Sunday, January 06, 2008

Takashi Murakami at MOCA

Spent the weekend in LA and decided I could no longer make fun of the Louis Vuitton boutique inside MOCA's Takashi Murakami retrospective until I went to see it with my own eyes. I have always had a love-hate relationship with Murakami's work. On the one hand, as a lifelong lover of manga I appreciate the robust Japanese-ness of Murakami's particular post-apocalyptic cartoon vision. On the other, the equally robust and Japanese consumerism apparent in his works touches a sensitive nerve in me. The MOCA exhibition showed Murakami once again to be a keen manipulator of emotions, striking a host of cultural tender spots in a savvy and exuberant way. I simply couldn't help but give in to the gleeful horror of it all.

Hiropon, 1997. Oil, acrylic, fiberglass and iron. Edition of 3.

Back in graduate school in 2003-04, I struggled with my response to Hiropon (above) in the SFMOMA exhibition Supernova: Art of the 1990s from the Logan Collection. This image in particular disturbed me because of the often violent representations of women's sexuality prevalent in hentai, Japanese erotic comics and animations, and the relationship between that reality and Japan's rigidly patriarchal society. As I researched the work and Murakami's statements about it, I began to understand the ideological gymnastics he puts into play. Hiropon is a play on the collector mentality, and as a multiple available in large and small scales, editions and commensurate price ranges, it levels the relationship between the big-ticket art collector who buys a large sculpture for a half million dollars at Christie's and the teenage otaku (loosely translated: dork) whose miniature version came in a shokugan candy box.

Takashi Murakami's SuperFlat Museum Convenience Store Limited Edition - Hiropon/ Blue, 2004. Molded plastic.

The archetypical otaku is a boy in his teens or early 20s whose greatest fear is other people, and particularly the opposite sex. This anxiety manifests itself in sexual fantasies that are at once grotesque and strangely cute. Murakami protege Mr. represents the otaku run amok.

For Murakami himself, this is but one thread in his Warholian repertoire of consumerist critique. As with Warhol, it can be difficult to determine whether certain images of Murakami's are in fact critical or simply embracing of consumerism, and the Vuitton boutique which MOCA has notoriously placed within the exhibition galleries is an example of that critical dullness. Most offensively, it is the one boring part of an otherwise constantly exciting show, with nothing much to see. The fact that the sales don't even benefit MOCA does my non-profit arts administrator heart a bad turn, so enough about that misguided attempt at shock value.

Tan Tan Bo Puking - a.k.a. Gero Tan, 2002. Acrylic on canvas and wood.

Murakami is at his best when he synthesizes Japanese spiritual traditions with his anime influences. In Tan Tan Bo Puking, a form derived from his DoB character (a riff on Mickey Mouse) regurgitates toxic waste in a scene that could easily have appeared in anime master Hayao Miyazaki's 2001 classic Spirited Away. The painting is enormous, about 12 feet high by 24 feet wide, and truly impressive to comprehend. Like Miyazaki's film, Tan Tan Bo Puking incorporates symbols of the spirit world and suggests that environnmental devastation is throwing the order of things off-balance.

Oval Buddha, 2007. Aluminum and platinum leaf.

Some of the best work in the show is the newest. From Oval Buddha, 2007, a gigantic aluminum and platinum figure that can only be described as a mutant temple sculpture, to Second Mission Project Ko2, 1999-2000, an alarming female figure who transforms gruesomely from hentai girl to fighter jet, Murakami in his full career stride is pushing both sides of the envelope. The former work is alluringly spiritual in its meditative, architectural quality. The latter work is aggressive and vicious. Both use humor as an attractor and grotesqueness as a repellent, pushing and pulling the viewer. This duality is the essence of Superflat, at the heart of Murakami's vision.

Second Mission Project Ko2, 1999-2000. Fiberglass, iron, acrylic, and oil paint.

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