Toying With Catastrophe

"DOB in the Strange Forest" (1999). Cartoon imagery, such as large, infantile eyes, is noticeable in Murakami's work.
"DOB in the Strange Forest" (1999). Cartoon imagery, such as large, infantile eyes, is noticeable in Murakami's work. (By Kazuo Fukunaga, Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd./brooklyn Museum Via Bloomberg News)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008


Other animals have done it.

African elephants have been known to flatten the same forests they depend on for survival.

The rabbits of Laysan Island in Hawaii once ate themselves and a dozen other species to extinction.

Our species could prove self-destructive, too. All it might take is 6 billion of us demanding suburban America's toys.

The work of Takashi Murakami, Japan's most famous artist, paints a convincing picture of the modern consumer as lemming. We glimpse the cliff ahead but can't resist its pull. That vision makes "© Murakami," the massive retrospective organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and now at the Brooklyn Museum, one of the most gripping shows in years.

It is also one of the most caustic. Its work outdoes Goya in revealing our folly, though it puts on a lighthearted air. That makes it even more chilling.

Murakami's art is built around the cheery look and feel of consumer products and pop culture. Almost all of his paintings and sculptures are colored and styled like Saturday morning cartoons. Absurdly saturated reds and greens are paired with the occasional baby-blanket blue or pink.

The imagery in most of Murakami's work also derives from cartoons and toys: His characters have the huge, infantile eyes of Prince Planet; his ever-present mushrooms come straight out of Smurfville. And yet the cheeriness turns out to be camouflage. Look longer, and the mushrooms evoke atomic clouds, poisonous growths and diseased phalluses. The giant eyes on Murakami's "heroes" have mutated to have multiple pupils and eyelashes that look like fangs -- which many of his figures also have protruding from their mouths.

Or take a fiberglass sculpture of a figure Murakami has dubbed "Hiropon." (Many of his characters are given names. They also reappear in many different media, the way Mattel's "Barbie" character turns up as an image on a lunchbox, as a toy in her dream home and in motion on children's TV.) The statue depicts the naked body of a pre-pubescent girl, with narrow hips and skinny arms and legs. Except that this girl has been enlarged to the height of an adult. And she's got a porn queen's DDD-cup breasts. And she's squeezing her own distended nipples, expressing mother's milk into an arc of white that sweeps above her head to form a skipping rope.

Name one thing that isn't wrong with this image of an over-fertile little girl. And yet, thanks to Murakami's consumer-product stylings, it's hard to really feel dismay. Everything about the piece says "toy" rather than "victim." Its sunny colors and doll-like contours lead our eyes to see it as a little girl who's skipping rope before we ever register it as a teenage stripper mom. On a recent Friday morning in Brooklyn, parents and toddlers made up much of the audience for Hiropon. Their mood was what it might have been inside a Toys R Us.

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