According to Japanese folklore, a distressed octopus can chew off an injured leg and a new one will grow in its place. Regeneration and re-invention are certainly subtexts at Takashi Murakami’s mid-career retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, but this sprawling exhibition also shows that while his work has certainly changed in form and focus, Murakami’s body of work, for all its emphatically contemporary, anime-inspired appearance, is, perhaps surprisingly, conscientiously rooted in hundreds of years of traditional Japanese visual culture.
The Octopus Eats its Own Leg is arranged chronologically, showcasing over thirty years’ worth of work with an emphasis on Murakami’s paintings, though there are several prominent sculptural ensembles. Some rarely-displayed early works reveal the extent of Murakami’s stylistic dexterity; his visceral Nuclear Power Picture could be a dead-ringer for a post-apocalyptic hellscape by Anselm Kiefer, but the straw and cardboard ground into the picture’s surface are also mixed with silver and gold mineral pigments, recalling traditional Nihonga brush-painting. Textured, sinister, and dark, it’s also nearly the exact opposite of Murakami’s later anime-inspired paintings, all which began with the creation of the character “DOB.”
Often described as a sort of altar-ego, DOB, who appears in many incarnations throughout the retrospective, first began as the character that we see in whimsical paintings like ZuZaZaZaZaZa. Against a background of red, the little creature propels skyward, leaving a sinuous white trail in its wake. But there’s an economical gracefulness in this wispy composition which, like his Milk and Cream paintings, evokes the stylization of 19th century Japanese woodblock prints and the reductive elegance of a Haikou.
DOB bursts into three dimensions in Strange Forest, a sculptural ensemble showing DOB skipping amongst anthropomorphic mushrooms; the tableau is surrounded by paintings of a highly-abstracted DOB rendered in the artist’s signature self-described “superflat” style. In the playfully subversive spirit of Jeff Koons, the ensemble makes no pretense at being “high art,” instead commenting on the post-WWII Disnification of Japanese visual culture. The mushrooms could just as likely reference the benign mushrooms in the 18th century handscroll paintings of Ito Jakuchu, or the much more sinister mushroom-cloud, the latter charged with its more recent and obvious historical resonance. In any case, the google-eyed DOB famously had commercial appeal, and was dispersed on the mass-market in the form of plush toys, stickers, and, in 2006, even a line of Louis Vuitton handbags.
The final two rooms of the exhibition demark a change in the style and content of Murakami’s work, resultant from the devastating 2011 tsunami. In response to such suffering and destruction, Murakami‘s work increasingly derives source-material from religion and spirituality. His massive 500 Arhats is a hundred-meter long painted frieze of Japanese arhats– Buddhist monks who lived reclusive lives, publicly emerging only to comfort people in times of disaster. Aged, withered, and wrinkled, they seem the complete antithesis of the bright, untextured, and generally upbeat works of Murakami’s superflat paintings.
500 Arhats is flanked by two colossal, muscular club-wielding creatures on each end of the room. Referencing the guardian Nio figures of the Buddhist pantheon, they’re embodiments of Um and A, Sanskrit sounds signifying the timeless and universal forces of birth and death. A final work addresses the 2011 tsunami directly in the sculpted form of a large gushing waterspout; but the water is uninviting and oily black, and seems more like a sinister tentacled creature, its tendrils wrapped around the many skulls we only notice upon close inspection.
The ease with which Murakami manages to fill the MCA’s spacious galleries testifies to his prodigious and driven work-ethic, though his many assistants employed at his Warholian studio, Kaikai Kiki Co., are equally deserving of credit. Spanning thirty years, there are certainly many ironies and, perhaps, contradictions that emerge in Murakami’s work. It’s contemporary, yet always informed by the past. And while it critiques post-WWII consumer culture, it also became a part of it. For me, though, perhaps the greatest irony is that such historical depth and, most recently, gravitas and textured introspection can coexist so naturally in the same collective body of work that brought us the bright and unapologetically cartoon-world of superflat.