Are You There, DOB? It’s Me, Murakami

24 08 2009

tldr

My apartment was becoming littered with unread magazines, so today I spent the muggy afternoon reading some very interesting—to me, at least—articles. Chief among them, for reasons that are obvious, was an interview with Takashi Murakami in Issue 31 of Clear Magazine. Can I just tell you? The interviewer asks Murakami what his favorite colors are, and they’re pink and green. I mean, he actually says “my favorite colors are green and pink”, full stop. So, that’s pretty awesome. Putting my personal obsession with color theory aside, though, the interview is great because Murakami talks really candidly about some of his biggest motivations and motifs. He even talks briefly about his flower paintings, which is as good a place as any to start because, unlike his mute and accusing mushrooms (and unlike the also-hawt flower paintings of Warhol or Britto), Murakami’s flowers have mouths. In fact, the prototypical Murakami flower can best be described as a smiley-face surrounded by petals. It’s late, and I don’t feel like scanning one, or even trying to find one with a Google Image search, so if you’re curious, then I guess do it yourself, please. Oh, but what I was going to say was that Murakami explains in the interview that he does flowers when he needs to, like, “go emotionally neutral”, I guess, like when another work is getting too emotionally intense and he needs to pull back. The flower’s kinda like a default, from what I gathered. Cool.

DOB's not cute.

PO+KU SURREALISM (Pink), 1999. In case you’re wondering, “PO+KU” = Pop + オタク  (otaku, which can be translated as something like “fan-boy culture”).

Okay, I promise I won’t make this a habit, but I just decided that for this post I’m gonna rip a little bit from an old paper I wrote. Hopefully you’ll dig it. I’m sure I’ll hear about it if you don’t. And I not gonna cut-and-paste, because the formal writing style would conflict with this blog’s established tone. Here goes.

What Murakami said in the interview makes perfect sense, because his flower paintings are totally innocuous. There’s an unchanging seriality to them: a Murakami flower will always look like a Murakami flower, and it will always be smiling. Total escape. Not at all grounded in reality, but perfectly safe. The pictures above and below, by contrast, technically count as examples from Murakami’s DOB series (DOB is Murakami’s central “character”; the character started out as script on a pictureless illuminated sign, but that would take forever to explain). Yeah, dig it: all that red and blue in those two paintings? That’s DOB—what’s left of him.  Marc Steinberg wrote about this in his article “Characterizing a New Seriality: Takashi Murakami’s DOB Project”, which appeared in Parachute (the link takes you to the web page for that issue of the now-defunct journal; I couldn’t find the article in its entirety online, but the .pdf is available on WilsonOmni, if you have access through a library). In the article, Steinberg quotes Murakami’s own description of the DOB project, which the artist started in 1993, as “an inquiry…into the secret market of survival” (page 101). The goal of the DOB serialization, then, is to mutate: to adapt in order to survive. Steinberg explains that this is achieved through the conflation of kawaii (かわいい), or “cuteness” and kowai (恐い), or “scariness” that’s pretty evident in each of Murakami’s later DOB paintings. The cuteness doesn’t disappear altogether or evaporate, but new “scary” elements, like jagged teeth and a panoptical set of eyes, come to dominate (how could they not). At the same time, the smallness that’s a prerequisite for cuteness is abandoned in favor of enormous sculptures or canvases.

I like this one better. The other one looks like Band-Aids.

PO+KU SURREALISM (Green), 1999. Still discernible: elements of DOB monogram (the letters are usually on DOB’s monkey-ears); eyes; row after row of vicious-looking teeth. How awesome is that one big perfectly-circular gaping maw of a mouth on the thickest strip.

We’ve heard this survival thing before. Babies are cute so that predators don’t eat them. But our language tends to abuse the word “cute”. For real: I get that a toy can be cute, or a Disney movie (I’m thinking Thumper, Flower and Bambi here, for you reader-response people), and maybe even a haircut. But when someone says “Ooh! Cute skirt!”, what does that even mean? Is it cute because it’s small? ‘Cause cute does not equal “slutty”. Don’t mess with my goddamned assigned meaning! In fact, at this point I’m going to yield the floor to Sianne Ngai, who is a criticism & theory goddess. In her Critical Inquiry article titled “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde” (if for some reason the .pdf doesn’t load, here’s the Critical Inquiry page), Ngai lists “cute” among other concepts like “glamorous”, “whimsical” and “wacky”—all of which she identifies as minor taste terms. Where “cute” exists as a minor taste term, “cuteness” must exist as a minor taste concept. And although we can associate a certain speech delivery with the state of being cute (me, I happen to think New Zealanders have a “cute” accent, and I’m a sucker for the “cute” use of pet names within intimate contexts), the concept of cuteness is pretty much a visual phenomenon. The cuteness aesthetic, Ngai suggests, “depends on a softness that invites physical touching—or, to use a more provocative verb, fondling” (page 815). The viewer-viewed exchange rate is off the charts with the cuteness aesthetic, and of course the implication is that the viewer, who has all the power, dominates the lash-batting viewed (until, in Murakami’s case, for example, the cute object unhinges its jaw, sprouts fangs, and starts spraying ominous rape-tentacles of raw color). It’s unsettling and tense because we’ve come to understand that “cute objects have no edge to speak of, usually being soft, round, and deeply associated with the infantile and the feminine” (page 814). Bottom line: Murakami’s iterative serialization of the resilient DOB lets the viewer watch the torture of that which is cute, which is somewhat sadistic, given that Murakami’s cuteness, impressively, manages to survive every manner of monstrous alteration. By the way, I highly recommend Ngai’s book, Ugly Feelings, in which she analyzes minor affects. It’ll blow your mind. Ngai is brilliant.

Sorry if this post comes across as obnoxiously pedantic. It’s just that reading the interview got me thinking about DOB all over again. And both Steinberg and Ngai really took my appreciation of Murakami to a whole notha level, so I wanted to share their amazing scholarship with you guys.

I’ll try to make my next post about, like, monster trucks, or a wardrobe malfunction, or something.

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