence of an original Picasso or Van Gogh. For Murakami, who wants to make merchandise for ordinary people and not merely wealthy art patrons, there will not be one LV-Murakami original but thousands. At the same time, there is no denying that only the rich will be able to afford an original LV-Murakami handbag, due to its steep price.

The idea of marketing an original that exists in large but limited quantities is not unique to LV. Swatch has launched the Dadazüri, a watch constructed to reflect the anti-establishment and avant-garde thrust of Dadaism. An art movement that flourished predominantly in France, Switzerland and Germany, roughly from 1916 to 1920, Dadaism erupted as a result of a sense of despair over World War 1 and disgust for bourgeois values of the time. Credited as paving the way for surrealism, Pop Art, and video and performance art, it would seem ironic that Dadaism’s anti-bourgeois sentiment is now being used by Swatch to justify its latest invention: the Dadazüri.

Also called a turnover watch, the time-indicating face of the Dadazüri can be turned inwards, thus negating its very function as a timepiece and rendering it useless and absurd for it is a watch that is also not a watch, practically speaking. In a sense, it is the anti-watch, perhaps reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s renowned images of melting and morphing timepieces.

Additionally, customers who purchase the Dadazüri are encouraged to remove a little plaquette clipped to its back and to send it back to Swatch, whereby a celebrated contemporary artist (as yet unnamed) will assemble the pieces into a work of art to be exhibited in Zurich, at the Dada-Haus. An art community revived in the summer of 2002, the Zurich-based Dada-Haus runs a Dada-based public cultural programme that is backed by various financiers, including Swatch.

Once again, art meets commerce, albeit in a slightly different form. The novelty of having owners of the Dadazüri be collaborators in the creation of an artwork certainly takes the concept of participatory art to a whole new level. These participants collaborate through their role as consumers of the Swatch brand and buyers of their new product. It is precisely their act of acquisition that gives them the currency to participate in this global collaboration; the idea that anyone who desires to can choose to be a participant in this creative endeavour is indicative of the allure of consumerism’s democratic promise. Perhaps what is more surreal than the turnover watch is the idea that consumers can purchase the opportunity to collaborate in artistic creation itself, when in fact, the very act of creating art should not be contained within the economy of purchasing power.

The union of art and commerce in today’s postmodern globalism is not only inevitable but—as Murakami, LV and Swatch recognize—widely celebrated by designers, corporations, and consumers alike. On the one hand, by enabling the so-called “ordinary people” to purchase, consume and possess works of art that also double up as functional objects of fashion and status, it can be argued that the realm of art is free from the dominion of the art literate and educated elite. On the other hand, by locating this liberation in the very practice of acquisition itself, we continue to be firmly locked in the same monetary paradigm of value that defines the way much of art is collected, exhibited, and viewed to this day.

This piece was published in the March 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge