September 12, 2018

RAW LIKE SUSHI

Your last chance to get inside the mind of Japanese pop superstar Takashi Murakami

If you haven’t yet seen the Takashi Murakami retrospective “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg”at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, what’s wrong with you?

We’re kidding, of course, but the blockbuster exhibit —which closes this Sunday, September 16th—is not only one of the most successful shows in the institution’s history, it’s also a rare opportunity to get into what makes an art superstar tick.

"Kaikai Kiki" (2005)
“Kaikai Kiki” (2005)

Curated by Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago chief curator Michael Darling, “Octopus” originally made its debut at the MCA before moving on to the Vancouver Art and Fort Worth. The show is far more than a “greatest hits” remix, even though most of Murakami’s most recognizable icons, including the characters Kaikai and Kiki and the artist’s alter ego Mr. D.O.B., make appearances. Many pieces, such as banners for the balcony and entryway and oversized daisies dancing above the gift shop, were created specifically for the Modern’s environs.

"Nuclear Power Picture" (1988)
“Nuclear Power Picture” (1988)

As the viewer moves through early paintings like 1998’s Anselm Kiefer-inspired “Nuclear Power Picture” to immersive rooms embodying Murakami’s “Superflat” aesthetic to his larger-than-large portraits of Arhats (or enlightened monks), one might assume that the artist would be reveling in his achievements. One would be wrong.

Comparing himself to other mid-career artists like Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan, Murakami says that “all of us mid-career, middle-aged artists are losing our way and sort of reaching for how to proceed from here. I think each of us has our own style in that lostness and exploration. In my case, I try to increase the level of work I do to keep myself busy, so I don’t wander off, and I guess that is my style. Doing this kind of show, I assume there’s expectations from the audience, and it’s a very heavy responsibility to keep responding to those expectations and keep producing the work.”

Murakami_Invoking-the-Vitality-of-a-Universe-Beyond-Imagination_2014
“Invoking the Vitality of a Universe Beyond Imagination” (2014)

Comparing his methodology to an athlete training on the field, Murakami says he has to embrace a state of zen every day while still running two bustling studios—one in Japan, one in New York—full of employees who have to train for years to perfect his post-pop style.

“If you picture someone sitting and meditation for enlightenment, you think it’s easy, but of course, it’s not easy,” Murakami says. “In my physical life I’m walking around the studio, giving orders to my assistants, but in my head, I’m constantly sitting in meditation in order to keep my mind and soul open. It’s a very long process and a very trying process.”

Thus the show’s title, which refers to a Japanese phrase about the tendency for an octopus to self-cannibalize in times of stress. Curator Michael Darling says there’s a vast difference between a surface reading of Murakami’s work and the more in-depth examination he feels each piece, particularly the newer works, deserve. “I don’t think there’s anybody in the world making paintings as technically ambitious as these. Every quarter centimeter has different color combinations, and he’ll spread it across 24 feet. Most artists can’t work that big, but it’s a real comfort zone for him. He wants your eye to zip around the canvas and be in a constant state of looking.”

Ultimately, how you view “Octopus” is up to you. Merely pose in front of one of his exhilarating installations to get as many Insta-likes as possible; or take a deeper dive to discover the success, failure, evolution, doubt, and transcendence that lies underneath the work of a pure genius. —Kendall Morgan 

The Details: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell Street.