Virgil Abloh, Takashi Murakami
by BEATRICE ZAMPONI
“Working with Virgil, I wanted to build a new and stronger bridge between art and the general public, between fashion and subculture. My desire was for artists to be able to look back in 20 years’ time and feel that anything is possible. I accepted the responsibility of knowing that how I live and work today will condition the depth and breadth of the creative choices made by future generations of artists. We could say I’m sowing the seeds for them.”
“Interpreting contemporary society is a central part of my research. Takashi and I are extremely aware of the era we’re living in, and we’re constantly trying to translate it into our work. This is what brought us together.” Named by “Time” magazine as among the world’s most influential people, Virgil Abloh and Takashi Murakami share a devilish ability to merge categories that are normally regarded as distinct, if not opposing. And in doing so they interpret and transform the contemporary. A 38-year-old American with Ghanaian origins, Abloh has degrees in engineering and architecture. Perhaps it’s this contrast with the fashion world that has given him the uncommon skill to tune into the wants and desires of different audiences. Creative director of the rapper Kanye West, a DJ and the founder of the Off-White label, Abloh is a “herald of immediate cool” (as Angelo Flaccavento described him on these pages in the May issue). At the same time, he is also art director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear and the creator of a line of furniture for Ikea dedicated to the millennials, due out in stores in 2019.
Much has been said about Takashi Murakami. The 56-year-old is Japan’s best-known artist, a mixer of high and low culture, East and West, tradition and manga. He has combined the factory concept rooted in Japanese craftsmanship with the idea of Warhol and Hollywood movie production systems. This has led him to merge art and the market-place, selling sculptures and paintings worth millions of dollars alongside mass-produced products such as T-shirts and key rings. Abloh and Murakami are long-standing friends. For years they have viewed each other’s work with admiration while mutually influencing each other. They decided to work together on the creation of a series of exhibitions in the galleries of Larry Gagosian. After starting in London with the show “Future History” in February, the cycle landed in Paris during the summer with the title “Technicolor 2”, and concluded a few days ago with “America Too” at the Gagosian gallery in Beverly Hills. Their aim – as they explain in this dual interview with “Vogue Italia” – was to highlight the numerous communicating vessels between their eccentric languages.
You both work with large teams, like in a Renaissance workshop. How important is this collaborative aspect?
Takashi Murakami. I’ve always felt that the figure of the lone artist wasn’t for me, whereas the idea of the atelier seemed far more congenial. So I put the idea into practice and I called my workshop Kaikai Kiki, which means eccentric and wonderful. These words were traditionally used to refer to the artist Kano Eitoku from the Kano school, which was an atelier specialised in decorative art founded before the Edo period. However, this collaborative system wasn’t common in contemporary or Japanese art at the time of my debut. I had to build it up and fight to establish it. It might not last for 300 years like the Kano school, but I hope it continues for at least 100 years like Disney!
Virgil Abloh. Our shared practice is closely bound to what we produce. Big teams are absolutely vital if you want to achieve certain results when you’re working on larger scales, both in terms of physical size and productive quantities. Our collaboration is based on the total inclusion of our relative teams working as one.
You both use recognisable symbols and icons that then become your unmistakable hallmarks…
V.A. In my case everything starts from Marcel Duchamp and the new expressive possibilities he gave us with his ready-mades. I transferred his artistic language into today’s world, choosing for example to use pedestrian-crossing stripes as a symbol. I adopted something trivial, ubiquitous and ready to use, and through its repetition I turned it into a meaningful part of my work.
T.M. I started depicting my characters to describe how Japan focused on creating these charming-disturbing dolls after World War II. It’s a very complex world that represents one of our strongest cultural eccentricities, and that’s why I wanted to turn its protagonists into icons.
Abloh, in your language you use a lot of lettering and quote marks. Is there a Dadaist inclination in this choice?
V.A. The use of lettering and quote marks allows me to be figurative and literal at the same time. It helps me to recontextualise objects and concepts, letting me develop a constantly new dimension where I can create.
In your work you often reveal part of the creative process. Why?
V.A. It offers me the chance to humanise what I’m doing and bring people closer. I’m fascinated by the idea that a human connection can be triggered through inanimate devices.
In 2002, Murakami started a collaboration with Louis Vuitton that totally revolutionised the traditional brand’s image. Marc Jacobs – the then creative director – said: “This experience has been a monumental marriage between art and business.” What do you recall? T.M. Just as Sting was an Englishman in New York, Marc Jacobs was an American in Paris, and he was trying to assert his US identity in France. This compulsion gave rise to his first collaboration with Stephen Sprouse and his graffiti. The experiment between art and fashion was so successful that it spawned other collaborations including mine. It was clearly an epic transition. Nowadays collaborations are an everyday thing, but we should always remember who the pioneers were.
V.A. It was a completely revolutionary experiment – mixing art and fashion, and doing it without any compromises. It was also a crucial moment for the development of my creativity. Murakami’s ability to deconstruct and his aesthetic and conceptual freedom have been totally inspiring for me.
Today Abloh is the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line. What do you think about this coincidence?
T.M. I think his position isn’t very different to Marc’s when he was at Louis Vuitton. With an Afro-American at the helm of a Parisian fashion house, Virgil’s work is marking an epoch too. I expect him to push his identity more and more in this sense. It’s a change that indicates fashion’s positive instability, emphasising how it continues to absorb different stimuli to evolve in a way that’s often even more free than art.
Among the works you’ve presented, there’s one in which a self-portrait of Bernini is superimposed with Mr. DOB (the first character created by Murakami inspired by manga comics). Is there a particular relationship with this Italian architect?
V.A. Bernini was a multidisciplinary artist. He fits in with my personal feeling that contemporary society is experiencing a sort of Renaissance. So I wanted to make a connection between the Renaissance and what Takashi and I are doing today.
In the various exhibitions, the most portrayed work in multiple versions of colours, materials and supports is the simple intersection of your most unmistakable symbols: Abloh’s four arrows and Murakami’s smiling flower, a sort of icon composed of icons…
T.M. It’s an emblematic gesture. We really wanted to render our languages indivisible. I think that valuable art can only be valued years after its creation, not immediately afterwards. When future audiences look at our work, I’d like them to think of the end of an era when art was still sheltered in a sanctuary, and when we were working ceaselessly to bring it outside.•
(Trad. Antony Bowden)
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by ALESSIA GLAVIANO
“It started with skiing - because we skied a lot, I still do. Skiing is quite interesting for photography because you
start with a blank canvas. You have a white background and then you fill it. I also went to concerts where it is really black and then you fill it.”
Every photographer, every artist, has taken their own path which has led them to become who they are today. For Sølve Sundsbø, it all started with empty spaces to be filled. A matter of black, and white. Then colors came.
“Slowly but surely I fell into fashion and realized what a beautiful and exhilirating world it is to work in.” Will the thirst for more realistic aesthetics deprive fashion photography of its illusory power? Do we still believe that an artist needs to be damned in order to produce great art? And how has the business of fashion photography changed in the #MeToo era? Vogue Italia spoke to celebrated fashion photographer and filmmaker Sølve Sundsbø about the state of fashion photography today. With his unique vision defined by cutting-edge technology and bold challenges to the two-dimensional nature of photography, Sundsbø is the perfect example of a fashion photographer who manufactures dreams. His photographs and videos reject any rigid adherence to realism, opening a gateway to an enchanting dimension where imagination and reality are fused in a catalyst for infinite outcomes. As part of this year’s Photo Vogue Festival, Sundsbø will also be the subject of a solo exhibition titled “Beyond the Still Image”, hosted in the evocative galleries of Milan’s Palazzo Reale. In recent years, and particularly with the advent of social media, there have been increasing claims that fashion photography promotes unattainable standards of beauty. The desire to see authentic bodies is undoubtedly an important and positive shift but I also think it would be a mistake if such a yearning for “truth” ended up censoring fashion photography. After all, according to Irving Penn, fashion photography is about “selling dreams, not clothes”. What do you think about this current tendency in the field? When people say, “Now the direction is this,” they’re assuming that that’s always going to be the direction from then on. But it’s not true. The fashion photography world changes every six months, or even quicker, so it’s in perpetual motion. There will always be a reaction and a counter-reaction. If the trend now is “everything must be real”, in three years’ time you can guarantee there’ll be something hyper-glamorous and retouched again, because that’s how it works. I take photos of everyday life all the time, so I’m really comfortable in the world of the super real, but I don’t necessarily choose to do that when I work. I’ve got four kids, I get up in the morning, they go to school, they come home and we feed them - you know, real life. So when I go to work I want to do something else. I don’t need to escape glamour and go into reality. I want to go from a relatively normal life and into a world that still has a bit more imagination. Do you think that today we’re finally overcoming the misconception that in order to be a great artist you have to be damned or lead an extreme lifestyle? For a lot of people, I think all these rules about how you’re supposed to behave as an artist are just an excuse. Especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, I think it’s time to question the behaviour of people who only act the way they do because those around them or the culture at large have been willing to excuse their behaviour. I understand that some artists are more intense than others, and I respect those who need to live in a certain way to create. But there’s no rule that says you have to live in a fantasy world to create a fantasy world. A good example is Roald Dahl, who would sit in his room every day with his pencil and create magical universes out of nothing. I’m not telling anyone how to live. But it’s time to stop apologising for horrible behaviour under the guise of “it’s just the way it is”. I remember what the business was like back in the ’90s when I was living in New York working as a fashion photographer’s assistant. I don’t think there are excuses for treating people badly either psychologically or physically, but these things were always happening. Everyone can do something wrong. But it becomes a problem when it’s a system or someone’s way of working that repeatedly goes wrong. We’re all human but there’s a very firm limit for me. When I first moved to London one of my best friends told me, “If you want to be a good photographer, you have to be the best version of yourself.” The lifestyle of a photographer can be quite dysfunctional, because when you’re in the studio, you’re the king or queen, and it’s possible to get lost in that power, in particular if you don’t have some other part of your life to counterbalance those dynamics. That unchecked power and responsibility can lead to problems. That’s why it’s important for me to have something outside fashion photography – something personal – that is even more valuable, that centers me. Is nature your biggest inspiration? Yes, but also music, books and science. My friends and family say I’m quite nerdy. But all these things stimulate me and I’m incredibly curious to the point of being annoying. If someone is having a conversation I always want to know what they’re talking about. Some people are shy, I’m curious. And I think that curiosity also informs my work because I want to explore. I remember David LaChapelle saying, “If you want reality, take the bus!” That’s right. And Simon Foxton said, “If you want reality, look out the window.”
In the exhibition at Palazzo Reale in Milan, there will be stills, videos and site-specific installations that show your cutting-edge use of technology, which propels fashion photography beyond the limits of two-dimensional imagery. What is the main difference for you between still and moving images? I think the strength of the still image comes from the fact that it’s a moment in time where you have to fill in what happened before and after. You’re in a mindset where you say, “I’m going to give you a character and a moment, and you have to guess the rest.” That’s why photography is such an incredible tool to communicate with, because it leaves a lot to your imagination. Transferring this idea to moving images is also a challenge. With moving images you have to do the same thing but in maybe 60 seconds. It’s like seeing a scene from a film and guessing the rest of the movie. There’s also the idea that your art, photography or film doesn’t necessarily have to follow a linear narrative. I think it also has to do with the fact that I don’t like being told what to do. And I don’t like telling people what they should think either. If you give that space to the person looking at the film or picture, there’s a respect for the viewer which I like. As a fashion photographer, you need a good stylist, good hair and good make-up. On your sets, how much do you interfere with the choices of these vital team members? It depends on the job. But, you know, the best photographers have the best hair and make-up. Look at Steven Meisel’s relationship with Guido Palau and Pat McGrath. It’s the best make-up and hairstyling combined with the best photographer. It’s incredible. I tend to come back and work with the same groups of people because there’s a mutual language and respect. I can guide them but it’s not my strength. If I think of Mert and Marcus, Mert could probably also do the make-up and hair. He’s incredible like that, but I can’t do it. Which photographers have inspired you? Penn and Avedon are always the two whom everyone looks at. It’s like people who make music are influenced by the great composers. Obviously Nick Knight has been very important for me because I worked for him. When I was starting to look at fashion photography, Nick was leading the way in changing fashion photography. What is beauty for you? Beauty is overrated. Beauty for me is charisma and kindness. When we meet someone charismatic, they can make the whole world disappear. It’s an incredible gift, and Avedon had it. I only met him for a couple of minutes, but it was as if the whole world disappeared and left just him and me. It’s like that with beauty too. I can’t define it, but when you see it you recognise it. • original text page 226