©Murakami: A Brand Lands in Brooklyn

Over the past 15 years, Takahashi Murakami’s body of work has revolutionized the art world, blending high and low art, mixing traditional Japanese techniques and pop culture like manga and anime, and blurring the lines between art and commercial production. The Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum is the most comprehensive show of the Japanese […]

poster for Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami "© MURAKAMI"

at Brooklyn Museum
in the DUMBO, other Brooklyn area
This event has ended - (2008-04-05 - 2008-07-13)

In Reviews by Isabel Kirsch 2008-05-22 print

Over the past 15 years, Takahashi Murakami’s body of work has revolutionized the art world, blending high and low art, mixing traditional Japanese techniques and pop culture like manga and anime, and blurring the lines between art and commercial production. The Murakami retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum is the most comprehensive show of the Japanese artist’s career to date. More than 90 works tell an interesting story of how Murakami has evolved from the early ’90s to today. It is amazing to see all of the artist’s important work in one place, and it’s huge—covering more than 18,500 square feet of the museum’s top two floors and presenting his famous anime figure sculptures, a vast array of paintings and sculpture work from 1990 to 2007, his film animation including Kaikai & Kiki’s Planting the Seeds, and the much buzzed about Louis Vuitton Collaboration store.

One of Murakami’s earliest pieces on view, “Signboard Takashi” (1992), depicts the altered logo of Tamiya, a plastic model kit maker company that Murakami first became familiar with as a child. Later, while in art school studying English, The Tamiya brand’s disclaimer “First in Quality Around the World” struck him as very ambitious. “After the war, Japanese people had crushed hearts, we had no confidence, we had nothing,” he says. Murakami felt that he too had very little confidence as an artist because there was no history of contemporary art in post-war Japan. As an artist starting a career, he decided he needed to make an equally ambitious statement.

Murakami, who grew up with plenty of exposure to Western art, received his Ph.D. from the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music where he studied traditional Nihonga painting (a 19th-century mixture of Western and Eastern styles). His concepts are driven by what he calls his “misinterpretation and misunderstanding” of Western contemporary art. In the early ’90s Murakami developed Mr. DOB, a character that united elements of Western pop (Mickey Mouse) and Japanese geek (otaku) culture. With Mr. DOB, Murakami hoped to draw attention to the sub-cultural expressions of anime and manga, art forms that are both new and distinctly Japanese, by reinterpreting them into “high art.” According to Murakami, the letters “DOB” are a short version of a Japanese word meaning “Why?” and the early Mr. DOB is a happy fellow, cute, smiling and energetically rocketing upwards in “ZuZaZaZaZaZa” (1994). Mr. DOB could be Murakami’s alter ego, or perhaps, his avatar.

Only a year later in “Crazy Z, DOB’S MARCH” (1995), the character’s smile has mutated into a demonic grimace with multiple eyes suspended in the air as a helium balloon. Later renditions, like “The Castle of Tin Tin” (1998), show him multiplying, spinning, gaping, and morphing into abstract shapes. In “Tan Tan Bo” (2001), Mr. DOB has turned into something furiously psychedelic, colorful and out of this world. The title references a famous Japanese cartoon which Murakami was very fond of as a child. Despite the super-flatness, which characterizes Murakami’s canvases, the quirky characters, the expressions in their faces, and a multitude of jellyfish eyes animate the paintings, rendering them full of life. Somehow those little creatures are reminiscent of Shinto spirits and the related notion that there is a spiritual presence in everything, even objects. While the Mr. DOB motif repeats itself throughout the exhibition and Murakami’s career, he always appears fresh and new, never failing to surprise.

Perhaps the most impressive aspects of the show however, are the sculptures. Murakami’s earliest sculptural work, “Miss ko2” (1997) the waitress, is the first human-sized piece of its kind. As per Murakami, “Miss ko2,” takes the Japanese male sex complex from the two-dimensional anime and game world, into 3D sculpture. “My Lonesome Cowboy” (1998) and “Hiropon” (1997) are exaggerated pornographic manifestations, spewing their milky fluids into the ether.

Especially remarkable are the three “Second Mission Project ko2” (1999) pieces, documenting the final transformation of ko2 from a sci-fi fairy into a tactical aircraft. The details are fascinating, and as Murakami puts it, Miss ko2 is at the same time “sad and beauty and funny and cutie.” Also delightful is the 23-ft high “Tongari-kun.” The surrealistic Buddha is surrounded by four guardians who, with their overly cute smiling faces, are the opposite of the grim-looking guard statues in traditional Buddhist temples.

In the center of all this is Murakami’s luxury goods store, a break from the traditional pattern of a contemporary art show, yet somehow blending seamlessly. It “holds at once the aspects that fuse, reunite, and then recombine the concept of the readymade,” says Murakami. The commercial element merges with the Murakami experience so that one can’t help seeing the spectacle of Louis Vuitton baggage and accessory collections populated with jellyfish eyes, singing moss and magic mushrooms as art itself. Those who can’t afford the luxury of a Vuitton bag have the opportunity acquire their own Murakami merchandise in the form of T-shirts, key holders, mouse pads, and small canvases in the museum’s regular gift shop.

While he was previously engaged with the pop culture of 21st century Japan, Murakami has been opening up to integrating earlier aspects of Japanese art and techniques into his work in the past years, as evidenced in recent paintings like the Daruma portrait “I open wide my eyes but see no scenery. I fix my gaze upon my heart” (2007) and Mr. DOB’s latest manifestation in “727-727” (2006). Painted in a hybrid manga-kaiga style over what looks like traditional Japanese screens, it brings Murakami full circle and illustrates the fascinating career of an artist who managed to elevate Japanese pop culture and creative commerce into high-art.
Takashi Murakami
727-727, 2006
Acrylic on canvas mounted on board
118 1/8 x 177 3/16 x 2 3/4 in.
The Steven A. Cohen Collection
Courtesy of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
©2006 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved
The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles where it was on view until February this year. After July 13 ®Murakami will travel to the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
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Isabel Kirsch

Isabel Kirsch. Isabel has been writing for various pop culture publications since the early 90s. She has published around 40 science fiction short stories in the Berlin-based magazine, Style 100. She later moved into the non-fiction realm of art and culture. She has co-edited two art books with street artists WK Interact (New York) and Jaybo aka Monk (Berlin/Paris). A New York resident since 1999, Isabel loves to stumble upon new and exciting, or touching artifacts in the city. Whether it's mutilated billboards or a fine art exhibition, she feels it's worth sharing if it punctures her habitual mental patterns. » See other writings


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