Superflat in Japan
Artist Takashi Murakami
Japanese culture might seem rich and colourful to you and I but to the artists of the Superflat movement it seems commercial and without substance. The movement got its name from frontman Takashi Murakami and refers to the tradition of flattened forms in Japanese art which lives on in animation and pop culture. In the works of the Superflat artists it also reflects what Takashi calls the "shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer culture."
The best-known Superflat artists include Chiho Aoshima (the work on the right is called Divine Gas), Mahomi Kunikata, Yoshitomo Nara, Tatsuyuki Tanaka and Aya Takano. Manga men Koji Morimoto and Hitoshi Tomizawa have also been called Superflat artists. Henmaru Machino's work is supposed to be satire, but you might find them as kinky (and dodgy) as the "lolicon art" it's targeting.
The Superflats make their own pop culture as a protest against the overpowering forces of the media, entertainment and consumer culture. And so the media writes about them, people are entertained by them and they sell by the truckload. It seems ironic, but is precisely what the Superflats wanted to happen.
Murakami wanted to be an animator like the famous Yoshinori Kanada, but decided he wasn't good enough to do more than draw the backgrounds for animated movies. There was nothing wrong with that career move, since nihon-ga artists are paid as well as the animators themselves. “My goal was to make money and build a traditional Japanese house,” Takashi says. “My father was a taxi driver and I was poor as a child. I hate the poor life.”
The trouble was he got bored and started hanging out with the computer geeks known as otaku while shaping his own painting style. Soon he had Hiropon Factory, a studio producing paintings and sculptures influenced by pop culture and the traditions of Japanese art. “What is important in Japanese art is the feeling of flatness,” he wrote in an essay about the Superflat movement. “Our culture doesn't have 3-D.”
On the web site of his current company, Kaikai Kiki, Takashi tells what happened next: "In 1996 I founded the Hiropon Factory, which would become Kaikai Kiki’s predecessor. At the time the ‘factory’ was nothing more than a small workshop-like group of people assisting me with my sculptures and paintings. Two years before that I had travelled to New York on a scholarship and set up a studio there as well. As I took on new projects, the scale of my production grew and by 2001, when I had a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, the Hiropon Factory had grown into a professional art production and management organisation. That same year I registered the company officially as Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd."
Japan’s critics generally don't like Murakami and his soul mates much. Here's what the Japan Times wrote about one of his exhibitions: “Far from challenging perceptions the show at times comes across as little more than a clever repackaging of selective ‘exotic’ and ‘wacky’ features of contemporary Japan for American consumption.”
Murakami couldn't care less. He's happily making animated shorts (one was for Louis Vuitton) and designing CD covers for the likes of Kanye West and various J-pop groups. It's a living.
Form with function
Designer Jean Prouvé
He's been tagged the pioneer of prefab – which sounds a bit bland if you consider all the achievements of French industrial designer and architect Jean Prouvé. Until recently mostly people in his field knew about him and admired his genius, but that changed when the Tate gallery in London rebuilt one of his prefab houses on its front lawn for a special exhibition. It was a chance for architecture fans to discover the beauty of his ideas.
Considered one of the great designers of the 20th century, Prouvé was a craftsman, designer, manufacturer, architect and engineer whose career spanned over 60 years. He created prefabricated houses, building components and façades as well as furniture for the home, office and school. His goal was to keep everything simple, functional and economical.
Jean Prouvé was born into an artistic family in Nancy and trained as a metal smith before studying engineering and opening his own workshop in 1923. He worked with the best, including Le Corbusier, and made a name for himself with classics such as his standard chair of 1934, the Antony chair of 1954 and tables made of sheet metal that he folded with a self-invented method. As admirable as his work ethic was his treatment of his workers: he provided them with insurance and gave them paid holidays, which were a novelty at the time. Never design anything that cannot be made, he said, and so he made sure all his designs could be mass-produced in his factories.
In the fifties he took up the challenge of designing prefab houses which would be easy to assemble, durable and also affordable. His greatest creations here were the “maisons tropicales” made for Niger and the Congo.
Métropole House is a good example of his work. It was built for a competition held by France's Ministry of Education in 1949, to create a “mass-produceable rural school with classroom and teacher accommodation”. The teacher's house was an all-steel structure, with an aluminium façade, a wooden interior and a winter garden enclosed by glass.
Since his death in 1984 Prouvé has become a legend and many of his buildings have been declared monuments. But he might have hated the fact that his furniture pieces are now collector's items and that one of his tropical houses was sold for over R35 million to a hotel boss. The idea was to help the poor, not to amuse the rich.
News in a box
The Japanese art of kamishibai
Kamishibai is storytelling in a small box theatre with illustrations on sliding panels. The storyteller would go to street corners where kids gathered, set up his little stage and provide free entertainment, ending with a cliffhanger to ensure his audience would return the next day. He made his money selling sweets before the show. In the mid-thirties Tokyo alone had more than 2 500 kamishibaiya walking the streets.
The stories were traditional tales of ghosts and bravery, dreamt up and illustrated by artists who rented them to the storytellers. During the war they helped to spread propaganda. After the war, with hardly anyone owning a radio, they helped to spread the news. By threatening to ban them, the American occupational force after the war got the kamishibaiya to deliver their propaganda instead.
The first ever cartoon superhero (five years older than The Phantom, which was the American first) emerged from kamishibai. Golden Bat was a flying skeleton with popping eyes, wonky teeth, a cape and a sword. He came from 10 000 years into the future and his adventures featured aliens, rockets, dinosaurs and giant robots.
When TV landed in Japan in 1953, it was first called denki kamishibai (electric paper theatre). It was also the beginning of the end for the roaming storytellers. These days only a few novelty acts are left, but many of the drawing techniques used for the story boards have become standards in anime.
Try the beautifully printed book Manga Kamishibai - The Art of Japanese Paper Theatre by Eric P. Nash for more on the art.
Fantasy made real
Architect John Lautner
One of the most remarkable buildings in Los Angeles is an octagonal home on a single concrete pillar which can only be reached by rickety finicular. Called the Chemosphere, it was the designed by John Lautner in 1960 and built on hills overlooking the city. The upkeep costs a fortune, apparently, but current owner Benedikt Taschen doesn't have a cash flow problem. He also published a book on the architect which created a new awareness of his work.
Chemosphere with its Modernist style and interior (thanks to Taschen's revamp) is the kind of house in which James Bond and the Jetsons would feel equally at home. John Lautner created many such futuristic marvels in a career of six decades and some of them were used in films such as Diamonds are Forever. In his time he was overshadowed by his Modernist peers Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, but these days the fundis acknowledge that he wasn't just an escapist creating fantasy worlds. There was a serious philosophy on humankind's relationship with nature and the environment behind his designs.
A good example is his Carling House. Its sitting room turns on a platform and becomes an outdoor patio overlooking the city. He was also a practical designer, as he proved with a desert motel which can withstand the fiercest storms, a solar home in Alaska and a wavy seaside home on a ridiculously narrow plot in Malibu.
One of his great legacies also cost him some credibility. In the late forties he designed Googie's Coffee Shop, which led to a wildly popular style named Googie. Critics and other architects considered it silly and laughable. For a while Lautner couldn't find work and had to survive with modest jobs like revamping kitchens. This changed in the seventies when he built a now famous home for comedian Bob Hope in Palm Springs. Suddenly it was okay to like Lautner again and he won medals and lifetime achievement awards. In 1994 he died a respected and famous architect.
World of wonder
Space Age is what some call it, but most people know it as Googie, a quirky design style which spread through America in the fifties and all but disappeared about a decade later. Its main root is architect John Lautner's forties design for Googie's Coffee Shop on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights in Los Angeles. An architecture professor gave the style the name Googie in a 1952 article and it stuck.
Googie architecture is on the endangered list. Like art deco at the end of the thirties, it became unfashionable and few thought it was worth preserving. Googie's Coffee Shop and many other icons of the style were torn down before Googie was recognised as a piece of Americana to be treasured.
The style is instantly familiar. It's the home of The Jetsons, the classic Vegas neon signs, road houses and motels and even some cars from the era. Common features are flat roofs tilted upwards, which left room for a huge front window, roofs in the shape of parabolas, big concrete domes and boomerang shapes often used for signs, logos and printed patterns. Nobody is entirely sure here the boomerang came in - maybe from science fiction's “flying wing”, or else it's a stylised arrow suggesting progress. The amoeba blobs might have been inspired by camouflage from World War II. Then there's the starburst and the atomic diagram which reminded people of outer and inner space in a time of exciting advances in science.
Googie designers loved the new materials that suddenly became available after the war. They used sheet glass, plywood and plastic to give structures of steel and cement a new look. They were trying to build the world of tomorrow in an age of almost naieve optimism about the future. The romantic view is that Googie lost its appeal when America lost its innocence in the sixties with the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and space exploration bringing back more questions than answers. Who knows. Now it's just another part of retro pop culture.
Pity. Like many styles that fell out of favour, Googie was built on some solid, sensible concepts. There's more to it than ideas for an eye-catching promotion or cool web design.
Machines for living
Architect Le Corbusier
On his first visit to New York in 1935 this radical genius said the skyscrapers were nice, but too small. Le Corbusier (he worked under his grandmother's maiden name) had arrived in Paris, checked out the design scene and said it was time to start over.
He did just that with the International Style, intended to bring nature back into human lives by redesigning cities and transforming them into orderly, healthy environments. He even proposed knocking down virtually everything on the right bank in Paris, which was a bit extreme and didn't get council approval.
In his spare time he wrote books like Towards a New Architecture, the best-selling architecture book ever, published a magazine, painted, sculpted and intimidated people with statements like “a house is a machine for living in”.
What tarnished the man's reputation after his death in 1965 was urban designers using his ideas to build cheap and nasty areas that turned into monstrous slums. They missed the point: Corbusier didn't want to slap a concrete roof over every homeless family and call it a home. He wanted everyone to live better.