Takashi Murakami at the Parco Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

While the rotund Pika-chu is snuggled during pre-schoolersí afternoon naps, female office workers perch Hello Kitty dolls on the corners of their desks. Nighttime finds those pinky-truncated boys of the yakuza with plush-toys of bad-boy Lupin tossed in the rear window of the Mercedes-Benz. Even Westerners get the bug Ė according to a Harajuku toy store clerk, they tend to be attracted to adorably impish Chibi Maruko-chan. Until now, a search for someone unaffected by cute character-mania might have taken you into the snobby world of highfalutin art patrons Ė an elite society that is, after all, above it all.

Until now. Because, thanks to Takashi Murakami, these days even the most discerning museum curator will soon have a reason to pump coins into his local game centerís UFO Catcher in hopes of snaring a lovable plush toy Ė and that reason is a little guy named DOB.

"DOBís Adventure in Wonderland" is an exhibition of several dozen development sketches, drawings, paintings, and sculptures by Murakami, 37, one of Japanís hottest young artists and the man who created the Mickey mouse-like character.

"DOB is a self-portrait of the Japanese people," explains Murakami, 37, "He is cute but has no meaning and understands nothing of life, sex, or reality."

The show features walls full of brightly-colored, well-crafted acrylic-on-canvas portraits of DOB, who, on occasion, betrays his mischievous side by flashing a jagged row of sinister-looking teeth. At the exhibitionís center a wonder-struck DOB in fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) stands atop a silver flying-saucer-like stage. The meter-tall doll is ringed by 12 FRP toadstools designed in lime green, pale orange, and fuchsia. While the scene and the colors suggest psychedelia, Murakami insists he has never personally taken a trip into the novel world inhabited by the Lewis Carroll characters from which he borrowed the exhibition title, although he did read the book, and remembers it as "strange." Instead, he says, he finds his inspiration in contemporary Japanese society.

"DOB is always confused," says Murakami, "and in a daze, like he was drunk or stoned."

For several year now, Murakami has been developing and refining his work with DOB, along the way coining more than a few new terms to describe pop culture in Japan. The current exhibition is sub-titled "Hiropon Show," in reference to an amphetamine, and is sub-sub-titled "Po-Ku Revolution," a neologism formed from the words "Pop" and "Otaku," those stay-at-home kids obsessed with manga, animation, and computer games. It was only a couple of years ago that Toshio Okada, a creator of the Otaku classic animated film "Evangelion," bestowed on Murakami the title "Otaku King," causing his popularity in Japan to surge, and the artist hasnít looked back since.

The exhibition is up at Parco gallery in Shibuya Ward, the countryís youth-culture Mecca, and so it is only appropriate that a variety of consumer products are being offered for purchase Ė plush dolls, of course, and also mouse pads and t-shirts and so on. The opening party is packed with young people decked out in DOB shirts and hats, and superstar DJ Moog Yamamoto of Buffalo Daughter is spinning 60s and 70s pop music. But also in attendance are the likes of Marianne Boesky, who owns a fashionable New York gallery.

"I guess I spend about three months a year in New York," says the always casually-dressed and goateed Murakami, "which is the time I use to get my fix of reality." But there is more to New York than reality, as Murakami is finding out Ė there is also a pretty big contemporary art market. Interest in Murakamiís work is high overseas, and nowhere more so than in the Big Apple, where he and resident video and conceptual artist Mariko Mori are two of Japanís leading thirtysomething cultural ambassadors.

Like Mori, whose latest New York gallery show is titled "Made in Japan," Murakami delivers work that exploits Americansí curiosity in the exotic and quirky qualities of things new and Japanese. Some of the artistís effect, however, might be lost on foreigners actually living here in Japan. For while satire usually exaggerates to create caricatures, Murakamiís approach can sometimes appear more as copy than commentary.

Still, the New York and Tokyo art scenes both seem satisfied with Murakamiís superficial treatment of the cute emptiness in contemporary Japanese society. And that might be the most significant statement that "DOBís Adventures in Wonderland" actually makes. The show is good fun, but that is about all it is.

notes: The Takashi Murakami exhibition "DOBís Adventures in Wonderland" is at the Parco Gallery (03-3477-5873) until May 24. 1999. Murakami at the Tomio Koyama Gallery, 1998
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