At first glance, Takashi Murakami’s current major solo exhibition at JC Contemporary is an immersive and Instagrammable experience highlighting the Japanese contemporary artist’s fantasy world.
In one of the two cavernous halls in the Herzog & de Meuron-designed contemporary art centre, a phantasmagoria of happy flowers, grinning alien monsters and sculptures is displayed against a gleaming gold-leaf floor and walls while in the other, a 300-square-metre carpet with a surreal pattern of psychedelic skulls creates a curious interaction between art and the audience walking over the macabre spectacle. If it sounds ghoulish, it is – but it is also strangely enchanting.
However, a closer look at these seemingly innocent, animated cartoon-like images reveals some of the angst the 57-year-old artist feels about Japanese society: its crushing conformity, disenchanted youth and the ever-present threat of natural catastrophe from earthquakes and nuclear annihilation. For instance, a gaudy but monumental 4.5-metre-tall sculpture, “The Birth Cry of a Universe,” took 14 years to complete and is a reflection of contemporary society collapsing under the weight of the pursuit of development. Kawaii (cute) images of phantoms in psychedelic colour mask catastrophic narratives in a cavalcade of monumental paintings.
“I thought it was a good time to look at Murakami again, to revisit an artist who has been part of our lives for 20 years, although we haven’t looked beyond the surface of his works,” says Tobias Berger, Head of Art at Tai Kwun, who curated the exhibition with Gunnar B. Kvaran, the Director of Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museet, where a version of the exhibition was shown in 2017.
Due in part to his penchant for the media spotlight within the international art scene and high profile commercial brand collaborations with the likes of the Roppongi Hills shopping mall for which he created kawaii images, Murakami must take some of the blame for this failure to fully appreciate his work. For much of his career, he was not considered a serious artist in Japan.
Murakami named his colourful style flat Superflat, shrugging off critics as he appropriated Japan’s integration of fine art and craft for his own blend of the flat perspective of traditional Japanese paintings, contemporary anime and manga.
Then, in 2003, there was his notoriously lucrative collaboration with a series of kitsch monograms for Louis Vuitton, and sometimes erotic works inspired by Japanese otaku, which translates as nerd or geek and refers to the culture of young men isolated from mainstream society who live at home and spend hours on video games. Murakami’s controversial suggestion that otaku culture reflected the country’s post-war military submission and infantilism did little to endear him to the fine arts establishment who was unused to his self-promotional mass production.
More recently, though, there has been a closer look at the rigorous process, meticulous craftsmanship and thinking behind Murakami’s art. In 2015, a major solo exhibition at the Mori Art Museum drew 310,000 visitors over four months and presented an intricate 100-metre-long psychedelic landscape titled “The 500 Arhats” inspired by a set of scrolls created by Kano Kazunobu (1816-1863) that depicted Buddha’s disciples as different varieties of human suffering against a background of flames and wind. At the time in an interview with The Japan Times, Murakami declared he had no desire to be understood by the Japanese audience, saying “For the past 20 years there has been this tendency for the Japanese to be very jealous of people who are successful—especially those who succeed overseas in the West—and they bash them online.”
At the same time, Murakami unveiled an exhibition of his minimalist, contemplative Enso paintings, transforming the traditional motif of a circle that symbolises emptiness and infinity in Zen painting by replacing the fluid traditional brush stroke traced in one stroke with spray paint over a background of skulls. Whether intentionally or not, it served as a timely reminder that the artist, who has also painted the great figures of Zen Buddhism including Daruma the Great, the founder of Zen, has a Ph.D. in traditional Japanese painting, a discipline in which execution and precision are valued.
The JC Contemporary exhibition continues in this exploration of traditional and contemporary, with Murakami’s compelling series of paintings reflecting his abiding fascination for British artist Francis Bacon’s distorted portraits and a revealing collection of preliminary sketches for a painting of Tan Tan Bo, a reincarnation of Mr. DOB, Murakami’s alter ego. A smaller, more intimate display of Murakami’s cosplay-inspired costumes worn at art events is shown for the first time on life-size pure white, Murakami mannequins in theatrical stances.
The outlandish outfits range from a shiny silver suit and octopus hat to a giant smiling flower ball, which the artist designed in collaboration with Tokyo-based stylist and costume designer Kazuki Yunoki. Murakami says the costumes act as a useful diversionary from his inability to fully explain his works in English and as “armour” against the serious world of Western contemporary art.
The 57-year-old artist doesn’t mind whether visitors immediately grasp the message behind this and his other works on show. “This is life. I don’t worry,” he says. “Number one, they should enjoy my work and number two, if they are sensitive they will understand my deeper message. I didn’t understand contemporary art when I was a young student. I went to museums and thought they were boring.”
Berger says that from the outset he wanted to treat all the different works as equal; and so he created a narrative that unfolds naturally, starting with the artist’s post-apocalyptic works then leading viewers through his personal collection of art—an intriguing glimpse into the source of his inspiration—to a documentary, the Bacon-inspired works and finally, at the end of the gold leaf-clad hall, a pair of ethereal Enso paintings.
“He is a completely visual person,” says Berger. “Whenever we talked, Murakami had a model with every work in miniature form and when he came here the model came with him.” When he visited the artist’s studio in Yokohama he noticed Murakami’s single-minded focus with quality, painstakingly checking every single skull on a large artwork prepared by a team of artists based on his sketches.
JC Contemporary is a non-profit organisation and Murakami constantly refined and added to the exhibition, absorbing the additional costs for works that had not been planned, including a set of new paintings that arrived five days before the exhibition opened. The pieces were derived from the same canvas that had covered the walls of the third floor main gallery. Murakami’s team had removed the pieces that covered the exits and returned it to Japan where he transformed them into new pieces with texts that help to explain the works on display.
“If I look back now the exhibition was far beyond what Takashi or I had visualised. He is committed to perfection,” says Berger. He was keen to exhibit some works outdoors, and in Tai Kwun’s public courtyard there are two tall sculptures of KaiKai, a child figure with rabbit ears, and Kiki, a figure with three eyes and fangs – Murakami’s first outdoor sculptures since his groundbreaking exhibition at the Château de Versailles in 2010.
Kaikai Kiki translates as “supernatural” or “weird,” a phrase that, according to Berger, is used to praise the blend of weirdness and refinement in the works of the 16th-century Japanese painter Kano Eitoku. It is also the name of Murakami’s art management and production company.
Murakami’s focus extended to the 158-square-metre pop-up shop offering some of his idiosyncratic collectibles, including prints, pins and plush flower cushions displayed in a gallery-like setting awash in the same bright yet subversive skull-patterned carpet, walls covered in custom design wallpaper and a gigantic neon flower sign designed especially for the space. An exhibition in itself, the spectacle has been so successful that crowds have had to be limited as well as restrictions placed on how much visitors can buy.
Murakami admits that he found the experience of producing a show at Tai Kwun “liberating” compared to working in a typical commercial gallery environment. “It is different – it is not a gallery,” he says. “And I didn’t have to think if it would immediately sell, so I concentrated on works that would fit within this beautiful space.”
Murakami says he was inspired by Herzog & de Meuron’s design of a contemporary building within the newly renovated heritage complex, which previously served as a prison, police headquarters and magistracy.
“When I saw the building and the amazing detail and the huge expanse of the spaces, I remembered how I first felt moved by the world of contemporary art,” he says. “This feeling is embodied in the building – and I wanted to reflect that in the work I made for this exhibition.”
Content of all photos ©Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved
MURAKAMI vs MURAKAMI is on show in Tai Kwun until 1 September 2019. Please click here for more information.