Thursday, April 10, 2008

love peter

Buying It

A Takashi Murakami retrospective.

by Peter Schjeldahl

My favorite part of “©Murakami,” a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of the juggernautish Japanese artist-entrepreneur Takashi Murakami, was the most controversial element in the show when it originated, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, last October: a functioning Louis Vuitton outlet, smack in the middle of things, selling aggressively pricey handbags and other bibelots, all Murakami-designed. (Vuitton has reportedly done hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of business in Murakamiana since its deal with the artist began, in 2003.) The shop is lovely. Shelving units in chrome and white enamel, with recessed fluorescent lighting that sets brass fittings on the merchandise aglint, caress the eye. They provide a haven from the strident grotesquerie of what might be termed Murakami’s fine-art product lines: paintings, sculpture, and wallpapered environments that play off the charms of Japanese traditional and popular arts with close to no charm of their own. But, then, retail swank is an aesthetic lingua franca today, and equations of art and commerce, pioneered by Andy Warhol and colonized by Jeff Koons, among others, are, at least, familiar. The show’s less cozy aspects remind me that I have never been to Japan. I don’t like Murakami’s work, but my dislike, being moody, feels out of scale with the artist’s terrific energy and ambition. For the second time in a couple of months—the first being at the Guggenheim retrospective of the meteoric Chinese festivalist Cai Guo-Qiang—New Yorkers have a chance to absorb our new geo-spiritual fate, as provincials in a world of creative paradigms that no longer entreat our favor. That has to be good for us.

Murakami was born in 1962, and came of age at a time when young Japanese chafed at their rehabilitated nation’s banality, which they experienced as impotence in a society whose economic success and, to an extent, cultural fashions hewed to Western models. (An influential philosopher, Akira Asada, dubbed that society’s condition “infantile capitalism.”) A generational sensibility took hold: otaku, which referred to geekish male fans of science-fiction anime, manga, and video games, and came to embrace other defiantly unwholesome obsessions with popular culture. The cyberpunk writer William Gibson defined otaku for the West, in 1996, as being “pathological-techno-fetishist-with-social-deficit” and, later, as “the information age’s embodiment of the connoisseur.” Relishing apocalyptic violence, saccharine cuteness (“kawaii”), resurgent nationalism, and variously perverse sex, otaku spawned artistic tendencies: Neo-Pop, Sado-Cute, Superflat. Murakami became a leader, or a major collaborator, in nearly every development. He enjoys rock-star status in Japan.

Murakami was the oldest child of a father who had served in Japan’s postwar Self-Defense Forces and a mother who designed textiles. His mother impressed on him that he owed his existence to the chance that the sky above her native city, Kokura, was overcast on August 9, 1945, thus diverting a B-29 to its secondary target, Nagasaki. He took calligraphy classes and attended Buddhist rituals. He was more than encouraged in his study of art. According to the show’s organizer, the MOCA curator Paul Schimmel—in one of several extraordinarily cogent and informative essays in the catalogue—the young Murakami’s parents required him to write papers on exhibitions he visited, which included shows of Renoir and Goya. If he didn’t, they sent him to bed without supper.

The teen-aged Murakami doted on anime, especially a television series in which the immense Japanese battleship Yamato, which was sunk in 1945, soon after its launching, ascends from the ocean floor to fight extraterrestrial invaders. An art student for eleven long years, beginning in 1980 and ending with a Ph.D. from Tokyo National University, he studied nihonga (a Japanese style of painting born in the late nineteenth century as a nativist riposte to Western art) and dabbled in anime. He absorbed conceptualist influences from exhibitions and lectures by Western artists, including Joseph Beuys, Mario Merz, and Christo. The American movement called Neo-Geo, with Koons at its center, spurred Murakami’s interest in art that aped deluxe commodities. His early works included a row of children’s backpacks made from the skins of exotic animals. At the opening of the exhibition in which they were shown, a Shinto priest honored the animals’ departed souls with prayers.

While on a fellowship at P.S. 1, in New York, in 1994, Murakami, already prominent in Japan, gained modest attention with cartoonish paintings. Inspired by Warhol, Koons, and the British master of finely calibrated insolence, Damien Hirst, he founded a literal industry in 1996—the Hiropon Factory. (The name is a slang term for crystal methamphetamine, the most potent in a class of drugs that ease tedious mental labor, dangerously.) The firm was reorganized, in 2001, as Kaikai Kiki Co., and now employs about a hundred workers at facilities in Tokyo and New York, flooding the world with the Murakami brand. Is the result visually monotonous and conceptually supererogatory? So is McDonald’s.

Murakami’s most sensational works are among the first of his artistic maturity, from 1997 and 1998: large, pedestalled figures, in brightly painted fibreglass. One, “Hiropon,” is of a girl with huge breasts spurting streams of milk that join to form a jump rope. Another, “My Lonesome Cowboy,” is of a masturbating boy whose ejaculate twirls upward like a lariat. Similarly gamy is “Second Mission Project ko2,” an outsized Transformer toy representing a naked girl, with a detailed vagina, who, click-clack, becomes an airplane. The characters’ faces beam the big-eyed, manically jolly winsomeness that in anime and manga signals contentment. Anyone susceptible to being tickled and enthralled by that cartoon code may find, in these works, blended quintessences of Heaven and Hell. I don’t get it. KEEP READING

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