Takashi Murakami arrived five minutes before the end of his opening reception last Thursday (September 17) at Gagosian Gallery’s West 24th Street space in Chelsea. Eager fans snapped photos of the man with round glasses, his hair held back in a tight black ponytail, the sides frizzing out–and pushed their way towards the half open door to the already crowded space. A woman, clutching her multicolored Murakami-designed Louis Vuitton handbag
, lurched toward the artist as he paused for a photo in an attempt to get his autograph. A visibly tired Murakami then retreated into a corner and eyed the crowd uneasily. Security guards attempted to keep people in line, but the mass just kept growing. Such is life for the forty-seven year old Japanese pop artist.
His latest work, “Picture of Fate: I Am But a Fisherman Who Angles In the Darkness of His Mind,” hangs through October 24 in a side room of the Gagosian warehouse complex. Turn left upon entering and you will come upon the gigantic four-paneled piece depicting the legend of the karajishi
, mythical Chinese lions that traditionally were believed to guard Buddhist temples from evil spirits. In the legend, karajishi
are thrown off the tops of cliffs in order to test their vitality. The animal was later incorporated into horimono
, or Japanese tattooing, due to its sacred status. Imaginative depictions of the lion cropped up in Japanese art as an increasing number of artists replicated images of the animal without ever having seen one.
Murakami’s grinning karajishi
sports a shaggy mohawk with stubbled flanks; it crouches on top of an arc made of human skulls. Multicolored drips of paint slide down a colorful checkerboard background underneath the carnage. An arc of white dappled with color flows on to the mass of skulls from both sides, like runoff from an industrial rainbow. Two cubs play on top of the lion(ess), who sports a large red flower in her mane. The skulls are adorned with splatters of color; some are a vivid royal blue, and others are speckled orangey-pink. The variegated background of the piece was achieved by a number of techniques including kezuri
, which literally means “to shave or scrape off.” In this method, numerous layers of paint are applied to the canvas and then sanded down, creating a unique patina.
On the left side of the second panel, a line from an ancient Buddhist text is written in Chinese characters. It reads: “Grass, trees, countries, the earth itself–all these shall enter wholly into Buddhahood.” This quotation refers to achieving enlightenment, or ultimate consciousness. Does Murakami’s karajishi
guard entry into this other realm? Moreover, why is the artist placing the theme of death at the center of his latest work? In a recent interview with Joanna Pitman
at The Times
(UK) Murakami said, “I feel like an old man. My inspiration is shrinking, my concentration is not good. I am tired.”
The weighty subject matter in “Picture of Fate…” marks a significant departure from many of the images seen at the ©MURAKAMI
mid-career retrospective last summer at the Brooklyn Museum. The characters in this exhibit are more sobering. There is no waitress-moé, or maniacal Gero Tan––this is an ancient tale translated into Murakami’s “poku” world.
, an associate professor of Japanese cultural studies at MIT, explains: “One of the things Murakami is so good at is simplifying the complexity of Japan so people outside of Japan get it.”
Murakami is able to make Japanese myths and imagery more legible for a Western audience by using strategic bursts of color and incorporating various figures associated with the Murakami brand. Various critics have compared his production processes to Andy Warhol’s, but Murakami’s practice also incorporates the idea of Monozukuri, the Japanese “art of manufacturing,” to create products that flaunt their inherent contradiction: they are both highly manufactured and individualized. His factory, Kaikai Kiki Co.
, employs seventy workers, and the company produces an astounding amount of merchandise for the Japanese market. Their website states that they manufacture “pillows, bags, towels, key chains, sticker sets, and even soccer balls” featuring the work of Murakami and his associates.
Kaikai Kiki Co. also markets his work and supports emerging Japanese artists like Chiho Aoshima
, real name Masakatsu Iwamoto, who had his second exhibition at Lehmann Maupin
this past winter. Mr., like many Kaikai Kiki Co. artists, focuses on both the cute and disturbing aspects of otaku
culture, which incorporates devotees of anime (animated movies), manga (comic books), video games, electronics, and any other subject that falls into what is commonly viewed as “geek” culture. As Murakami’s first assistant, Mr. learned from the master of blending kawaii (cute) with darker themes. Condry says, “In America we can say, ‘Oh, anime, Miyazaki
, otaku, I get it. Schoolgirls, death gods, samurai.’ But in Japan you think: ‘Those things are really different and you’re blurring them together.’” Condry continued: “Murakami somehow straddles that line… he can talk in both directions.”
A large part of Murakami’s appeal is the idea that he’s bringing the otaku subculture to a wider audience, but also that he can bridge high and low art in a way that very few artists have been able to do with such commercial success. What is interesting in his latest works is that his self-aggrandizing and peculiar personality is becoming more apparent as he appears in his paintings and statues as a subject. A recent exhibition at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin
in Paris presents Murakami as a portly silver statue with his signature ponytail and glasses, light gliding over its flawless mirrored surface, beaming distorted versions of gallery-goers back to them.
Yet in “Picture of Fate…” at Gagosian, Murakami is reconnecting with his roots in a well-respected and centuries-old lineage–that of the Japanese master painter. As a scholar of classical Japanese painting techniques and subjects, Murakami is playing with traditional motifs of death and vitality. This offers a subtler vision of the artist’s own mortality than in his present exhibition in Paris, where he’s tapped his manufacturing minions to translate his likeness onto the canvas and into sculptures. Although his Taylorist methods can be challenging to widely held ideals of authorship, you have to give Murakami credit for being a meticulous, disciplined, and complex artist.
(image credits: Gagosian Gallery, Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, © Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd)