Interview by Matt Schley
'Japanese people don't get my art.' That's a bit of a shocking statement from Takashi Murakami, considering his just-wrapped Tokyo exhibition, ‘The 500 Arhats’, attracted over 300,000 people over its four-month run. But shocking statements are nothing new to legendary superflat artist Murakami, who’s currently showing his vast art collection in a separate exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art. We powwowed with Murakami at his Bar Zingaro in Nakano and discussed opening a series of galleries in an ageing mall, why Westerners see his art differently to Japanese people, and why he collects his own beard hair.
‘The 500 Arhats’ was your first show in Japan in 14 years. Why such a long break?
Mori Art Museum was kind enough to hold this show, but it’s probably the last time it’ll happen while I’m alive. The problem is that my shows require big budgets, and Japanese museums probably don’t find it worthwhile to invest that kind of sum in me, a Japanese artist.
Do you go check out your own shows?
Once the installation is done, I’m no longer too interested in the show. We have people who are really good at the installation and negotiation side of things at my company [Kaikai Kiki], and I leave those matters to them. My interest is in constantly burying myself deeper into a fresh, creative flow of time. In that sense, the best moment for me is when I’m in my studio making art.
Was that the same for the Yokohama exhibition?
That was entirely different, because it’s my collection. I’m attached to each work I’ve collected, and it’s totally a hobby for me. So I was gleefully involved in the installation on site. I was there last week and the sheer amount of art felt really overwhelming.
What kind of response have you received?
This was the first opportunity ever for me to publicly present my collection, so we ended up exhibiting the works almost straight out of my warehouse. If we had managed to organise them a bit better, the show may have resonated more with the Japanese sensibility; instead, it was criticised by the experts as nouveau riche in taste. Western and Japanese reactions are always so different. Here, beauty and poverty are understood as equal; the stereotype that money is dirty dominates. Japanese people don’t get my art.
Why do you think that is?
The reason why I’m inevitably despised – that’s one of the things I’d like to understand myself. Perhaps it’s baked into our DNA. Yesterday I watched the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Netflix, and the whole time I was thinking about the huge difference in Western and Asian expressions of love. Asian love is very minimal. In the movie, Zhang Ziyi’s character shows her love in a Western way; lust and affection are one and the same for her. On the other hand, Michelle Yeoh’s character never achieves such a direct fulfillment of corporal love; a kiss at the moment of her love’s death is all. I wondered whether this kind of sensibility might have something to do with our DNA.
You opened a series of galleries and a café-bar under the name Zingaro in Nakano Broadway. What’s Broadway like and why did you choose it?
It feels very post-war. Very Asian. It reminds me of Japan in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s kind of a mecca for geeks, and [manga shop] Mandarake has many stores here. I love Mandarake, and I thought it would be great to be able to work close by. They have a bunch of different shops – one for old toys, one for manga, one for video games. I can spend hours just walking between them checking things out.
Where else do you recommend in Nakano?
Right behind Broadway there’s a whole mess of bars and restaurants that are very authentic and cheap. Nakano also has one of the ten best ramen shops in Japan, Aoba. When we’re finished here, please go check it out.
Do you remember the first piece of art you bought?
Yeah. I bought a soba-choko – a small cup for soba noodles – for ¥500 in Kyoto. I was really nervous when I bought it, because I thought, ‘Oh boy, when I buy this, my collection’s going to begin.’
Do you collect anything besides art?
Yeah, I collect my hair, fingernails, facial hair, skin…
When you get older, your hair falls out, right? If I live another 30 years or so, maybe I can take the DNA from the old hair and use some state-of-the-art medical technology to revive it. Actually, I’m collecting all sorts of things, imagining what might go through people’s minds when, after my death, they look at such items I’ve left behind in a museum.