Birthday buzz and secret messages at Takashi Murakami retrospective

Birthday buzz and secret messages at Takashi Murakami retrospective

It seems that Vancouver has been rather superflattened by the arrival of Takashi Murakami – or at the very least supercharged. The Japanese international art world star arrived in town to open his retrospective exhibition ‘The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg’, on the eve of his 56th birthday, to a palpable civic buzz. He was even presented with a special plaque by the deputy mayor declaring the day of his birth – 1 February – an official citywide Takashi Murakami Day.

After installing a five-metre high sculpture inside the rotunda of the Vancouver Art Gallery (a neoclassical former courthouse designed by Francis Rattenbury and renovated by Arthur Erickson in his iconic Robson Square), as well as new installations on the gallery’s Georgia Street façade, Murakami found time for a public lecture, a press conference and a birthday gala bash complete with a Grammy Award winning DJ.

Such a dizzying pace seems apropos for an artist who has so enthusiastically straddled the worlds of high and low art, museum culture, fashion and hip hop. But it’s perhaps the installation on the VAG’s façade that best speak to Takashi’s unique hybridity – his often fraught dance between the realms of East and West, the historic and contemporaneous, the commercial and the aesthetic: a central work playing on his familiar skull imagery hangs over ionic columns, flanked on either side by gorgeously detailed nihonga inspired pigmented blue octopus tentacles. Occupying the city’s main plaza and de facto town square, the vaguely post-apocalyptic banners are met by the blank gaze of the adjacent Microsoft HQ.

Vancouver, a city with a strong Asian population on the edge of the Pacific, seems well placed to be the only Canadian stop on the exhibition’s North American tour and the second stop after debuting at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art last summer (where it shattered attendance records).

The heady retrospective, curated by the MCA’s Michael Darling, spans three dynamic decades of work: from early 1980s paintings blending traditional Japanese nihonga style techniques with contemporary inspiration (and the influence of Anselm Kiefer and Jeff Koons), through to his 1990s shift toward the anime influenced Superflat style. It also features more recent work inspired by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima (that killed more than 15,000 people) including the stunning 100 Arhats (2013), depicting wizened monks and emanating a magnificent kind of Buddhist Bosch vibe.

From left, 69 Arhats Beneath the Bodhi Tree, 2013; Embodiment of ‘Um’, 2014; and Embodiment of ‘A’​, 2014, all by Takashi Murakami. Photography: Rachel Topham. Courtesy of Vancouver Art Gallery

In addition to the site-specific installations, the VAG exhibition includes six new works, some of them still in completion. Murakami’s often cartoonish gestures and larger than life personality can mask his deep gravitas, and these new works are no exception. Juxtaposing his intricately detailed skull and flower motifs, they offer compelling takes on the damaged zeitgeist of a media frenzied world simultaneously saturated by cute kitten videos and images of massacres.

Here, his autobiographical Mr DOB character continues his journey into an uncertain, constantly shifting present. The Disney noir figure – like the artist himself – carries the post-war Japanese baggage of apocalypses past and prescient. ‘My art,’ Murakami told a rapt Vancouver audience, ‘contains secret messages for the future.’

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