In my “new life” as an artist; there are occasions when I am reminded of my “old life” in the corporate world. (For those of you who don’t know me, I spent 20 years in the US healthcare industry before moving to Japan.) It was an unexpected pleasure to find a product of leadership and teamwork in the Art World that reminded me of successful outcomes in my former career; where I was fortunate to work with some really fantastic people and teams. Taking advantage of a snow day where my son’s soccer game was cancelled, I took the opportunity to visit an exhibit at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills that I have been curious about for weeks
Takashi Murakami (b. 1962) is a contemporary artist and is especially known for his character-based artworks. Much of the art on display was a combination of anime and manga styles. Personally, these are not my favorite styles of Art. Still; they are definitely amazing works if you are a fan.
What I did find amazing and inspirational is one of his latest projects that was started in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. The 500 Arhats (2012) is a 3-meter high, 100-meter long painting of the 500 enlightened followers (arhats) of Buddha. “The piece highlights the power of prayer that transcends religious differences in a dynamic vision of the intersection of finite life and the infinite nature and universe.” – Mori Art Museum
This piece of artwork is almost overwhelming considering its sheer size. But, that isn’t what I found to be the most inspiring part. This artwork is the product of a year-long project the artist led with hundreds of university art student graduates in a production studio in Saitama.
Background: The Factory
In order to complete The 500 Arhats, Takashi Murakami employed a technique he has used previously. Inspired by American artists Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons; (Wait, Andy Warhol had a factory?! – I will have to research that one for a future blog!) Takashi Murakami made the idea of a “studio-factory” a reality in the Japanese art world. And what better place to do it?! A culture which prides itself in the efficient repetition of process in the pursuit of perfection.
Murakami supplies the leadership, the vision, the strategy, blueprints and the “plan”; and his students execute it operationally. (Yes, I am still talking about the art world – not automotive, not healthcare, not toys… ART!) And, he has been known to provide pencil drawings via e-mail, which allotted him the potential significance of “the first artist to paint by email” by the New York Times.
Takashi Murakami’s production studio is run in the style of a Japanese small-town workshop; it is an expression of Murakami’s own operating philosophy.
The Japanese word for such workshops, Kojo, loosely translated means “factory” in English, which has earned comparisons to Ford’s River Rouge Plant and a Toyota-style manufacturing operation. Still; the character of the place is that of a handcrafted small-town workshop.
A “small-town” workshop that has a total floor area of 9,000 square meters, 3 ordinary-looking warehouse buildings with 2 of them linked together so a 50-meter long section of the 500 Arhats painting could be accommodated.
This “world’s largest painting workshop” operates around the clock, in shifts.
While not uncommon for Murakami to employ students as part of his factory; he didn’t always employ art university graduates because he didn’t want the challenge of dealing with “egos”. He felt that students of vocational schools were more receptive to instruction. However; the undertaking of The 500 Arhats in such a short period of time required the assistance of people who had a mastery in specific artistic skills. Hence; Murakami recruited from Japanese Art Universities employing a “Scout Caravan” style of recruitment. (Kind of like American Idol’s talent search).
In learning about the production of The 500 Arhats, I am reminded of my corporate days. Murakami employed good business practices (with an artist twist) to reach his vision. There were morning meetings, calisthenics exercises (warm up) at the beginning of each day. Status reports were shared across assistants, manuals for painting and silk screening, “regulation of paint colors using color ships and the use of instructions called “maps” that show the partitions and segments for all silk screens in all sizes”. And then trial and error… Practice to perfection. The result? A system and methodology that would allow “the factory” to produce works within a shorter time span that were presented on a global stage.
THE ARTWORK: The 500 Arhats
OK, so now you know how it was made. Let me tell you about the absolutely amazing result! Meter after meter of gorgeous color, vibrancy and symbolism inspired by the traditional style artworks and in particular; Kano Kazunobu’s Late-Edo period Superwork titled “The Five Hundred Arhats”. (Once again.. Artists Inspiring Artists Creating Art!) Mori Art Museum’s program quoted the artist “The disaster on March 11, 2011 showed me how religion and art arise in relation to one another; I saw with my own eyes how the world needed art with a religious context” (Asahi Shimbun, Jan 7, 2015). Or again, “I saw religion arising that very moment” (Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec 18, 2014). In Buddhism, an arhat is “one who is worthy” or a “perfected person”. Arhats attain nirvana through a practice of meditation and self-reflection. What is an arhat?
I am not an expert on Buddhism (and would never claim to be an expert on the art world) but I do believe that Murakami’s painting depicting the five hundred arhats of Buddhism was an offer to the Japanese people (and anyone else who has suffered from a natural disaster) as a way to heal, to go through the process of denial, grief, loss, anger to acceptance and beyond.
If an arhat represents a mortal life that has achieved immortality and enlightenment – then so can a human being survive the insult of trauma and suffer through the process mourning to acceptance to forgiveness and beyond to a “new normal”. The sheer size of the painting demands that a person spend ample amounts of time staring and viewing each section, each illustration, each arhat. The vastness of the 100 meter mural commands a person’s full attention and focus to really understand its interpretation. An expert might say the Recovery Process is similar in terms of focus, deliberation and time. Certainly not in terms of hours or minutes – but an analogous example to days, weeks, years, decades in can take to mourn, accept and rebuild.
I, personally, have never suffered a loss or injury due to a natural disaster or major event. There have been times when my family or friends have been in close proximity or (thankfully) barely injured, (the Gujarat Earthquake of 2001; Panam Flight 73 hijacking in 1986 in Karachi, Pakistan; Mumbai Terrorist Attacks November, 2008 and New York 9/11) but I am grateful that I have not experienced this type of loss.
Still; viewing Murakami’s painting of The 500 Arhats and knowing the motivation for its creation, it is hard to walk away without a small insight to the amount of suffering that must have been… and still is for many.
A true inspiration. Art is used to capture many things – Takashi Murakami has captured the suffering of humanity and given an opportunity for recovery. Lastly, I leave you with the few images I was able to capture of this wonderful work of Art… Enjoy.
The 500 Arhats will be on exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills through March 6, 2016. If you haven’t had an opportunity to do so – I urge you to check it out if you are local to Tokyo.
(With) PEACE. (In) ART. (To the) SOUL.