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Interview with Takashi Murakami

On the occasion of Takashi Murakami’s current exhibition “Murakami – Ego” in Doha, Qatar, Flash Art editor Lucy Rees sat down to talk with the artist. “Ego,” curated by Massimiliano Gioni — artistic director of the next Venice Biennale — is one of Murakami’s largest shows and his first in the Middle East. It features 70 important works dating from 1997 as well as some new pieces influenced by last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Lucy Rees: Tell me about the title of the exhibition.
Takashi Murakami: When Massimiliano Gioni and I started the project we immediately discussed titles. Massimiliano suggested about 20 different titles, but we didn’t think we’d hit on anything. We kept talking about it and months passed. The exhibition was originally meant to be a retrospective with a few new works; this was the only concept we had. But then two months later Massimiliano sent me an e-mail saying, “How about ‘Murakami – Ego’?” and I thought, “Yes, that works.” Since deciding on the title, the concept of the exhibition really shifted. The many self-portraits in the show, the inflated sculpture at the front and the façade of the museum were all influenced by and came after the title. In this way the show relates to a particular time and place. I felt that it would appeal to the Qatari audience.

LR: Massimiliano mentioned a sort of transition from “superflat” to more “supernatural.” I think this is especially evident in the 100-meter painting with the Buddhist influences and a more narrative approach. Can you talk a bit about the transition and development in your work that is reflected in the exhibition?
TM: When I first coined the term “superflat” it was not a positive characterization of Japanese culture but a criticism. After the war the hierarchy of society was flattened, everything became flat. In a sense democracy was achieved. But it was such a rigid flatness that if you ever rose above it you would be hit down like a nail hammered into the ground, and if you fell below they would try to scoop you back up. It was a very strange, unnatural flatness. So on the one side there was the social flatness, but then there was also the flatness of manga and anime, the story’s flatness, the way images are created and the flatness of traditional paintings. Massimiliano used “superflat” to talk about the “supernatural” in a play on words, but the “natural” and the human side of it have really always been part of the flatness. It’s important to acknowledge this. It was all flattened, but it was in there. For me, the very bottom of superflat was the Aum Shinrikyo cult attack in the ’90s. Things like this repressed the superflat culture, and that was before 3/11 [last year’s earthquake]. Now all these things are spilling out, so it’s changing. I think that’s why Massimiliano speaks of my work becoming more human — because the uniqueness of Japanese culture is changing. It’s becoming more universal. In a way it’s easier to understand now.

LR: There is a lot of talk in the media and from the Qatar Museums Authority about the grand plan to develop the arts culture here in Qatar from the grass roots up. What do you hope the locals might gain from the exhibition? And for you on a personal level: Why now? Why Doha?
TM: When I was first approached by Sheikha Al Mayassa and her husband Sheikh Jassim [H.E. Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and H.E. Sheikh Jassim Bin Abdulaziz Bin Jassim Al-Thani], he said to me, “Hi Brother — and I don’t mean brother in the American sense; I mean it because we’re both Asian.” He then asked me if I knew that Qatar had spent a lot of money on Japan and that there is a strong relationship between our countries. He said he was very proud to have my exhibition here, as I’m one of the first Asian artists to be really successful in the international art world, signifying hope for the future of Qatar as well. I think when the artist as creator appears in a culture, that is when we can think about the local cultural vocabulary and how it can be transferred to an international language. When I was a child I was taken to see a Goya show, and seeing the images of the demon eating a child or The Naked Maja, before I even thought about different cultures, was shocking and embarrassing for me. My father bought me a poster to put on the wall at home. This experience really affected my being an artist today. I hope that children can come here and experience and feel something strongly, and that later on they may think about their culture and the way culture goes beyond language.

“Murakami – Ego” runs from February 9 to June 24 at the Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, Doha, Qatar.

by Lucy Rees