The mad genius of Takashi Murakami seizes the Vancouver Art Gallery

A big retrospective titled The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg shows how adeptly Japan’s king of superflat jumps from art to fashion to music

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      A wildly well-received collaboration with Louis Vuitton that, for more than a decade, splattered the luxury fashion house’s bags with fluttering jellyfish eyes, kaleidoscopic pandas, and chipper cherry blossoms. The cover design for Kanye West’s seminal album Graduation, portraying the rapper’s “Dropout Bear” as an adorable cartoon. And a host of toys, key chains, stationery, and other tchotchkes modelled after or adorned with fanged creatures, riotous sunflowers, and strangely saccharine, many-eyed beasts. If you’re one of the few people unfamiliar with the enigmatic figure that is Takashi Murakami, don’t worry: you definitely know his work.

      Often compared to American pop maestro Andy Warhol, the Tokyo-born artist has a knack for mashing the East with the West, the traditional with the contemporary, and the “high” with the “low”. This has resulted in an oeuvre that deftly references everything from nihonga, the nationalist style of Japanese painting in which he is formally trained, to otaku, a subculture of obsessive individuals typically consumed by anime or manga—and a group that Murakami once considered himself a part of—to yōkai, a category of magical monsters, spirits, and other beings drawn from Japanese folklore. His extensive résumé includes paintings, sculptures, and films, many of which have been exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art, the Palace of Versailles, and other esteemed institutions.

      Tokyo's Takashi Murakami mixes East and West, traditional and contemporary, "high" and "low".
      Maria Ponce Berre

      “He straddles the concerns of multiple worlds,” Diana Freundl, associate curator of Asian art at the Vancouver Art Gallery, explained by phone. “He’s trained in techniques of nihonga…yet he’s very keen to incorporate the visual culture of contemporary Japan and also Euro-America.”

      For all Murakami’s talents in mixing and melding the new and the old to create stunning, exceptionally ornate pieces, however, nothing compares to the artist’s incredible business acumen, which, for over three decades, has ensured a rare reality in the contemporary-art world: his works are not only appreciated by and accessible to the wider public, but also highly profitable. This can be seen in his relationships with brands such as Vans, Billionaire Boys Club, and Casio, but also in his willingness to, say, offer miniature figurines of his creations in vending machines or for free with the purchase of a pack of specially marked gum.

      “For contemporary artists, the surface doesn’t touch the business,” Murakami said during a recent whirlwind trip to Vancouver to prepare for the VAG’s presentation of his retrospective, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, which is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and curated by Michael Darling. “But the truth is [they’re] very connected.”

      Release Chakra's gate at this instant by Takashi Murakami, from 2008.
      Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe

      Forgoing a translator and his usual outlandish attire—the artist is known to rock costumes that he designs and crafts himself—in favour of a quilted bomber, chinos, and bucket hat, Murakami recalled for the Straight a visit he paid to a prestigious gallery in his hometown when he was studying at the Tokyo University of the Arts in the ’80s. Although the paintings he saw there were impressive, he said he was baffled by the unaffordability of the pieces, which restricted them to the hands of the wealthy. He vowed to “level” the playing—or paying—field once he became a working artist. “That’s why my philosophical, conceptual thing is flatness,” he said. “We cannot survive without money.”

      Followers of Murakami will know that this “flatness” is derived from his “Superflat” theory, a term he coined in 2000 that refers to both the two-dimensional style of art originating from manga and anime, and a postmodern movement that blurs the boundaries between high and low culture. This model has served to inform the 55-year-old artist’s career ever since, from the creation and implementation of original characters like Mr. DOB, a floating, shape-shifting head reminiscent of Mickey Mouse that functions as Murakami’s alter ego, to his readiness to churn out merchandise for the masses inspired by such figures he first propels into the realm of high art. “When you look through the trajectory of his practice, although we can see distinct changes, distinct moments in his career or turning points,” noted Freundl, “there’s still this idea of things coming together.”

      Takashi Murakami's 1999 canvas Magic Ball II.
      Nathan Keay

      Although these manga-influenced pieces and commercial collabs still constitute a large portion of Murakami’s most significant work—The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg will even feature a fresh set of paintings that revisits his high-profile partnership with West—in recent years, the artist has pivoted back to his nihonga roots, incorporating Buddhist imagery and reimagining some of his most popular motifs according to Japanese decorative traditions. Murakami traces this shift to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which devastated Japan and left nearly 16,000 people dead, prompting him to turn to faith as a way to help those affected heal.

      “The children have to understand the reality, but cannot because parents are gone,” he said of the victims. “The friends of these children—adults—say this line, ‘Your parents go to the star, to the other world.’ I saw this as very primitive, religion becoming a moment. But human beings—like in movies, TV—need a story, so I completely understood.”

      This stream of thought eventually gave way to The 500 Arhats, a stirring, enormously detailed 100-metre-long painting that Murakami has called “my Guernica”. It depicts 500 of Buddha’s enlightened disciples, each of them based upon a historical monk who would appear to provide comfort during times of distress or disaster. A smaller, 10-panel iteration, titled 100 Arhats, will be displayed at the VAG as part of The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg. A number of other works in the 55-piece retrospective will critique and reflect upon what Freundl describes as “trans-cultural” themes, such as globalization and media culture, too. Murakami grew up in postwar Japan, and the aftermath of the U.S. atomic bombings—referenced through playful mushroom clouds—as well as the ongoing threat of nuclear power dominate a measure of the exhibition. The artist considers these visual musings a “super low-level reaction”.

      “My brain is almost child[like], same level. Not sophisticated,” he explained in complete seriousness. “So, ‘Oh my God, nuclear power plant bombing! Oh my God, very scary!’ That is my feeling.”

      Takashi Murakami’s Klein’s Pot A joins 50-plus works from three decades.
      Yoshitaka Uchida

      Visitors to The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, which is being presented at the VAG as Murakami’s first retrospective in Canada after its debut at the MCA last summer, will be able to follow the artist’s career over 30 years, from early works inspired by peers like Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons, to the vibrant, cartoonish canvases of Superflat’s peak, to the grand, vastly ambitious, and historically driven paintings of today, which he produces with an army of assistants at Kaikai Kiki Co., his art-production and artist-management company. The gallery’s rotunda, meanwhile, will house a five-metre-tall sculpture, elaborate wallpaper installations, and a selection of new paintings—some of them in progress—that Murakami has crafted for the VAG. “It’s going to be visually stimulating, pretty intense in that space,” said Freundl.

      Perhaps a sign of things to come in Vancouver, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg shattered the MCA’s attendance record, seeing more than 193,000 visitors over a period of three months. For Freundl, it’s no surprise that the luminary has so many adoring and curious fans. “I think that’s one of his driving interests: that scale,” she said. “Those multiple themes, layers, and crossing of genres—from pop culture to subculture to collaborations with fashion houses and musicians. He’s not a niche-based artist and I respect him for that.”

      The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from February 3 to May 6.