Artist Takashi Murakami talks tea and ceramics | Arts | DW | 23.01.2013

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Artist Takashi Murakami talks tea and ceramics

Internationally acclaimed artist Takashi Murakami is best-known for his "superflat" aesthetic, blurring high art and commercialism. He opened up with DW about ceramics, drinking tea and opening a gallery in Berlin.

Internationally acclaimed contemporary Japanese artist Takashi Murakami works in a variety of media, from painting and sculpture to what is conventionally considered commercial media. He's produced work for the fashion, merchandize, and animation industries, winning him widespread fame and notoriety as an artist who blurs the line between high art and commercialism.

Last summer, Murakami opened the Hidari Zingaro Berlin gallery in district of Kreuzberg as a platform for emerging artistic talent. The first exhibition this year, called Japanese Contemporary Ceramic Art by Oz Zingaro, is a group show with over 500 individual works from eight ceramic artists represented by Murakami's sister gallery Oz Zingaro in Tokyo.

This month, Murakami made a visit to his gallery in Berlin to talk about the exhibition and the roots of the post-war ceramic art movement.

DW: Why did you want to open the Hidari Zingaro gallery in Berlin?

Takashi Murakami: I was visiting [Berlin-based artist] Anselm Reyle at his studio to discuss a solo exhibition that he was holding at our gallery in Asia and upon setting foot in Berlin I was instantly mesmerized by the atmosphere. I asked Anselm what he thought about opening a gallery here and he strongly recommended it. Anselm talked to young artists and his acquaintances in the art world, and we agreed to work together on a program. That was how we came to open a gallery here in Berlin.

I'm always looking to meet young artists and I saw a lot of potential in this area, so it was really a very exciting thing for me. At the moment, however, we're still building our reputation as a gallery. Before inviting new artists to work with us, I decided to bring over some of the approach we take in Japan and see if we could find a way to match it with the reality of life here in Berlin. The curation project that Anselm and I discussed looks like it will finally happen this May.

A view of the exhibition Japanese Contemporary Ceramic Art in Hidari Zingaro in Berlin

The artists represented in the exhibition take an anti-commercial approach, explains Murakami

How is ceramic art a part of Japanese heritage?

One of the traditional art forms of Japan is the tea ceremony. In feudal times, the tea ceremony was developed as a way of incorporating the arts inspired by Zen Buddhism and its philosophy into a social custom - which makes it a fairly unique piece of culture. The price of a single teacup reached an extremely high value. Warlords would have their cultural refinement judged by the quality and lineage of their collections. It's really quite similar to today's contemporary art world.

This structure lasted until Japan's defeat in World War II, along with the vague social hierarchy that remained until that time. After losing the war, we imported American-style democracy and as it spread the world that had been built around the tea ceremony changed instantly and there was no longer any real reason for the dishes and utensils to command such high prices.

For a time, however, the works were labeled as cultural treasures and they maintained their value until the collapse of the bubble economy in the early 1990s. Right up until that era, nihonga (traditional Japanese-style paintings) and the tea ceremony continued to be seen as the star players of the Japanese artistic community. The artists lived in mansions and the gallerists traded amongst themselves, leading to artificial prices that caused them to look down their nose and laugh at the value of art in the rest of the world. After the bubble burst, Japanese society became completely flattened, leading to what I call our "superflat" social structure. Under these circumstances, even national treasures lost their underpinning and prices fell dramatically.

Nowadays, nihonga artists and tea ceremony artists are barely paid any attention at all. At the same time, there is now a new genre of ceramic art that has grown from a more left-wing mindset and where the artists deliberately seek to prevent their prices from going up. This is the world in which the ceramic artists we are showing at our gallery live.

A view of the exhibition Japanese Contemporary Ceramic Art in Hidari Zingaro in Berlin

World War II was a turning point for ceramic art in Japan

How does the recent revival of the use of ceramics by young artists fit into the contemporary art scene in Japan?

In Japan, contemporary art and high culture are not considered mainstream. Rather, the most loved and respected art forms are more democratic, like anime and manga. Some of the artists may read manga or watch anime for entertainment, but there has not been anyone who has shown a direct influence from it in their work as of yet.

I believe the reason for this is that people who live very closely with nature are operating in a world that is clearly different from those who develop a love of anime. Rather than plunge themselves into fantasy, most of them accept the reality of the physical world around them. But in the same vein, the ceramic artists we are showing ask many questions of modern society. Their lifestyles are informed by love of nature, opposition to nuclear power, and sustainable living.

In order to not disturb anyone with the smoke from their kilns, most ceramic artists must live in fairly remote surroundings, with few people around. And once you are deep in the mountains, you have no choice but to conserve on all sorts of resources. As a result, the areas around the studios where these artists work tend to be thriving with nature and many of them have naturally progressed to farming their own land. They also use scrap wood to fire their kilns, and they can create without any need to trim or cut down trees.

What have the new generation of artists brought to the genre of ceramic art?

They have great respect for tradition and they have endeavored to ensure that the genre does not loose any of the quality it possessed 30 years ago, when works were selling at high prices. Rather, you could actually say that they have become more sophisticated in their means of expression and level of skill. These days, you can find recipes for glazing or clay in published form or on the Internet, meaning that the secrets of creating ceramic works are no longer confined to experts. Anyone with enough ambition can find the information they need to improve. This has raised the level of quality for the genre as a whole.

The exhibition at Hidari Zingaro Berlin has been extended until early February.

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