Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg
Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) until May 6, 2018
What’s not to like about the Takashi Murakami exhibition now showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery: explosions of colour, images that puzzle and engage and the sheer exuberance of some of the works. I came to the show as a fan having previously attended a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008.
In the intervening years I have learned just how complex the context for Murakami’s practice is. A first-time viewer may be confused as to whether or not one is admiring the work of a thoughtful artist, a successful production manager, a showman or a businessman. In fact all of these roles are in play when you consider the following key elements that impact Murakami’s work:
- his traditional, formal Japanese art education (a PhD from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music)
- his concern about Japan’s loss of its core cultural values post World War II
- the historically close association of commercialism and contemporary art as major department stores in Japan (early 1900s until early 2000s) housed art museums and thus provided public access to contemporary art
- his financially rewarding association with the luxury Louis Vuitton brand between 2002 and 2007
- the pop culture of Japan that includes animation (“anime”), comic books (“manga”) and science fiction with Japanese folklore ever present (magical monsters and spirits).
Murakami’s approach to the creation and production of his ideas does not take a back seat to those of the late Andy Warhol nor Damien Hirst, to name a few. Warhol’s studio was referred to as “the factory” where he engaged any number of artists to produce his ideas. For his part, Murakami has created “Kaikai Kiki Company Ltd” with over 100 people in offices and studios in Japan and New York. Murakami describes himself as a conceptual artist – collaborating with a large and sophisticated crew of artists and technicians. He is very up front regarding the collaborative nature of his works and, unlike Warhol and Hirst, he recognizes and identifies members of his team and has them sign their names to the works. Like Warhol and Hirst he has a larger-than-life presence.
In response to what Murakami saw as Japan mindlessly mirroring Western culture, he developed an artistic style of expression he labeled Superflat. Beginning in the late 80s, he began adopting and expanding anime and manga styles in the context of the no-holds-barred approach of the evolving contemporary art scene in the U.S. Superflat artists, in mocking Japan’s addiction to consumerism, sought to have the country regain its individuality. One of Murakami’s iconic Superflat images is Flower (Superflat), 2003, whereby he warns that Japan is becoming just like other nations – an identical flower in a bouquet, losing her individuality.
Another of Murakami’s iconic Superflat images is his psychedelic, multi-faceted alter ego, Mr. DOB, a signature animated figure that continues to morph into various guises in his work since first introduced in 1993. Mr. DOB is a multi-dimensional and multi-functional figure. The “D” and “B” become its ears and the “O” becomes its nose and mouth. The sculptural version shown below was created in 1999 and the character assumes a prominent role in the large-scale animated piece Tan Tan Bo Puking – a.k.a. Gero Tan, 2002.
It has taken me some time to piece together all that is happening in the explosion of images and colours in his work. Having a second chance to see another exhibition of his work at the VAG was like reconnecting with an old friend.
When you take time to move past the detail, the craftsmanship, the actions portrayed and the vibrant colour palette, there are works that speak to broader contemporary issues while still drawing on the past. A major shift occurred in Murakami’s approach when he undertook a vast conceptual project – a 24-paneled, 100-metre long painting, 500 Arhats (2013) – to pay homage to those who perished in Japan’s tragic earthquake, tsunami and related nuclear disaster at Fukushima on March 11, 2011.
In this initial work he portrays 500 wizened and grotesque arhats, Buddhist religious figures who normally ”…stay in the mountains, practicing religious austerities, only appearing after a fire, tsunami, earthquake, or some other disaster has occurred, as a kind of a rescue team”.
In the VAG exhibition you are able to get a sense of the workmanship, the magnitude and the emotional power of the larger work by experiencing the 10-panel 100 Arhats (2013) which is on display and was also inspired by the 2011 Fukushima disaster. As a viewer, one is taken aback by the sheer scale of the work as well as drawn in to the myriad details of each panel.
Overall, the wow factor of all of the works on display is tremendous and the exhibition is bound to create even more fans of the over-the-top, highly marketable, brilliant superstar that is Takashi Murakami.