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Takashi Murakami at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

            It's hard not to be impressed with all the things Takashi Murakami has gotten done. Still shy of 40 and "mid-career artist" status, he has nonetheless achieved a level of international name recognition enjoyed by no more than maybe a dozen of the world's leading contemporary artists. No surprise then that Murakami has now breezed into the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (MoT) with a solo exhibition, a big bright and bold extravaganza featuring some 100 paintings and three-dimensional works, numerous explanatory texts and documentary videos, and a schedule of special events that includes an art competition, a sideshow for Murakami's stable of assistants and associates, and a rock music concert.

            Perhaps the best way to introduce Murakami's work is through DOB, the character at the center of most everything the artist has done during his seven-year ascent to art stardom. The artist's little leitmotif, DOB is a Mickey Mouse-like, cartoonish and clueless creation whose name derives from the slang expression "dobojite," or "why?"

DOB was an exceedingly clever invention, as he gave Murakami an alter ego with which to tap into and comment on Japanese society. When DOB began scowling, his empty smile replaced with a row of jagged teeth, did this mean to indicate that there was a violent undercurrent to Japan's culture of cuteness? Likewise, when DOB appeared in multi-eyed and mouthed mutations, what did these increasingly chaotic incarnations portend? Several years ago Murakami started painting DOB squished-out, as if by a computer graphics steamroller, and from this was born "Superflat," a buzzword that now anchors a hip new art movement supported by the growing team of Murakami assistants.

Just like Warhol, Neo-Pop wunderkind Murakami has a factory, the Hiropon Factory, a north-of-Tokyo workspace that serves as the launch pad for the artist's increasingly grandiose international art projects. Like Warhol, Murakami has turned to silk-screening to get the flat, non-painterly look his art demands. Like Warhol, Murakami understands the popular appeal and refreshing accessibility of art as wallpaper or helium-filled balloon. Most importantly, like Warhol (who once quipped, "I don't read my magazine reviews, I weigh them"), Murakami is well aware of the importance of zealous self-promotion.

"Murakami is very conscious of his own success," writes MoT curator Yasuke Minami in a catalogue essay. "He formulated a program to guide his career with the sole aim of becoming famous on the international art scene." Adds Hiropon Factory publicity manager Takeo Hanazawa, "(Murakami) even said in complete seriousness that it was more rewarding to see his face on the cover of a magazine than to have his work exhibited somewhere or to win some award."

Perceived overseas as both quirky and exotic, Murakami has hit big among collectors with a yen for Japanese pop culture. Huge DOB balloons float above the world's major art fairs, and the artist is fronted by the likes of New York gallerist extraordinaire Marianne Boesky. According to his Tokyo representative Tomio Koyama, more than 70% of Murakami's sales are outside Japan.

There are many reasons for Murakami's success, not least of which is his ability to walk the walk and talk the talk, art-wise -- a skill that many Japanese artists of the early 1990s had still not mastered. But while a new generation of curators are having fun with Murakami, reading all manner of meaning into his work, more than a few overseas critics have not been so kind. Personally, I just don't get it, even though last time I fell into the discussion, the Hiropon philosopher (yes, the factory philosopher) Hiroki Azumi did his best to explain the deeper meaning of Superflat to me, citing dead French thinkers I had never heard of.

So I'll just say that Murakami's art is rooted in otaku style and sensibilities, this particularly evident in the room of three-dimensional figures that complements the room of big paintings in this show. Starting with "Hiropon," the 1997 rope-skipping boy toy and her well-endowed partner the Lonesome Cowboy (maybe worth the price of admission -- hope the police don't order it removed), the collection succeeds famously in embodying the spirit of anime. Here, as with the manga-influenced DOB paintings, as with everything Murakami and his team does, the craftsmanship is excellent, nay, more than excellent -- preternatural. And that is another reason for Murakami's success.

            This is a comprehensive look at Murakami's work, a must-see show for anyone interested in Japanese contemporary art. Make no mistake, it bubbles, it screams, it flips -- but in the end it left this reviewer feeling flat.

Notes: Takashi Murakami is at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (03-5245-4111) to Nov 4, 2001.
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