Organized by Tokyo-based artist Takashi Murakami, the exhibition Superflat investigates a tendency toward two-dimensionality in Japanese visual art, animation, graphic design, and fashion. Tracing this flatness back to pioneers of Japanese painting in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, Murakami has developed a theory of "super-flat Japanese art" in which this legacy can be seen to be resurrected in the post-World War II rise of the Japanese cartoon cultures of manga (comic books) and anime (animation). In his essay "A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art" (2000), Murakami suggests a direct line of historical descent between the flatness of the prints of the 19th-century master Katsushika Hokusai, for example, and the 1970s television animation of Yoshinori Kanada. Both share a uniquely Japanese sense of "superflatness," which because it is decidedly unlike our normal reality, Murakami argues, can create an escape from the pressures and expectations of everyday life.
Superflat presents works by 19 of the most exciting artists working in Japan today in painting, photography, works on paper, video, fashion, computer animation, cartoons, performance, and sculpture. While all of these artists lend support to Murakami's argument about two-dimensionality, each also explores and exceeds the limits of their respective genres. For example, Koji Morimoto, best known for designing the opening credits for MTV Japan, makes sketches and animations that take their inspiration from 17th-century Japanese scrolls and statues. Likewise, the styled photographs of Masafumi Sanai and Chikashi Suzuki deal with prevalent cultural subjects while imitating the look of fashion and commercial photography.
Fashion itself plays a significant part in Japanese culture, and many artists are working within the everyday reality of ready-to-wear clothing. A performance group as well as a clothing line, 20471120 stages elaborate large-scale fashion shows that invite audience participation. The brand's mantra is "fashion, art, and character." The graphic design firm groovisions, on the other hand, has created a persona called "Chappie" that appears many places, often multiple times in the same instance, wearing different outfits. The Chappie boys and girls are distinguishable only by the clothing they wear, making a poignant statement about the place of fashion in our lives. "Cute," cartoonlike images, known in Japanese as kawaii, are a predominant part of contemporary commercial culture. In Yoshitomo Nara's cartoonishly aggressive punk children, Chiho Aoshima's digitally rendered girls, or Kentaro Takekuma's familiar cartoon image ofThomas the Tank Engine (a project that aims to deter suicidal commuters from jumping in front of trains), Japan's consumer culture of cuteness is analyzed and dismantled through a variety of provocative strategies. In Murakami's argument, all of this work can be traced back visually through the techniques of anime to a wide range of premodern Japanese master painters. It is this legacy of the superflat that lives on today in the cultural DNA of contemporary Japanese art and visual culture at large.