The world of Takashi Murakami is a vibrantly psychedelic one, inhabited by – among other characters – flowers with smiling faces, anthropomorphised mushrooms, cute aliens, jellyfish and other trippy creatures.
But, for his first collaboration with Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot, the Japanese contemporary artist has gone pitch black. He wanted to mystify, the 58-year-old says in an exclusive Zoom interview from Tokyo.
“This is my first time working with Hublot, so if I were to make it colourful, people will go, ‘oh, he is doing it again’. But if I used black, everyone will find it mysterious. There will be a mysterious story.”
Hublot Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black is numbered to only 200 worldwide.
Indeed, the Hublot Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black – limited to 200 pieces, each priced at $37,400 – is a hypnotic black beauty. Taking centre stage in the watch is the artist’s signature smiling flower, which has 12 petals studded with 456 black diamonds.
Mounted on a unique ball-bearing system devised by Hublot engineers, the petals swing and spin when the wearer moves his or her arms. The face of the smiling flower is inserted into the sapphire glass of the timepiece, giving it a unique three-dimensional effect.
“It’s not just a watch, it’s a piece of sculpture,” says Murakami, who cuts a quirky figure with his unkempt beard, long wild hair and John Lennon glasses.
The collaboration almost did not happen. “Miwa-san asked me again and again, five or six times, but each time, I refused,” he says, referring to Ms Miwa Sakai, Hublot’s Asia-Pacific regional director. “But she did not give up. She came to my studio one day and said: ‘You can do anything you want. You can even design the watch box.'”
Murakami’s design for Hublot is akin to a sculpture.
Control is very important to the artist, who has 2.2 million followers on Instagram and who is most famous for re-imagining the Louis Vuitton monogram in rainbow hues when fashion designer Marc Jacobs was artistic director at the French luxury label.
Murakami also designed rapper Kanye West’s 2007 album Graduation; transformed the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 v2 sneakers into sandals; and worked with Virgil Abloh – the American founder of fashion label Off White and artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection – on a series of exhibitions for the Gagosian, which has galleries in the United States, Europe and Asia.
It took a visit to the Hublot manufacturing facility in Nyon, Switzerland in February last year to seal the deal.The artist was floored by how high-tech the place was. “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, it was over my head,” he says, pursing his lips to break into a whistle.
“There were many artisans, but there were also many robots. It’s technology and craftsmanship, new and old. It really fits with my own philosophy when I make paintings or sculptures,” says Murakami, who is also a curator, thinker, product designer and entrepreneur.
Takashi Murakami’s 10-metre-high Haha Bangla Manus sculpture in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills features the artist’s familiar floral motif see in his Hublot design.
He pioneered “superflat”, a postmodern art movement influenced by manga and anime. He also founded a gallery and art production company Kaikai Kiki, which has studios in Tokyo and New York, and employs an army of assistants. Murakami’s works fetch high prices at auctions. In 2008, the amount spent on his art at auction totalled US$36 million, with one piece, My Lonesome Cowboy, fetching US$15.2 million.
“I thought my factory was high-tech, but it’s so low-level compared with the Hublot factory. I learnt so much,” he says, adding that the visit gave him many ideas to rejuvenate his business, which was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy last year.
The pandemic has severely curtailed his ability to produce giant paintings and sculptures. At Nyon, he sketched the watch’s design based on one of his most famous motifs: a smiling flower. Murakami has an interesting story to tell about how the flower became one of his trademarks.
“This is my first time working with Hublot, so if I were to make it colourful, people will go, ‘oh, he is doing it again’. But if I used black, everyone will find it mysterious. There will be a mysterious story.”Takashi Murakami
“In university, I studied traditional painting. The flower, snow and moon were some of the main themes,” he says. He has a PhD in nihonga (traditional Japanese painting) from the Tokyo University of The Arts.
When he made his debut as an artist in the early 1990s in New York, he decided he had to be unique to stand out. His strategy was to create something rooted in traditional Japanese culture but with a fresh and “cute” international appeal.
One of his key influences was American film-maker George Lucas and his Star Wars universe. What Lucas did, he says, was use technology and movie magic to bring something which “was foolish and childish” to life and capture people’s imaginations.
“Peter Jackson took it to the next stage with Lord Of The Rings,” he says, referring to the Kiwi director’s big-screen adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel. “Like them, I need to use technology if I want to create my foolish and childish sculptures.”
With most of the world in lockdown, Murakami spent a lot of his time in his studio last year. “I’m sorry, but I was super enjoying it,” he says, almost apologetically.
The artist in his studio.
“I didn’t have to leave Japan and I could spend the whole day in my studio watching Netflix. Everything in the geek world is so amazing. I found out who were the most important YouTubers and I watched The Mandalorian over and over again,” he adds, referring to the series created by director Jon Favreau for streaming service Disney+.
He also received a crash course in virtual reality from his six-year-old daughter, who is a big fan of Animal Crossing, a video game which involves inhabiting and building a virtual world.
“She was talking about going to watch fireworks on an island with this friend and that friend, and how amazingly beautiful everything was. I could not refute her because in her experience, it was all very real,” says Murakami, who also has a 10-year-old son.
“Maybe in the future, this world will not be real. The real thing will be virtual reality.”
The philosophising continues when the conversation turns to time. Looking at the Hublot piece he has designed and which he is wearing on his wrist, he says: “This is something to help people measure time, but because it’s also a mobile art piece, it helps people forget time too.
“When I’m painting, six hours sometimes feel like just two minutes. When I’m at the Museum of Modern Art, looking at a piece of art which moves me, I can cry for two minutes, but that experience can feel like forever.”
The Hublot Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black marks the first collaboration between the watchmaker and the artist.
The courtship took some years, but the suitor persisted. And the union is beautiful. The Hublot Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black – released earlier this week – is the first collaboration between the Swiss luxury watchmaker and the Japanese contemporary artist.
Murakami, who is most famous for his collaboration with French fashion label Louis Vuitton, initially resisted because he was not sure if he would be fully involved. “Saying yes is easy,” he tells The Straits Times. But he wanted a creative collaboration in the true sense of the word – and he got it.
His signature smiling flower is stunningly interpreted in one of Hublot’s signature models, the Classic Fusion (right). Eschewing his trademark psychedelic colours, the artist has opted to go totally black for this collaboration.
The flower’s 12 petals – encrusted with 456 black diamonds – sit on a Hublot- engineered ball-bearing system which allows them to turn and move. The beguiling smiling face of the flower – encrusted with another 107 diamonds – is inserted into the sapphire glass, giving it a three-dimensional effect.
Wearing it is like wearing a piece of sculpture.
The 45mm case is fashioned from black ceramic and paired with rubber straps. At its heart is a Unico calibre with a power reserve of up to 72 hours. The collaboration is yet another example of Hublot’s Art of Fusion philosophy, which marries technology with artistry and the use of innovative materials.
The Hublot Classic Fusion Takashi Murakami All Black is limited to 200 pieces. Available at The Hour Glass, it is priced at $37,400.
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