Artist Q&A with Shinji Murakami
Shinji Murakami’s work springboards from the philosophy of Gunpei Yokoi, the famous inventor of Nintendo’s Game Boy, Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. Withered technology in this context refers to a mature technology that is cheap and well-understood. In contrast, lateral thinking refers to finding radical new ways of using such technology. Yokoi held that toys and games do not necessarily require cutting-edge technology; novel and fun gameplay are more important. Murakami does not believe that profound human understanding has necessarily caught up to the explosive evolution of modern computer technology. Still, the pixelated expressions of 8-bit video games at the root of his work are one withered part of this evolutionary process. Murakami interrogates lateral thinking of this pixel. Working in wood, alkyd paint, and LED light, Murakami focuses on communicating his ideas to a broad audience. With the precision of a master craftsman, he renders universal motifs – flowers, puppies, hearts – in minimalism and pop, re-interpreting the aesthetics and context of each genre and reassessing their role within contemporary art. His practice is an ongoing search for simplification, removing more and more unnecessary elements and moving works into more ephemeral formats.
Who is your favorite artist of all time?
I love two great pop artists, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and they are two of the biggest influences on my work. I am a self-taught artist who never attended art school or took any special classes. In my early twenties, I found a series of TASCHEN books in a bookstore for about $10 and bought books by those two, Mondrian, Picasso, and Basquiat. In those books, I learned what inspired them and how they developed their unique styles. I often think how that $50 for TASCHEN saved me several hundreds of thousands in fancy art school fees!
How did you become a professional artist?
The starting point was when I met Catinca Tabacaru in 2012. She came to Bushwick Open Studios, where I had opened my studio in Brooklyn. It’s where I’m still working today, but I no longer share the space with two other artists! She started showing my work at art fairs and other happenings she organized soon after that meeting. Then, when she opened a gallery space in Lower East Side, Manhattan, in 2014, she invited me into the program. That relationship continues to this day.
What are the influences and inspirations in your work?
As some of you may know from my work, I draw a lot of inspiration from the video games of the 80s. I was born in Japan in 1980 and grew up with video game culture, mainly Nintendo. I chose this as the theme of my work, thinking that if the two biggest pop art stars were based on the popular culture of their time, I would look to the pop culture of my time: video games. In time, this idea evolved, and my work moved in the direction of contemporary tech trends… this is true, of course, for video games as well, which are closely related to the development of technology.
How is your work different than everything else out there?
The cube-combined voxel form is more familiar today (partly due to Minecraft – released in 2011) than when I started making sculptures in 2009. At the time, very little existed on the market like what I was making, and almost nothing in the art world. In Japan in the early 2000s, small figures of Mario Bros – designs sculpted in voxel form – were found as free gifts from Pepsi on their caps. Also, Namco’s old game characters were also sculpted in voxel form and sold as keychains. These have always inspired me. I am currently working on a series of paintings called ATARI AR, where you can actually experience the gameplay of ATARI 2600 by pointing your phone camera at a painting, and the game screen appears in the AR. I haven’t found anything like art research in my research preparing for this series.
When is a piece finished for you?
I plan every detail before executing my 2D and 3D works… so technically, a work is “finished” before I’ve even started physically making it. I plan every step of the process to achieve that completion. I rarely add ad-lib elements. Sometimes the process is changed due to a lack of planning, but it’s rare. I’m very exact like this. It’s very Japanese of me, ha-ha.
What’s different about your current body of work?
Speaking of being Japanese, I used to be very focused on my work following the rules of Nintendo because the game was released in Japan in 1983. Nintendo’s games are basically 16×16 pixel sprites, so they all look like they are arranged on a grid of the same size. A few years ago, I began feeling limited by the lack of visual variation. I had always been interested in pre-Nintendo video game consoles, and that interest flourished in 2021 when I purchased a book of visuals from the ATARI 2600 game. It changed my direction just enough to set me free. It’s not that I became completely free of the grid, but still, the unique composition and handling of colors in ATARI, limited by the specs of the time, which were even lower than Nintendo’s, was very refreshing! It was like discovering a new abstract painting. Once I started going down that rabbit hole, I realized ATARI 2600 holds a more important place in history because it was the first home video game console to be popularized. Now I am creating a series of tech-based paintings using the latest AR technology that celebrates ATARI’s legacy of greatness.
What would you like collectors and curators to know about your work?
MoMA began adding video games to its collection in 2012, and to date, there are a total of only 23 games in the collection, but many more have impacted people’s lives and deserve to be celebrated. A 2015 IHS Technology report announced that the gaming industry is now the most prominent entertainment market, larger than the film industry, and more culturally valuable (and powerful) than ever. David Hockney, who turned to iPad drawings in his older years, wrote in his book, “A History of Pictures: From Cave Paintings to Computer Drawings,” that videogames are one of the major changes in the chronology of pictorial inventions. In the other parts of the book, he gave examples of specific artists’ works but did not go into much detail about video games. I believe my work can fill that unexplored blank space.
Tell us about a few of your career highlights or moments that have greatly affected your career.
I think it’s the same in any industry: the connections you make with people have the most impact on your career. The first major encounter was with my gallerist, Catinca. She helped me make my debut in the art world and continues to provide me with opportunities to exhibit my new work. The second is our project with Salesforce, a San Francisco-based tech company whose CEO, Marc Benioff, collected my work and gave me a large global tile design commission. This project, which has resulted in hundreds of my works being installed in Salesforce buildings worldwide, has given me more financial freedom and the ability to experiment and take more risks with my work. Most of my experiments didn’t result in work, but each try brought me closer to the pieces I did end up producing.
I am looking forward to the next great connection!
What’s coming up for you?
I will have a solo exhibition at Catinca Tabacaru Gallery in Bucharest this November. When I visited the city last summer, I saw a synergy between Romania’s traditional cross-stitching and my pixel works. So, in the upcoming exhibition, I will be showing new ATARI AR paintings and sculptures that include these cross-stitches… plus, it’s fun to play with the history and culture of the country that brought us Dracula!
What advice would you give to an artist just starting out today?
You better choose another profession! This road is hard; reconsider; it’s not too late; find a stable job! LOL, I’m joking, of course. I would have never followed this advice! But seriously, I am fortunate and have managed to survive, thanks partly to Catinca and Salesforce. It hasn’t been a typical journey, and many emerging artists face incredible challenges, especially as art funding diminishes and the economy makes collectors all race for blue-chip investment opportunities. Anyway, this is too big of a topic to tackle here. The most important thing is that I was the BIGGEST fan of my work, so giving up the future of my work being seen by many people was not an option for me. If you, as a young artist, have decided to pursue this path, you must continue to create your artwork with a strict attitude so that you can continue to be the biggest fan of yours.
Who are some of your favorite underappreciated artists that you don’t think get enough attention?
This was the most challenging question to answer, but I decided to change my perspective a bit. All of the amazing creators in the video game industry deserve more attention! Video games are finally being recognized as part of our great culture. Hideo Kojima, the famous creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, has always admired the film industry, and now that Sony has expanded the use of its PlayStation legacy to include film production, he’s really getting into it. I hope more miracles like this will emerge from the video game industry.
To learn more about Shinji and his work, please visit www.MurakamiShinji.com.