New York – Takashi Murakami: “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow” at Gagosian Gallery Through January 17th, 2014

December 12th, 2014

Takashi Murakami In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed

The recent work of Takashi Murakami is firmly embedded in the critical state of Japan in the 21st Century, a sense of the ecological peril that the country has attempted to deal with since the disasters of Fukushima several months ago.  Taking this cataclysmic event as the jumping-off point for much of his recent work, the artist has taken his signature style, replete with smirking characters, huge swaths of psychedelic color, and the delicate iconography of classical Japanese art, applying it to a new series of works on view through January at Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea exhibition space.

Takashi Murakami In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed

Murakami’s recent work here continues his interest in the spiritual and visual landscape of ancient Japan, borrowing particularly from the work of Kano Kazunobu, a Japanese painter who utilized images of the 500 Buddhist Arhats to offer a promise of peace and a return to stasis following the Asei Edo Earthquake of 1855.  Here, however, Murakami bends the arhats into a twisted, perverse interpretation, all cracked teeth and comically bent backs, an approach that offers little in the way of spiritual respite.  The parallel following the the Fukushima meltdown is unavoidable.

Takashi Murakami In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed

Takashi Murakami In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed

These allusions to classical Japan continue throughout, especially in one room, where the artist has created Bakuramon, a meticulously realized version of a sanmon, or sacred gate, which viewers can pass through, viewing the work’s architecture and detail.  Nearby, a pair of karajishi, the mythic guards to Japanese Buddhist temples, stand watch, warped through the artist’s trademark style.

Takashi Murakami, Bakuramon (2014), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, Bakuramon (2014), via Art Observed

Takashi Murakami In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed 1
Takashi Murakami, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed

But the question remains whether or not Murakami’s work manages to go beyond aesthetically softening the blow of one of the world’s most egregious environmental disasters to date.  Updating the Arhats and spiritual guides to the contemporary era as decaying, polluted bodies is a potent stylistic choice, but the artist’s grinning faces and manga-inflected poses make a deeper read somewhat more complicated.  This confusion over intentions makes the subject matter all the more prominent, and forces the viewer into a more nuanced perspective.  If an artist has spent his career forming this certain stylistic oeuvre, how far outside their scope can they step, and if they seek a certain degree of political outspokenness, how much of their past practice comes packaged into their new work?

Takashi Murakami In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (Installation View), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed

Less politically charged are a selection of Murakami’s sculptures on view at the exhibition, large-scale pieces that serve as a fitting counterpoint to his wall-mounted works, and which offer a strong contrast by subject matter.  Caricatures of the artist rendered in gold and silver are mounted in one room, while in another, a massive, swirling gold monument plays off against his queasily swirling paintings.  In fact, the sheer reflective glitz of the sculpture offers a moment of pause in itself, a centering force that unifies the works on view quite well.

Takashi Murakami, Fluctuations in Space-Time (2014), via Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, Fluctuations in Space-Time (2014), via Art Observed

Murakami’s exhibition is remarkably realized here, spanning his full range of techniques and media, while allowing him to address a common subject matter that still weighs on the conscience, and future, of his homeland.

Takashi Murakami, Invoking the Vitality of a Universe Beyond Imagination (2014), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, Invoking the Vitality of a Universe Beyond Imagination (2014), via Ellen Burke for Art Observed

Takashi Murakami, The Golden Age: Kōrin—Kansei (2014), via Art Observed
Takashi Murakami, The Golden Age: Kōrin—Kansei (2014), via Art Observed

— D. Creahan

Read more:
“In a New Show, Takashi Murakami Visits the Dark Side” [NYT]
“Takashi Murakami review: a welcome return to a more disturbing style” [The Guardian]
“Takashi Murakami Brings His Darker Works to New York” [WSJ]
“Takashi Murakami Gives a Tour of His Nuclear-Meltdown Work” [New York Magazine]
“A mournful Takashi Murakami shows his spiritual side at Gagosian Gallery, New York” [Wallpaper]