In his 30+ years as an artist, Takashi Murakami has developed an iconic signature style embodied by a colorful cast of characters that find themselves somewhere between adorable and psychotic. This summer, Chicagoans will get the chance to bear witness to each and everyone of them in a massive new retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg. The highly anticipated exhibition will showcase over 50 artworks that span the artist's prolific career in painting, sculpture, and even video. Some of his earliest paintings are being shown in North America for the first time, alongside more recent works Murakami made specifically for this exhibition.
Murakami's surreal, hallucinogenic renderings blend elements of neo-pop and street art with traditional Japanese imagery. The show's title work, for example, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, is an 114', 35-panel painting that completely surrounds visitors in the gallery. According to the museum, the title of the work and this exhibition references a Japanese idiom that relates to the process of rejuvenation: an octopus can chew off a damaged tentacle in times of desperation and grow back a new one in its place. This is a prolific metaphor for the way Murakami feeds off the old imagery in order to create new ones.
In a video interview with MCA Chicago, Murakami describes the "Superflat" aesthetic philosophy that is central to many of his works called. Murakami coined the term himself, but it actually derives from the practice of Edo period painter, Jakuchu Ito, who made completely flat compositions of large groups of animals. "The painter is organizing [the composition] for the eyeball moving," Murakami explains. But the concept also has roots in more contemporary Japanese and American culture and the film's Murakami watched as a teenager. "I am a geek for the Japanese animation stuff, and also the American sci-fi stuff. For example, in Star Wars, the first sequence is completely 3D, right? But Japanese sci-fi stuff is kind of that—moving— completely different. The main visual philosophy came very natural to making flatness, but, at the same time having some dimension..."
Michael Darlin, chief curator at MCA Chicago, sees the Superflat concept as a broader statement about Japanese culture, wherein the distinction between high and low art is much less definitive than in the West. He describes Superflatness as a sort of tool that Murakami uses to flatten these distinctions that people in the West can get caught up on. Murakami says, "For example, who is at the highest level in Japanese culture scene? It is the comic writer [who] is highest."
The retrospective's vast archive of multi-panel paintings allow users to trace the themes and stylistic motifs that have endured throughout Murakami's career. Psychedelic flora and fauna explore notions of corporate branding and global commercialism that the museum suggests is an intentional ploy by the artist to equate his own celebrity artist personality with a corporate entity. In 2007 and 2008, Murakami was experiencing a lot of commercial success: his massive first retrospective was traveling around the world; his Louis Vuitton collaboration was in full swing; he was commissioned to create the album art for Kanye West's massively popular Graduation album and directed one of its music videos. At that point in his career, the artist felt that his Japanese identity was lacking a presence in his work. The artist says, "Before the big earthquake, it looks like I completely forgot I came from Japan..."I woke up when I [saw] the Japanese—the earthquake's reality." The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that hit Northern Japan in March of 2011 ignited a creative shift in the artist's practice. Murakami began introducing Buddhist monk characters called arhats into his work. Murakami created a 300' long painting in 2012 called The 500 Arhats, which really kicked off the theme.
With over 100 studio assistants under his employ, Murakami compared the process of putting together the massive composition in the way a director pieces together a film: "Everything came from the Star Wars stuff. [George] Lucas released the 'making of' video. And then I was learning oh my god this is a process. Okay, director is making for the scenario, the storyboard, and then shooting a film, and editing. This is a process. And maybe in a painting it's much easier to [borrow] it from this system."
Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg will be on view at MCA Chicago from June 6 to September 24, 2017. From there, the exhibition will travel to the Vancouver Art Gallery in Winter 2018 and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Summer 2018. Learn more about the show, here.