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Takashi Murakami: Emerging from desire


Takashi Murakami. Tan Tan Bo, 2001. ©2001 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd

Takashi Murakami. Tan Tan Bo, 2001. ©2001 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd

By Suzanne Cohen

The largest Takashi Murakami (1962) retrospective is being shown at the Brooklyn Museum from April 5 through July 13, 2008. The exhibition entitled, © MURAKAMI, includes more than ninety works produced using various artistic media, typifying the creative career of this prominent Japanese artist.

The exhibition was organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and is curated by its chief curator, Paul Schimmel. This project explores the self-reflective nature of this creator’s work through a chronological journey which starts at the beginning of the nineties and continues on through the present day. It includes painting, sculpture, enormous installations, digital format works and animated film, in such a way that the visitor can completely immerse himself in the “Murakami experience.” This retrospective show was exhibited in Los Angeles from October 29, 2007 through February 11 of this year, and then traveled from there to Brooklyn.

Takashi Murakami is one of the most notable and prolific contemporary artists to emerge from Asia in the 20th Century. He holds a doctorate from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts & Music, and his style is an expression of contemporary Japanese popular culture. He especially reflects the “otaku” subculture, a lifestyle typified by an obsessive interest in collecting manga and anime. Otaku is perhaps an expression of the desperation of a sector of Japanese society that avoids reality by seeking refuge in the fantasy world of comics. The universe found in Takashi Murakami’s work exposes the mental state of a society, which has unconsciously overcome World War II war trauma, the aftermath of atom bombs, and, more recently, the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble, by developing a mystical and dark childish side. His work represents a fantastic, scientific and metaphoric spirituality, in which society’s perverse side subtly hides itself behind the melancholy of its characters. It is precisely that duality - good/evil, darkness/light, naiveté/perversity - that is a constant in this creator’s oeuvre.

Murakami’s work is not only based on manga and anime, but also on traditional Japanese painting; we need only recall that for many years he specialized in Nihonga (a Japanese style of painting which arose at the end of the 19th Century and which consists of a kind of fusion between traditional and Western art). It is also strongly influenced by American pop art and artists, such as, Warhol, Koons, and Damien Hirst. His work navigates between Eastern and Western cultures, blending pop art’s varied palette of colors with the dark dreams of surrealism and the imagination of Japanese anime. It establishes a bridge between haute culture and graphic design, animation, fashion and popular culture.

This artist’s iconography is full of characters that appear several times in his work. The best known are Kaikai and Kiki, two creatures who appear to have emerged from anime and who symbolize good and evil, respectively. Another character who warrants special mention is Mr. DOB, the artist’s apparent alter ego. DOB originated at the beginning of the nineties; his name is derived from the tag line, “Dobojite? dobojite? ” (Why? Why?) popularized by Japanese comedian, Yuri Toru (1921-1999). Since then, Mr. DOB has appeared in many guises, from angelic to demonic, owing to the artist’s interest in exploring his own identity. Mr. DOB usually appears with a huge head flanked by two big ears, in which one can read the letters D and B. Works, such as, “DOB in the Strange Forest,” (1999) show the amiable side of this character, while “In the Castle of Tin Tin,” (1998) reveals a monstrous aspect, by tracing a ferocious smile with sharpened teeth and unveiling a face with hundreds of eyes. In “Tan Tan Bo Puking - a.k.a. Gero Tan,” (2002), a Mr. DOB with shark’s teeth, shown spitting saliva, clones himself a thousand times over.

Other characters also stand out in the exhibition, such as, “Miss Ko2″ (1997), a young waitress made of fiberglass, who wishes to become a pop singer and who after an accident is transformed into a kind of manga android with wings (”Second Mission Project Ko2,” 2007). “Hiropon” (1997), on the other hand, is a woman with a big bust and a candid smile who skips with a rope made from the milk spouting from her own breasts, a mixture of infantile naiveté and dark lasciviousness.

As part of the show at the Brooklyn Museum, “Oval Buddha,” (2007) was situated in Manhattan’s 590 Sculpture Garden. This is a monumental platinum-covered, 6,613-pound, 18½’ sculpture. Because of its huge dimensions, it could not fit inside the museum’s exhibition halls. Oval Buddha, seated in the meditative lotus position, represents the artist’s body, mind and spirit in constant evolution and in continuous exploration of his cultural, national, religious and artistic context. 

Most of Murakami’s works, planned and designed by the artist, have been produced by his assistants at Kaikai Kiki, LLC, a company with offices in New York and Japan that currently employs more than 100 people. By doing this, the artist questions traditional ideas about authors and the originality of their works of art. At the end of the process, Murakami stamps his signature on each of the pieces.

This talented Japanese artist is at the peak of the art scene and market. The key to his success stems from his ability to analyze the contemporary cultural environment, especially that of Japanese society and its relation to the West; in particular, to the United States. He has thus created and presented a type of art that is very well received as much in the hallowed halls of international art, as in the popular ambience of malls. Clear examples are his designs for the Louis Vuitton Company, which have been questioned by some purists within the art world. In © MURAKAMI one can find a boutique with various designs produced in collaboration with that French firm. The shop is not included within the museological script of the exhibition; it is, however, a very important element that reaffirms the idea that his work is an example of the fusion between art and commerce.

After its presentation in New York, the exhibition will travel to the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt (October 27, 2008-January 4, 2009) and subsequently it will be presented at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (February-May, 2009).

Murakami’s oeuvre has been exhibited in many of the most significant museums and galleries around the world. Among them, of note are: Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, both in Paris; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York; Gagosian Gallery, New York; Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, Italy; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo; Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York. His works can also be found in significant private and public collections, such as: the 21st Century collection, Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa (Japan); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Queensland Art Gallery; and Walker Art Center.

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