Murakami Confronts Mortality

09/22/2009 12:30 AM |

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.

Ian Condry, 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 and Mr., 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)