Curator’s Statement by Takashi Murakami
「A Nightmare Is A Dream Come True:
 Anime Expressionist Painting」

The Beginning of the Second Round

In the March 2010 issue of Bijutsu Techo, the magazine included a small pamphlet about the artist collective Chaos*Lounge, who were just then on the verge of their debut, and asked me to lead them in a round table discussion. The following is a continuation. A continuation of what you ask? – a continuation of an ongoing project, the creation of a new genre that fuses contemporary art and otaku culture.

Last time, we began our talk by discussing how we could bridge the communication gap between people like myself and the Internet Generation who were beginning to make their debut on SNS sites, particularly the followers of the heta-uma otaku sub-genre. I had just gotten my hands on a new video piece by Anri Sala and so I had the Chaos members watch it with me and asked them to give their thoughts. I was trying to nail down where we both were coming from and what they envisioned for the new frontier of contemporary art that they were trying to excavate. In their responses, they stressed to me their devotion to the concept, particular to their generation, that ideas mutate freely and argued that there was selflessness in that concept that was righteous in nature and allowed for unrestricted individual expression. We were already experiencing a fair amount of communication breakdown but I figured that could be fixed with time and shared experience. In the end, however, the differences proved too big. The main reason for this was that at the core of their philosophy was a faith in the righteousness of Japanese subcultures and their anti-social modes of thinking, an intellectual tradition that proved utterly incompatible with my own understanding of art and its connection to western capitalism.

We can laugh all we want at the Galápagos syndrome evidenced by this problem but in the end, the impasse is symbolic of Japanese culture itself, which in turn makes it all the more beautiful. Before the disasters of last year, it was exactly this sort of attitude that was experiencing a groundswell. The outside world was the outside world. Japan was Japan. In working with Chaos*Lounge, I had dreamed of melding contemporary art and otaku culture into a unified genre. This new exhibition, A Nightmare Is A Dream Come True: Anime Expressionist Painting, is round 2 of that challenge.

The State of Japanese Contemporary Art

Before we get this new bout underway, I first want to explain to readers what the rules are. By rules, I mean the rules of the international art world. If we really think about it, there are two sets of rules: the ones that exist in Japan and the ones that apply everywhere else. The Japanese contemporary art world has suffered from a cloudy, diluted mixture of the two. Worse, Japanese contemporary art is born from an environment of starvation while western art is settled in the center of the capitalist market. In other words, there is an unconquerable gap in economic infrastructure.

Japan does not have a functioning contemporary art market; the meaningless museums constructed by the government to fuel the 80’s real estate bubble and a community of curators with barely any study to their name purchase works based on their own personal preferences. The artists who succeed and who also grace the pages of Bijutsu Techo are those who manage to make themselves a target of these museums.

This is what young art students aspire to be and what they emulate. Bijtutsu Techo even goes so far as to compile its contents with these students’ vague needs in mind. It’s true that Bijutsu Techo also reports on happenings in the western scene but it does mainly from the distant perspective of Japanese subculture. This includes the view that money is dirty and that art and capitalism are incompatible. As long as the curators are creating a safe, stable environment for creativity with no outside enemies, then it is only right to follow their lead. Once contemporary art has become a subculture, that is its reality and its territory. Chaos*Lounge also existed within the boundaries of those value judgments. But in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, things are beginning to change. The museums have had their excess funds cut and some are even facing the danger of collapse. The safe, stable cocoon on which the subcultural contemporary artists have relied is now facing an opaque future.

From the 1990’s through the early years of the new millennium, Japan’s music scene built a gigantic market, unmatched by any other in the world, and succeeded in making big business out of mass culture. The publishing industry also managed to turn “manga” into a massive, multi-media industry. Japan was able to carry the potential of strictly domestic business to its maximum potential. Having reached its peak, the value is now on a downward slope and the industry is rumored to be in a state of panic. Despite this, its creators still have a self reliance that they can proud of. This is not the case for the starving contemporary art world. We have no audience.

The people of my generation who have worked in contemporary art as an industry have spent the past twenty years trying to build a base of clients. We started art fairs and held incubation programs at the museums. I myself pushed several up-and-comers through GEISAI. But in the end, the cultural structure dominated by the post-war sub cultural sense of righteousness would not allow for difficult, self-referential works to exist and we were never able to build a scene of mutual purchase, collecting, and praise. Meanwhile, branded art based on old-fashioned western systems of valuation, such as impressionism, had cash splashed on it by both the government and private individuals. And they felt good doing it. After all, when you invest in a brand, you are buying safety. Japanese people don’t want to see works of self-examination by other Japanese. Thus, the post-war contemporary scene was able to create a system for monitoring new talent but it never progressed as far as a full-fledged market. There are artists aplenty. Scores graduate every year from art universities and try to make their careers as creators but the lack of an indigenous market means they must power their own engines and the result is a cycle in which there are an increasing number of art schools which hire an increasing number of teachers who in turn produce an increasing number of students. In terms of being able to sell their works, contemporary artists have nowhere to go. Their would-be buyers are all in the west. Well then, if we acknowledge that reality, we also acknowledge the need to interact with those very western clients.

But for the Japanese art scene, such humility is seen as a negative. Their work is Japanese, uniquely and specifically so, and even if it is difficult to understand, they are above the need for explanation. Their convictions teach them that there is beauty in such a stance. The foreigners who don’t understand are stupid and our Galapagos culture is wonderful, no matter what anyone thinks. No commentary offered, only self-indulgence. Even so, with no market in Japan and no chance at making one, the artists took as their next step the act of entering into the nearby Asian market. Even there, however, they were unable to maintain any value and have now fallen out of favor.