Instituto Tomie Ohtake is bringing to Brazil, for the first time, a solo show by the mythical Japanese artist Takashi Murakami (1962, Tokyo, Japan). Curated by Gunnar B. Kvaran – who also curated the show by Yoko Ono held at the Instituto in 2017 – MURAKAMI BY MURAKAMI is based on the show by the same name originally held at Astrup Fearnley Museet, in Oslo. The exhibition features 35 works including paintings as large as 3 x 10 meters. The set of artworks, presented as a constellation of fragments of Murakami’s universe, evidences a production recognized for a number of qualities which include pictorial excellence.
A great fan of anime, Murakami entered Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (now Tokyo University of the Arts) (1982–1993) decided to study Nihonga, a style of traditional Japanese painting. From then on, his work has evinced exceptional technical abilities. After graduating, the artist developed a production that transits between Japan and the West. He is furthermore the founder of Superflat – a term that applies to all his production while also describing postwar Japanese culture and society – an art movement that blends the traditional art of his country with contemporary pop culture.
Nevertheless, this exhibition highlights the eminently Japanese presence in his production. “This blend [of Orient and Occident ] is clearly present in Murakami’s art, but this exhibition emphasizes its profoundly Japanese identity, which was overshadowed by its association with great artists of the Occidental art world, such as [Andy] Warhol, [Jeff] Koons and [Damien] Hirst, not only by the emphasis on the commercial aspect, but also due to the artistic language,” the curator, Kvaran, explains.
Murakami became a phenomenon on the international scene by the singular way he understands the universe of art, as reflected not only in his creation concerned with society and history, but also his art collection – insofar as he is a refined collector and art dealer, who introduces other artists at his gallery in Tokyo. The works in the exhibition reveal the result of a prolonged process of creation, spanning from the conceptual development to the formal research and painstaking execution of his works, with innumerable layers of paint. In his studio he relies on the skills and dedication of many other artists, among a team of around 100 people, working in a warehouse in the outskirts of Tokyo – a place considered by the art circuit as one of the most innovative studios in the world.
The Murakami phenomenon will be explored in the show through works from four of his most extraordinary groups of artworks: that which features the figure of Mr. DOB, his recent paintings concentrated on Zen Buddhism, his appropriation and interpretation of the works by Francis Bacon and his notion of the self-portrait, as well as a selection of videos. “Murakami has certainly enjoyed more recognition outside Japan than within it, and has cultivated an openly combative relationship with the Japanese art world, but his involvement with Nihonga, manga and anime paintings, otaku culture, and Zen Buddhism firmly anchor his work in the Japanese traditions,” Kvaran emphasizes.
About the artworks
In the 1990s Murakami invented the character of Mr. DOB (derived from the Japanese slang dobojite, meaning “why?”), by which he criticizes a consumeristic, lifeless and empty society. Initially, DOB was a figure that resembled the cat-shaped robot of the manga Doraemon or Mickey Mouse, as seen in But, Ru, RuRuRu... (1994). Upon being revisited by the artist, however, the character evolved into many different profiles: DOB Genesis: Reboot (1993–2017) and Tan Tan Bo (2001), inspired in the monster character of Japanese folklore (yōkai) which spits paralyzing saliva on its victims.
Murakami’s works are intimately connected to Japanese subculture. Works such as Superflat DOB: DNA (2015) and 772772 (2015) are linked to Japan’s character culture, and figurine-like sculpture works such as Miss Ko2 (1996) and My Lonesome Cowboy (1998) give form to the otaku fantasies of sexuality and eroticism, centered around anime, manga, and video games. “Since the first DOB, up to a multitude of computerized drawings and the finished works on the canvas, we see the metamorphosis and expansion of a figure influenced both by Murakami’s interest in biology, botany and the world of insects as well as by his fascination for manga,” the curator explains.
Also according to Kvaran, there is a clear correlation between the organic and molten forms and the stories they tell, generally related with environmental danger or even nuclear threats or disasters. “In his violent outlook that proclaims a raw hostility toward everything in the world, there is an alarming tension, as though the saturation of accumulated inner energy were caused by a distortion in the surface dimensions,” the curator says. Over the years, an entire DOB planet has arisen, generally associated with other hybrid populations created by the artist, executed on large-format canvases and telling very complex stories, with different layers of narratives and pictorial structures.
In 2007, Murakami made portraits of Daruma, the Indian priest who founded Chinese Zen Buddhism and paintings partly inspired in masters such as Hakuin Ekaku (very influential in Zen Buddhism, 1686–1769), and Soga Shōhaku (a painter from the Edo period, 1730–1781), honored with the canvas Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind (2017), the largest in the exhibition (3 x 10m), whose painting is illuminated by goldleaf and silverleaf. They are artworks that demonstrate a reorientation of the artist to the traditional painting also present in Amitābha Buddha descends, Looking over his shoulder (2016), Shennong: Inspiration (2016) and Ensō: Zazen (2015).
The artist has been making increasing use of traditional motifs, symbols and images including demons, monsters, and mythological animals like dragons and phoenixes, as well as goats and tigers, as seen in Lion Occupying the Throne in My Heart (2018). These elements also appear recurrently in the series of Arhats, a Sanskrit term that denotes a being of elevated spiritual stature. Works such as Isle of the Dead (2014) and Arhats: The Four Heavenly Kings (2016) are inspired by the Five Hundred Rakan (or Arhats), by Kanō Kazunobu, a series of 100 Buddhist scroll paintings. Murakami took interest in these traditional motifs in relation to the tsunami of Tohoku, followed by the earthquake and nuclear leakage in March 2011.
Appropriating the work of Francis Bacon, since 2002 Murakami has conceived a series of paintings which includes the triptych Homage to Francis Bacon (2018). These are dense compositions with recurrent characteristics of the artist’s iconography – eyes, mushrooms and characters – accentuated by multiple layers of colors applied on platinum leaf backdrop. The metamorphosis of the faces repeats the transformations of Mr. DOB, an extravagant feature that is sometimes affectionate, sometimes monstrous, with which Murakami thematizes the many variations in his work. From his series of self-portraits, the exhibition features the life-size silicone sculpture with robotic (animatronic) devices (untitled, 2016) and two others that use goldleaf, in which the artist appears alongside the dog Pom: Pom & Me (2009–2010) and Naked Self-Portrait with POM (2013).
The figures of Murakami’s paintings have been transformed into videos and animations and even into a feature-length film. For this exhibition, Murakami curated and edited, into a single session, a selection of nine of these video-films.