Sunday, June 01, 2008

Takashi Murakami : “©Murakami” exhibit

It was interesting to catch the Takashi Murakami exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art after seeing Cai's show at the Guggenheim. The two are contemporary, well regarded Asian artists with wildly different views.

They were almost representatives of how different the two New York boroughs operate. Manhattan has always been about the crème de la crème and its museums are no exception. Renown without equal, they consistently feature the most famous, most revered artists of any time period. The art is always brilliant and significant, but also tends to be a bit safe and respectable. Brooklyn has always had a more off-kilter approach to everything. Not emulating or competing with Manhattan, I feel allows it to do more daring things. Case in point, the Brooklyn Museum offers shows that can be more controversial and surprising. As any form of gambling, sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.

So where does the ©Murakami show wind up in that spectrum? Acknowledged as the “Japanese Warhol”, Murakami mines from popular culture, specifically Japan. But he also blurs the line between an artist and a salesperson. Having his own product line, and collaborating with Louis Vuitton to have an operational store as the centerpiece of the exhibit is definitely a topic of debate. I had my doubts but was open to see what he had to say.

There’s no denying the influence of consumerism into every facet of our lives, and Murakami is tapping into that. But I struggled to see the basis and result of his exploration. Paintings with the LV logo seamlessly incorporated into the work seems to be more of an endorsement of product placement and the infiltration of corporations into the arts.

I guess I’m biased by my own views, but I was wanting to see a stronger commentary behind it all, of which I didn’t get. Perhaps it could be argued that Murakami is trying to project an objective view and allow us to judge for ourselves.

But it still seems like BS to me. It comes back to the Louis Vuitton store. Murakami is obviously an intelligent person, so one could say this is a very self-aware gesture. But it also stinks of a feint, saying “Oh yes, we know it’s ironic, that’s the point... So you still want to buy one of our branded thousand dollar purses?” I smell the stench of corporate sales in the guise of fine art. I just don’t buy the gimmick. Just because something’s in a museum doesn’t mean it’s art.

It didn’t help his case that while I was viewing the exhibit, several dolled-up Japanese glamour girls pranced into the museum and bee-lined to the store without giving a single glance at the work on the walls. I wish I had may camera to capture the one who was hefting a shopping bag that was large enough to fit a full-grown human.

Another aspect of the exhibit that didn’t exactly work for me were the sculpted anime figures. Again, I found a lack of story behind the work. Why was he showing us these pieces? Manga and anime have an unfortunate history of exploiting women (or pre-teen girls) which is ripe for us to dissect and discuss. But it seemed like Murakami was just feeding into the objectification of females, like the Miss Ko2 figurines that literally transform into an object. Miss Ko2’s vagina being front and center as the nose of the jet cannot be a happy coincidence. “Hello, clitoris! Yes, I see you!”

Lest I be interpreted as a condemner of anime/manga, I would point to examples such as Ghost in the Shell or Neon Genesis Evangelion which manage to use the medium of anime to explore compelling and complex ideas without resorting to nude schoolgirls (okay, almost). Evangelion in particular delves into heavy Biblical iconography to craft concepts that, even years after the series ended, are still debated and dissected. I could spend hours trying to extrapolate the deep, nuanced meanings within the series, but fail to achieve the same result in this exhibit.

I don’t want to totally dismiss Murakami because I think there are some great, great ideas floating around in his work. I loved the combined use of the smiling flowers and the skulls as arbiters of life and death.

The So Many Flowers room was an impressive experience. The smiley face flower wallpaper (and subsequent jelly eyeball pattern) made me feel like I was trapped in some warped nursery room. I’m surprised the wallpaper wasn’t for sale, although I could imagine any parent worrying about their child developing schizophrenia by spending too much time immersed in that imagery.

And I don’t want to dog his explicitness of sexual content. There is a wealth of great art that centers around sex and the human form. Phallic and vaginal symbolism don’t offend me. But streaming jets of semen and lactation just fail resonate in the same way.

I think his most successful and intriguing piece of the show was in the entrance of the museum. The Tongari-kun figure pulls symbolism from traditional Buddhist sources but modernizes the subject with the pop culture style of current Japan. Traditional Japanese figures were substituted with bouncy, smiley cartoons. The iconic language of Pokémon and anime took new meaning when put into this context, which I thought was genius. I saw it as his most realized attempt to meld hi/low, traditional/modern Japanese art.

That’s what I wanted to see in Murakami. And less corporate sponsorship. Seriously, $4.95 for a bottlecap-sized button??

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