Takashi Murakami at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Takashi Murakami is an artist whose multilayered articulations and buoyancy as an artist does not come at the price of his identity as a Japanese artist but in fact draws from his Japanese self; from his heritage and tradition and history, intermingled with a western sensibility, which he has learned through an immersion in cultural contemporaneity. A panoptic exhibition “The Octopus Eats its Own Leg” curated by Michael Darling at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is a fantastic show that brings to light the depth, breadth and sheer sensuous pleasure of Murakami’s art and references the extraordinary octopus who may eat one of its tentacle to keep alive in the knowledge that it will regenerate a limb if necessary. Murakami hints at times in the artist’s career when ideas begin to run dry and they must cannibalize their own notions and conceptions to keep their art alive.
Murakami’s retrospective enunciates a phenomenon that many diasporic artists and artists out of the mainstream of western culture today grapple with: the extent to which they can ‘use’ inferences and traditions from their culture without seeming like they’ve exploited it for the purpose of exoticizing their art, to draw the attention of western artists, critics and curators and then amalgamate it with contemporary iconography or ideas . But Murakami’s art is seamless and he flows between boundaries of Japanese culture and the West as fluidly as a coursing river. But that is because Murakami incorporated Western pop culture into his practice with great gusto and entirely unapologetically, reveling in its kitsch and enjoying its commercial aspects. His admiration for Kanye West, one of America’s most prominent rap artists led him to design Kanye’s album cover Graduation. His disregard for classifications of high and low art compelled him to collaborate with Vans shoes and Louis Vuitton for a line of bags.
At the outset of his career Murakami drew from the traditions of Nihonga painting an age-old Japanese art practice in which he has a Phd, utilizing painting on washi or paper with mineral pigments. But if Nihonga gave him his opening, it did not satisfy his quest for diversity. He was apparently upset when a student told him he did not have a handle on color and could not manipulate the color palette. It is remarkable to see today what Murakami has done with color. Anyone without an innate sense of handling color could not possibly have brought together such a profusion of colors without a cacophonic screech on the senses.
Murakami draws from the prevalent Japanese culture of otaku, which refers to young people obsessive about computers and social media or anime and manga. It was perhaps this idea that led him to create Mr DOB a cartoon character that has a Mickey Mouse look combined with Sonic the Hedgehog and Doraemon, but as Murakami says is also meant to look like him. The DOB is not an acronym for anything, and nor does it mean much but is used by Murakami in many situations as a mascot for his ongoing practice. Mr DOB can be a cute and funny or bizarre and grotesque, even menacing, depending on what role Murakami wants him achieve at a particular time.
Murakami is also responsible for creating a movement that he calls ‘Superflat’. He says in an interview “I’d been thinking about the reality of Japanese drawing and painting and how it is different from Western art. What is important in Japanese art is the feeling of flatness. Our culture doesn’t have 3-D.” Michael Darling describes Superflat as “a superficial gloss that covers contemporary society” in which “distinctions between high and low, new and old, original and derivative are flattened.” It represents a picture plane crowded with figures of people and dragons and mythical creatures as well as figures from Pop culture and anime of his own making. Like traditional Japanese painting, there is a flatness about the works; there is no shading no, inference, no shadows — instead a flat, poster-like, brilliant, jewel-like transcendental picture that encapsulates his concepts and narratives which are sometimes religious and other times secular,’ sometimes utopian and other times dystopian. All these binaries of traditionalism and contemporaneity merge on Murakami’s gargantuan scale (one of his paintings 100 Arhats from 2013 is approximately10 ft by 32 ft) without dissipating their heightened tension or super-charged vitality. The works are mostly acrylic on canvas
The deadly earthquake in Japan in 2011 that also triggered a tsunami and devastatingly enough led to a level 7 nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant deeply affected Murakami as it did many millions of Japanese. He created paintings of Arhats, starting with 69 Arts, then 100 and then the largest with 500 Arhats. Arhats refer to Buddhists disciples although Murakami felt they could serve a secondary purpose and travel throughout Japan spreading solace to the people of Japan after the earthquake along with their customary practice of spreading the teachings of Buddha. There is a sadness and trauma in these paintings —that are almost like Gandhara murals — yet the brilliance of the color and the detail in the paintings are invigorating and take away from the melancholic wretchedness of the thought.
Murakami is amongst the few artists who allows the audience to participate in the process of his art making. He frequently posts progress of his artworks on Instagram and says he has no qualms about hiding his work for fear of appropriation or even criticism. In fact he says “if someone could do it better than me, more kudos to them” (paraphrased from talk at MCA Chicago).