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If You Ask Takashi Murakami, You Don’t Have to Like Getting Older

On his 56th birthday the acclaimed artist got very real with us about art, aging, and the inevitability of death.

by Alison Sinkewicz
19 February 2018, 8:35am

Photo by Maria Ponce Berre

There are few contemporary artists whose work is more recognizable than the work of Takashi Murakami. Well-known for is pop culture infiltrating work such as the 2004 album concept art for Kanye West’s Graduation and his mid-aughts it-bags for Louis Vuitton, Murakami’s work is as in-place on the shoulder of Paris Hilton as it is in the walls of an art gallery.

Murakami came to major prominence in the early 2000s with his world-touring exhibition Superflat, built around the artist’s theory of superflat—placing art historical, pop culture, and contemporary imagery onto a single visual plane. The effect is a visual cacophony, saturated with reference, equally banal and relevant.

Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg sees its newest iteration (after showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago) at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The retrospective ranges from the artist’s early work including his playful Mr. Dob character which features prominently throughout his work, to new work made specifically for the installation in Vancouver.

We talked with the artist in Vancouver, confidently on his 56th birthday, about art, aging, and impending, inevitable death.

727, 1996, courtesy The Museum of Modern Art.

VICE: We’re in this room, surrounded by Mr. Dob. Can you tell me a bit about the origins of the character?
Takashi Murakami: Mr. Dob came from the Japanese slang phrase, dobojite. But I think when it debuted, the moment was a really serious moment—Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer with very serious messages—and Japanese artists were [interested in] their form, so I was making a parody. Much more nonsense, no meaning, just nonsense. So, that is my kind of message, my artwork is not serious, but this is my self portrait.

There are a lot of iterations of the character, are there some you find yourself more connected to at this point in your life?
Maybe this puking Dob. I’m making these puking Dobs a lot because, you know, I’m getting older and everyday is a struggle, I’m very tired [laughs].

Tan Tan Bo Puking, 2002, courtesy of Galerie Perrotin.

What does a birthday mean to you at this stage in your life?
Oh, my birthday means nothing, no meaning. I like that in Alice in Wonderland, the Madhatter says “unbirthday.” I love this message… getting older. Can’t move your body, health is bad. We die. Everything is disappointing.

When you look back at some of your seminal pieces you made when you were younger, thinking particularly of My Lonesome Cowboy , how do you feel about those works now?
When I see my earlier painting and sculpture I am so jealous, I was young, I had ideas. I had just the young kind of power. And now I have a lot of ideas and techniques but I can't get some of those kind of strange ideas to produce.

Release Chakra’s gate at this instant, 2008, courtesy private collection.

You’ve mentioned before a bit about getting older, not feeling as well. How do you think of your legacy now?
I was so moved when Mike Kelley died. When I started my career I imitated Kelley’s paintings because his message was life is serious, life has a darkside, but painting is very fluffy. So that really touched me when I was young, and then he was depressed, and then he was dead. But his work is still very alive and still a very strong message for us—mostly me. So that feeling is that if I can keep in my world, in my peace, this is my goal.

Can you tell me a bit about how a retrospective like this is cannibalistic, as you reference in the title?
I wasn't really thinking about it as a retrospective. For this show, Chicago, I have made new pieces so for me it’s what’s going on right now. So my newest painting is unsuccessful. So that’s why is an ironic situation, and I added the title, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg”—this is that. You know, I make a show, I want to be ambitious but I couldn't, but the theme is kind of the same every time: Mr Dob, puking, ugh.

Is this your birthday suit that you have on?
These are kind of a “Finding Nemo” colours, you know, in the sea.

And the hat, did you make that?
[Laughs] Exactly. You know, I have no confidence, that’s why I’m wearing the costume. Then people can understand that I’m not just negative, I want to present something positive as well. But whenever I start to make a comment, its really negative. That’s why I need a very positive outfit.

'Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg' is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 6.

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.