Tuesday, 25 September 2007



(First published 21st August 2007)

Both artists have shown at Gagosian this year, Koons in London in June and July, Murakami in NY in May – June. Both pursue a project that highlights the commission of standard production or manufacturing, albeit of unlikely or extreme products. This style is identified here as the readily-made and is also discussed in Posts 25 and 36. Koons and Murakami, in contrasting ways demonstrate certain limits to the approach, perhaps its exhaustion.

Koons is the elder and a pioneer. His work in the late 70s and early 80s begins as actually ready-mades – standard objects displayed in a way that reveals unexpected aspects, distinct from standard presentation. The ready-made properly arises with Marcel Duchamp, but for Koons both type of object and mode of re-presentation now derive from retail display and its troubling proximity at times to museum and gallery practices. Koons contribution is extended with stainless steel castings such as Rabbit (1986) where the familiar toy gives casting an unusual prominence. The expense and difficulty of casting in a material more usually reserved for industrial and trade applications alerts us to a more general aspect to the process, its autonomous nature, prompt accommodation of the artist’s commission (at a price) and equally the artist’s accommodation of this autonomy, also at a price.

The readily-made does not rest with mere casting of found toys of course. Koons replaces the ready-made object with photographs as sources for later works and commissions more elaborate readily-mades such as the porcelain Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988). Again the contrast between material and product is pertinent. While merchandising for a pop star might conceivably stretch to small, cheap figurines, a life-size gilded porcelain product is unlikely, to say the least. By the same token while porcelain figures look to popular and traditional iconography, to adopt a contemporary pop star and to work on this scale, is equally unusual. So the work is not so much about merchandising excess or porcelain’s cautious iconography as the awkward if instructive area in between.

This balance largely sets the model for subsequent readily-mades. Such work is often linked to Pop Art, by choosing source objects from mass prints, but where Pop Art is interested in contrasting painting with these as a one-off, or unique object, the readily-made retains no such emphasis upon the single or unique picture. While obviously related to Pop Art, the readily-made constitutes a later style. Indeed, in more recent times, where Koons applies his commissioning power to painting, the result is predictably disappointing because the commissioned design no longer carries a distinctive source and because the mode of painting can offer no compelling parallel to industrial standards of reproduction. As a readily-made, painting is never automatic or ‘ready’ enough, as a commission, never surprising or remote enough.

In the case of Murakami, the readily-made succumbs to a different fate. Murakami follows in the wake of Koons, is similarly drawn to the toys and figures of Japanese cartoons and comics, Anime. The characters’ enormous blue and green eyes and fair hair, while ostensibly ‘international’ – paradoxically, carry a distinctly Japanese and deeply ambiguous meaning, given Japan’s history with the west. Indeed, the round, moist eyes are often all Murakami preserves of his sources, renders figures or persons passive, decorative and yet faintly subversive, mocking an inherent racism and preference, if merely by eye. The subversion is reinforced in works that combine the mushroom cloud of an atomic blast with a mixture of traditional ghost and modern comic strip. The work looks light-hearted and ‘international’, but subtly carries far more national baggage. More recent works, depicting religious figures only compound the unease.

Murakami’s designs are freely applied to paintings, prints, even textiles, and mass produced sculptures of all scales, so that again industrial process is often foremost and the sources still strong enough to allow more leeway to painting. But the weakness now comes through a convergence with market standards. The product can no longer strictly distinguish itself from the material or process, as in Koons. Murakami has his own toys and characters, so that works no longer strictly display or sample the process, but merely instantiate it. Sheer versatility of application and popular acceptance thus rob the work of its vantage point, its potency as reference. The readily-made here is now too readily made, the commission again, no longer surprising or remote enough.

Both artists in a sense are victims of their own success. But it would be wrong to think the readily-made] is exhausted by toys and comic strips. Koons and Murakami remain hostage to these sources, extending commissions to paintings cannot liberate Koons, extending commissions beyond pictures cannot sustain Murakami.

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