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Toying With Catastrophe
Takashi Murakami Coats the Toxic Fruit of Consumer Culture With Bold, Playful Imagery

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

NEW YORK

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.

While looking at a Murakami painting, one mother said to another, "I'd love to make a version of this. You could put it up in your room." The picture in question, 20 feet wide and boldly colorful, is titled "Tan Tan Bo Puking." On close inspection, it depicts something that looks like a house-size, multi-eyed space alien dripping vomit from its fangs, while one of its tentacles shakes a skull-covered scepter. A nearby wall text helpfully translates the Japanese of one of the picture's thought balloons, whose less noxious phrases include: "Vomiting uncontrollably, together with the stench of my breath, my phlegm curdles. As my tongue flays to pieces, my headache intensifies, and my eyes have become blind."

Yet that mother's happy take on the picture still wasn't absurd. The painting has the feel of something joyful, so long as you don't notice what that feel is hiding. After all, just seeing thought balloons at all is more likely to make you think comedy than horror.

Murakami-designed wallpaper has the same comforting effect. The version that lines a staircase in the Brooklyn show at first seems decorative and lighthearted, like something for sale at Ikea. It takes a certain force of will to dig beyond that look and notice that its biomorphic pattern is built out of giant melting skulls and huge cellular forms.

Consumer cuteness reigns supreme in Murakami's art. A fiberglass figure named "Kiki" wears a toddler's pink sleeper, so that we barely notice that it is a devil with three eyes. With their multiple pupils, those eyes also look like virus-infected cells.

A series of fake commercials, complete with catchy jingles, depicts the sexual confusion of "Inochi," an alien boy who looks like E.T. He's shown falling in love with a junior high classmate on Earth, and suffering all kinds of embarrassment and hurt. The videos -- they could be selling toys, or maybe a children's show or drink -- manage to make Inochi's repeated humiliations feel like the trials of a silly pet. Their ultra-slick commercial packaging makes the grotesque seem entirely innocuous.

Again and again, Murakami's art captures the overwhelming, numbing power of our consumer culture. It shows how almost any subject can be given the feel of desirable merchandise, so long as it has been skillfully translated into the language of consumption.

A lot of art puts our world under a microscope, giving it to us in a clinical perspective. Murakami's doesn't have that kind of cool remove. Instead, it functions more like a cell culture, encouraging the overgrowth of something virulent and dangerous to bring it into view. It could even be that Murakami's work is at once the microbe and the dish it's growing in: It's as infected by consumption as any other product, but it also lets us grasp how that infection works.

Of course, this makes Murakami's retrospective deeply unsettling. It doesn't preach against consumerism, or hold out any kind of hope that its attraction can be overcome. Quite the opposite. It demonstrates that all resistance is futile. Or rather, it shows the near-total disappearance of resistance in the face of pretty colors and reassuring product design.

The retrospective shows how even the supposedly "pure" world of fine art isn't immune to the consumer bug. At its very start, this not-for-profit museum exhibition lists four of Murakami's commercial dealers as sponsors. That's a salute to the market that isn't common. (Many museums, including the Hirshhorn in Washington, forbid such sponsorships.)

Further on, halfway through the show, the artist has installed a Louis Vuitton shop, all bright white and chrome. Stop there for a minute and you can buy the luxury goods he has designed with the French firm.

Murakami's business partner is perfectly suited to this show's artistic ends. A Vuitton bag, after all, is purified commodity. No one would argue that it is an unusually well made or brilliantly designed purse. Plenty of other bags, including high-end counterfeits, are just about as good. A certified Vuitton original is so very desirable simply because we've all decided, almost arbitrarily, that it is something we're supposed to want.

A Murakami-Vuitton bag, on sale in a museum and also one of its exhibits, becomes an artwork that is all about such urges and their arbitrariness.

Once staged in a venerable museum, Murakami's art about consumerism becomes more powerful than simple merchandise could ever be.

The museum setting also disables his viewers' defenses so that his artworks can creep under them. Where a parent might prevent a kid from buying a doll of a little girl skipping over her own milk, its threat is minimized once it's labeled art. That's because great art is supposed to purify even the naughtiest imagery. (Old Master pictures that were once erotica now count as artful nudes.) And also because, at heart, we all know that fine art, hived off in the remote world of museum culture, no longer has much power to affect our daily lives.

Unless its power is to help a product sell. Murakami's art uses the prestige of the museum to help move merchandise. Would Vuitton be as keen to partner with Murakami if he weren't curator-approved? Would his mass-produced toys and mouse pads sell as well, or for as much, if they didn't also have the sheen of art?

Murakami profits from the way his work lives halfway between fine art and consumer goods. But that makes the work more effective, not less. In taking in his art, we don't just get to watch a tidy picture of consumerism as it does its dirty work. We end up wading in the muck.

© Murakami is on display through July 13 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Call 718-638-5000 or visit http://www.brooklynmuseum.org.

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