Murakami Confronts Mortality 

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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.”

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