- Little Boy: The Arts of Japan's Exploding Subculture
How does one review an exhibition catalogue? A catalogue is designed to accompany an exhibition and to present the works exhibited, descriptively and sometimes critically in the form of companion essays or commentary. Catalogues range from the sheerly documentary to the sumptuously interpretive, transformed into weighty coffee-table volumes that far exceed their mandates as catalogues. Little Boy, meticulously produced and appropriately massive, occupies the latter end of the spectrum of catalogue magnificence. Published simultaneously with the celebrated exhibition of the same name, held at Japan Society Gallery in New York from April 8 through [End Page 498] July 24, 2005, Little Boy (the volume) performs not only as a grand textual and visual archive of the event, but also as a singularly ambitious state-of-the-art overview of Japanese culture, politics, and aesthetics today. Completely bilingual and exuberantly produced, Little Boy is as inventive and excessive as the exhibition curated by Takashi Murakami, the regnant enfant terrible of Japanese contemporary art. As Alexandra Munroe, former director of Japan Society Gallery, stated in her acknowledgments, "From the start of this project, Little Boy has been not just an exhibition but also a book" (p. ix). To review Little Boy is to review an artifact all its own as it attempts to float free, only tenuously tethered to New York and the events of 2005.
Calling the curator Takashi Murakami an enfant terrible is intentional, as intentional as the "little boy" title he chose for the exhibition. Murakami has set off the biggest ripples in the global art scene of any modern Japanese artist (architecture we leave to one side). With his studios in Japan and Brooklyn (the former known as the Hiropon Factory, modeled on Warhol's Factory, with a difference: here the workers punch time clocks), his platoons of hip and eager assistants (color specialists, graphic designers, painters, computer whizzes), and his marketing savvy, Murakami has released a whirlwind of creative projects (including the famous Louis Vuitton bags with his signature eye motif ), public events and installations, and a string of exhibitions and solo shows. Such money- and fame-making endeavors are hardly second to his making of art. To Murakami—or at least to the Murakami known from his voluminous writings, interviews, and manifestoes—the commodity and the work of art, mass culture and high culture, fine arts and everyday products are one and the same.
Yet despite these precedents, Murakami claims his art bespeaks something else, something new, something beyond Warhol, and something more: something Japanese. Art and commerce are one, he says. In Japan, that is. Why? Because in Japan, according to Murakami, the distinction between high and low has never existed. That distinction has always been a Western one, one that has only fitfully and partially been incorporated into Japanese institutional arrangements: art schools, galleries, museums, criticism. As such, then, something called "culture" does not exist outside of something imagined as "subculture(s)." Nevertheless, Murakami continues to produce what some would call art at an astonishing pace, alongside all the other signature items that others would call spin-off products (and he calls "art products").
In a series of energetically theorized writings, Murakami has continued to insist on the nondistinction between culture and subculture in Japan and of a particular lineage of Japanese art, distinct from the West, that has come to be called "Superflat" aesthetics. In two landmark exhibitions, Superflat (which toured the United States in 2001–2) and Coloriage in 2002, Murakami staked out the aesthetic territory for his Superflat concept: Neo Pop, cool, sleek, planar and playful, digitally inspired. It eschews one-point perspective [End Page 499] in favor of multiple viewpoints and is intimate with otaku (geek) subculture, defined by close association with the anime and manga worlds, science fiction, and the everyday rooms of teenaged girls and boys with their alternately kawaii (cute) and foreboding fetishes. Even in their coolest and most extreme formulations, the...