A Conversation

Takashi Murakami and Damien Hirst, 2009

'The Problems with Relationships' (1995). Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery, New York © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2012

Damien Hirst  Do you ever worry about what you’re doing? I sometimes go in the studio and think what the fuck is all this stuff? There are so many different ideas it can often feel like the outpourings of an insane mind.

Takashi Murakami  I’m a working-class artist, so I’m not someone who has a lot of ideas. Instead, I take the ideas that I do have and examine every inch of them from top to bottom, again and again. Then I work from the results. So while I envy the crazy state of your brain, it’s not something that I’m capable of. Kind of depressing, really.

DH  I don’t mind saying I find it difficult to square up the money and the fame with the art and integrity. Do you not care?

TM  Actually, I don’t feel particularly rich or famous. My daily life consists of eating my mother’s home-made box lunches or the food from the local supermarket, keeping my large and creative staff on their toes, piling up regrets, falling apart, and then exhaustedly going to bed on a layer of two sleeping bags. These days I’ve knocked my body out of balance and have been going to an acupuncture therapist. But even then, I’m still a lot more blessed than other artists. The very fact that we can exchange this back and forth is, for me, a dream come true.

DH  I sometimes think with all this success comes too much responsibility, I kind of think I have to reinvent myself every day and then you’ve always got to ask yourself, “in whose terms am I successful?” And ask yourself, “is that good?” Cos there’s so many ways to measure success. A lot of them bad.

TM  I look to you, Damien, to be my significant touchstone. I constantly study what you make, your career, your actions and then I use that as a measuring stick for myself. 

DH  (laughs) Fuck off! (laughs) You’ve gotta have a big ego to do what we do, don’t try to pretend you don’t. We’ve got to make it up as we go along, don’t we?  Did you grow up with money?

TM  I grew up in a poor family. Until I was in elementary school, we lived in a small shack that my father built by hand. It was the kind of place where a simple change in the weather could drive you mad – noisy when it rained, cold when it snowed, and in the summer you couldn’t bear to be inside.

DH  Now that you’re at the top, do you enjoy being an employer?

TM  Yes.  There’s something very important in the feeling that I get from being responsible for my employees. Maybe I look at my company as some kind of pseudo-family.

DH  I remember reading something you wrote a while back about starting to produce art in a studio or factory set-up. You wrote:

"Whether you are in contemporary art or not, supporting a lifestyle with painting and art has always been severely problematic. In fact, it should have been an impossible goal to realise for me to live in Japan, creating contemporary art with the management I wanted in place where I could make what I want when I wanted to make it. I had a number of happy encounters, and somehow made it through, but even still maintaining an environment where I could consistently make good works over a time period of months and years has been difficult in the extreme.

Since it won’t do to sit in one place and constantly make the same thing, one always has to be making something new, and even more so, something right. It’s a process that involves a lot of experimentation and failure. I think that it is only with this realization that the act of creation can truly begin, but not many of my colleagues are of like mind.  Even still, art must go on. It must evolve. This I believe, even if it makes the task of managing a studio difficult, an increasingly onerous burden. This is how Hiropon Factory (my first studio) got its start, in spite of the unrelenting reality that made it clear that this was not a one-man job. The workshop system is one that has worked in the fields of Japanese painting and sculpture; rather, I think it is a natural progression."

DH  I like being an employer. It scared me at first but I like the responsibility now. I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d end up being a successful artist employing a huge workforce of assistants, but hey…

TM  I chose to be an artist because I thought it would allow me to work alone.  Now I employ over 100 people. That part feels a bit ‘unnatural’.

DH  If it helps artists make great art then I’m all for it! (laughs) 

TM  It would be great if you could share with me how you have positioned yourself (for example, your significance/value and placement, etc.) into the annals of art history.  

DH  Wow!  Annals of art history?  (camp voice) My wife says I’m not anal enough! (laughs) I don’t really think about it like that, though I do remember looking at the books in the huge art library in Leeds where I grew up and thinking FUCK!!!! I’ve got to read all this shit before I can even start to be an artist, I must have been about 16 years old, I never really believed that there’d be a book about me in there one day. The sad thing though is that most of those dudes in the books were dead.

But then Nietzsche said “art is the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere”.

TM  Art is the peculiar trait of human beings, wherein we find enjoyment in meaningless behaviour.

DH  How do you make art, what processes do you go through?

TM  I have about four designers who undertake such steps as tracing the draft plans and choosing the colours. Then, the data for the plans are distributed among the studio in the suburbs of Tokyo and the studio in Long Island City, where a total of about 40 staff members (about 20 staff members in each studio) paint the work. Actually, even if we put the pedal to the metal, around 30-40 works are completed.

In comparison, you create a voluminous number of works. I’m so jealous! What about you? I would like to know more about your process for creating work.

DH  I’ve been expanding for over 20 years really, and most people who work for me have stayed with me so I get to know people very well, know their strengths and weaknesses, and I delegate wherever I can. I have one guy I work with called Hugh and we’ve been friends since I was 16 years old. He used to make art but stopped and started working for me and he kind of stops me disappearing up my own arse. I always look for short cuts and I’m very impatient. Once I work out how to do something I kind of try to make a lot quickly then move on to something else. I always OK finished pieces and I’m the only one who has the ideas. But the key is to delegate. And I make sure I enjoy myself.

TM  What are the issues that you believe are worthy for creators to presently use as themes?

DH  I like the old ideas, life and death, good versus evil, hot and cold, love, sex, death, desire. All the big ideas, romance. I guess terrorism is good for today but it’s not a very timeless issue and I think art should strive to be timeless; a dying man’s thoughts is a better theme. I like religion, science, all that shit, the small and the big stuff, I love painting; I love its complexity.

TM  Doodles rendered in oil paints or acrylics become paintings, so, really, it’s hard for me to speak about matters of complexity.

DH  Speaking about complexity means it’s gotta be time for a question from my friend Hans Ulrich Obrist. I asked him to give me some questions for this conversation, so here goes: “is there a place of painting or is the place messing?” I love his questions, he’s so formal; I call him Mr Enthusiastic.

TM  I enjoy painting. Both looking at paintings and producing them is fun, so I can’t see how you could say the place isn’t there. By the way, I would love to see work of yours that deals with sex.

DH  (laughing) I made a piece called ‘The Problems with Relationships’. It’s an advertising billboard: a tri-vision board that moves and has 3 images and it just keeps revolving. First image is a hammer and a peach, for violence; the second is a jar of Vaseline and a cucumber, for sex; and the last image is the text “the problems with relationships”. It’s not very romantic. I also made a piece called ‘She Wanted to Find the Most Perfect Form of Flying’, but with sex it always becomes comedy or murder with me, for some reason. I wanted to make a piece that never got done called ‘Couple Fucking Dead (Twice)’. It was two tanks with two dead cows that fucked in each tank until they rotted and fell apart and there was no smell cos I was going to use filters to take away the smell. I may still do it.

TM  I’m sure you’re a global jetsetter; please tell me about your favourite location in the world for good food, as well as a favourite dish that you’ve had.

DH  I had a friend who once said about travelling by Concorde, “if you wanna get there that fast, then you really shoulda left the day before.” I once read a great thing you said about being Japanese and equating your particular brand of beauty with the flavour of soy sauce. In talking about your vision of beauty, you said the following:

"I have the misfortune of having been born in Japan.  As a direct result, after only two days spent overseas, I started craving Japanese food. I tried various ways to appease my imprinted urges, but lately I just give in to my desires and dig in. My vision of ‘beauty’ is based on my desires, my body, my memories – it can’t be helped if it stinks of soy sauce.

Japanese contemporary art has a long history of trying to hide the soy sauce.  Perhaps they’ll strengthen the flavour to please the foreign palette, or perhaps they’ll simply throw the soy sauce out the window and unconditionally embrace the tastes of French or Italian cuisine, becoming the Westerners whose model of contemporary art they follow.  We’ve been eating out for years. Though it may be easier, that path is not for me, I think. No matter how much trouble it takes, I see the need to create a universal taste – a common tongue – without cheating myself and my Japanese core. I should trust my own taste buds and use them to guide me as I continue to blend seasonings, not cheat myself with something else…"

DH  Sounds good. What music do you listen to?

TM  Enya. Also, Fishmans.

DH  My partner Maia says I’ve got no taste in music, but she’s not into the Beatles. I love the Beatles; I think they were more influential on me than Picasso.  Do you like the Beatles?

TM  Hmmm. I love the Beatles, but I get more of a buzz from seeing the studios of young artists.

DH  Can you tell me something fundamental about your studio?

TM  Etiquette and decorum are important.

DH  I let the staff control that aspect of the studio, they can paint naked if they want as long as the end result is what I’m after. (laughs) In your work, you deal with the big subjects, don’t you?

TM  I do think that art is essentially about ‘life and death’.

DH    I agree with that. If you’re gonna pray, why not pray to art? Art won’t let you down.  What’s your take on the objective and the subjective in art?

TM  I see it as it relates to ego, I see subjective as a reflection of undeveloped egoism, and objective as the conclusion of fully developed egoism.

DH  Do you think that there is a way to avoid banality? Would you want to?

TM  I think it comes down to the ingenuity of a person’s DNA.

DH  Apart from death, are you fearless?

TM  I fear a great many things. Too many to mention.

DH  What’s truth to you?

TM  The history of the future that I believe will remain after death.

DH  And what’s the future?

TM  Hope.

DH  The present?

TM  Hell.

DH  Shit! That’s hardcore. Is art making life better for you?

TM  Hmmm, it might be so for crazy people, but for those with their screws tightened properly, art is pretty meaningless.

DH  Who are your heroes? 

TM  Hayao Miyazaki, Steve Jobs, Jeff Koons.

DH  What about doubts? I can’t destroy paintings. I’m really stubborn like that.  I refuse to let them die. I just work on them till they work out. Do you sometimes destroy your paintings or work on old paintings, rework them?

TM  I never destroy them, but I very often produce new versions of older works.

DH  Do you use irony in the paintings?

TM  I sometimes use it, sometimes don’t, but my happy face flower paintings are clusters of satire.

DH  What’s your favourite colour?

TM  Pink.

DH  Thought so (laughs). What’s your least favourite colour? 

TM  Hmm. Viridian green.

DH  How did the computer change the way you work?

TM  It allows me freedom in fiddling around with my compositions. The flexibility is great.

DH  The history of sculpture was often written by painters who ventured into sculpture: Matisse, Picasso, etc. What about your sculptures? Are they a painter’s sculptures?

TM  I think so.  For example, I could never make anything in a sculpture-like context, in the way that Anthony Caro does.

DH  So do you see yourself as a painter, a sculptor or an artist?

TM  I’m an artist so I’m pretty bad at painting and sculpture.

DH  (laughing) What do you think of Jeff Koons and Richard Prince?

TM  I think Jeff is great beyond words. In some ways, the quality of his ‘Balloon Dog’ is a milestone in contemporary art. And Richard Prince, I love the Brooke Shields picture he did [‘Spiritual America’]. There was a time when I created many works in the manner of that picture.

DH  I feel really lucky to be an artist. When I was a kid, I never even imagined that I’d ever get paid to do something I enjoyed, did you ever feel like that?

TM  It’s just what the gods chose for you. We artists are merely catalysts. We’re machines that receive messages from space and then retransmit them.

DH  Yeah far out, me too man. I like what Francis Bacon said, “when I die just put me in a refuse sack and throw me in the gutter.”  Hey, maybe we won’t die?  Maybe we are the first two people who don’t die? I fuckin hate death!  It’s a bummer man. Samuel Becket said a great line about death, “death doesn’t require us to make a day free.” That about sums it up for me.

TM  As I’m just a vehicle for the art, what I’m really worried about is what happens after I die.

DH  I hear ya. What was that great thing you said about working for the sake of beauty?

TM  I said:

"I will always work for the sake of ‘beauty’… It is because ‘beauty’ gives reality to the fantasy that when [people] stand before it, everyone is an equal, if only for a moment. It is the culmination of people’s desire to simply understand one another.  That is what I work for. I pray every day that I can maintain this passion until I die, that I can live earnestly and fulfil my role as a disciple of ‘beauty’."

DH  Amen to that brother! What do you make of the art world?

TM  In my opinion, the history of post-World War II art has consistently been directed by the initiatives of the countries that were victors in World War II. Ditto for Great Britain; ditto for the US. What is your view?

DH  There’s a great statement written on the arch around the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It says, “the excellence of every art is measured in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.” I love that statement and think it’s pretty much universal. I look for universal triggers. I mean, slipping on a banana skin is funny in any culture; always has been and always will be. As an artist I always look for things like that. There’s that great neon piece by Bruce Nauman with the statement, “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” That says it all for me, wherever you are in time or space, in any culture.


'A Conversation' originally published in Damien Hirst 'Requiem I' (Other Criteria/PinchukArtCentre, 2009). Copyright © Damien Hirst/Richard Prince, 2009.