Japanese hipster-turned-multimillionaire artist Takashi Murakami’s trademark psychedelic flower faces, narcotized eyes, and menacing mouths have been seen in a lot of places: from MOCA in Los Angeles, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, to the sides of Louis Vuitton handbags and the covers of a Kanye West album. Today, they’ve taking root in cyberspace. Mr. Murakami has contributed the latest so-called Google doodle, a time-specific embellishment of the search engine’s corporate logo meant to commemorate a significant occasion – in this case, the official start of summer 2011.
Murakami emerged as a self-styled late century Andy Warhol in 1996 when he founded the Hiropon Factory, a collective of young artists who would reproduce his works like widgets. I first encountered his art in the form of a sculpture called Hiropon: a wide-eyed girl-woman with comically massive breasts swinging a stream of lactating milk like a jump-rope around her skipping body.
Hiropon’s sparkly oversized eyes above a pert and tiny nose at first struck me as too self-consciously borrowed from anime cliché. But upon closer inspection, I realized why they were making me increasingly uneasy: blank white orbs of reflected light sat just off-center, adding a hint of Orphan Annie inscrutability to the colorful swaths.
She was cute, even sexy by way of hyperbolic parody. But she was also, quite possibly, deranged.
Murakami has since become a global superstar. A few years ago, his Hiropon sculpture sold for more than $7 million at Sotheby’s. He has branded his controversial theories about contemporary Japan “Superflat:” a flattening of distinctions between high and low art, aestheticism and commercialism, a native preference for two-dimensional, line-based visuals, and a spiritual flatness resulting from Japan’s defeat and infantilism, or empty acquiescence, after World War II. Think Hello Kitty, Godzilla, and Pokemon, inked in zany color.
Of course, Google did not choose the over-endowed Hiropon for today’s doodle, and Murakami’s menace is reduced to a couple of wayward canines to the right of their logo. Japan is addled by ongoing anxieties over nuclear catastrophe and a physically flattened post-disaster landscape. Murakami may be an apt choice for auguring summer fun in our age of apocalypse.
Happy (superflat) summer.
Roland Kelts is author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S."