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Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics: Collaboration with Nobuo Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics

Collaboration with Nobuo Tsuji and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Boston, Massachusetts

October 18, 2017-April 1, 2018

The wave of interdisciplinary research and collaboration has spread widely, and has clearly reached the world of contemporary art. The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) recently presented a remarkable exhibition that combined the efforts of contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, art historian Nobuo Tsuji, and museum curator Anne Nishimura Morse. This unique collaborative project resulted from ongoing conversations between the artist, scholar, and curator over several years. Anchored by thirteen of Murakami's artworks, the exhibition also highlighted traditional Japanese paintings and sculptures from the MFA collection that had been selected by the three partners and included documentation of previous collaborations between Murakami and Tsuji. The traditional Japanese artworks were juxtaposed with works by Murakami throughout the exhibition spaces, which were organized by six themes entitled Superflat, Animation, Kazari, Asobi, Religiosity, and Eccentricity. This organization suggested that these themes should be understood as relevant both to the contemporary artworks of Takashi Murakami and to Japanese arts of the tenth to late-nineteenth centuries, helping to melt away boundaries between distinct eras, and between high and low arts. Through such rethinking of categories and innovative collaborative development, this exhibition also proved the value of an interdisciplinary approach to curation.

The entrance of the exhibition hall opened the space by dramatically introducing Murakami's most recent work, a large mural called Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind (2017), which is inspired by Soga Shohaku's identically titled Transcendent Attacking a Whirlwind (about 1764). Shohaku's ink and gold painting, formatted as a six-panel folding screen, was reinterpreted by Murakami in acrylic and metal leaf on canvas, although the completed work retains the traditional panel structure. The dynamic brushstrokes Shohaku used to amplify the movements of individual figures are reimagined with a Ben-Day dot patterned background and vibrant colors. This contemporary reinterpretation of a monochrome, Edo-period ink painting successfully combines the antique with the manga style, demolishing distinctions between high and low through the Superflat mode. Murakami's interpretation of Japanese traditional arts also reflects a careful balancing of the more exoteric and consumer-friendly with the esoteric and connoisseur-friendly, foreshadowing the theme of the exhibition's subtitle, "lineage of eccentrics."

The Superflat theme naturally transitioned to the second theme, animation. This section opened with the large, rectangular Impossible Aim (1994), which is dominated by silver leaf on the surface and contains two small cartoonish characters created by Murakami at the bottom corners. A figure known as Mr. DOB, on the left, has just released an arrow, and another Mr. DOB, on the right, runs away from the flying arrow coming toward him. A vast empty space between these two characters creates a distance in time as well, allowing audiences to imagine their own versions of the story of these two Mr. DOBs. The animation of these characters is not achieved by seeing multiple frames but rather through imagination in the emptiness between them. Murakami's Impossible Aim was well matched with the thirteenth-century, Kamakura-period emaki (hand scroll painting) Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace displayed nearby. This scroll painting captures a political conflict between an aristocratic ruler and a military government, delivering the story of the kidnapping of Emperor Go-Shirakawa by Minamoto no Yoshitomo. Thin lines around the wheels of chariots escaping this violent scene convey their urgent motion, giving a sense of animation to this ink painting that is similar to the functioning of the vast silver area in the nearby image of Mr. DOB. Both paintings also convey scenes of specific violence, with the thirteenth-century scroll showing both literal violence and dynamic movement of the brush in flames and smoke. In addition, Murakami's work highlights the aesthetic of negative space so often seen in older Japanese paintings. The evocative juxtaposition of Impossible Aim with Night Attach on the Sanjo Palace further diminished the boundaries between contemporary and antique, popular and obscure, and avant-garde and mass arts.

The space of the third theme, Kazari (decorative), opened with Murakami's Kawaii-vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden) (2008) (fig. 1), a work that extended from the wall onto the floor and surrounding surfaces, giving the viewer the impression of walking into a fantasy or virtual anime world. The entire floor was filled with hundreds of smiling flowers in vivid polychrome. Traversing these, one confronted a gold-leaf panel decorated with even more smiling flowers. Ceiling lights reflected on the floor and wall panel to give audiences a disorienting, dreamlike experience. The conventional museum gallery was transformed into an amusing and capricious space in which visitors were encouraged to take selfies and share photos on social media (fig. 2). This extraordinary experience fit with the concept of kazari not only in literally containing decorative elements but also in creating a new, fantastic effect for visitors within a decorated space. This feeling was similarly evoked by the Edo period byobu (screen painting) with which it was juxtaposed, the seventeenth-century Poppies by Tawaraya Sotatsu and his school (fig. 3). This painting was used not only to decorate a specific space but also to create the experience of seeing the sophisticated beauty of poppies. Gold leaf added to the background emancipates the beauty of poppies from the flat surface of the screen. Viewers felt as if they were examining real poppies and, perhaps overwhelmed by the motif, might even have imagined the scent of flowers.

Smoothly transitioning again, the exhibition next took up the theme of asobi (playfulness). This was represented by Murakami's Lots, Lots of Kaikai and Kiki (2009) and Soga Shohaku's Asahina in a Tug of War with a Demon (c. 1763-64). Visually, the characters of Kaikai (wearing rabbit ears) and Kiki (created after Murakami's interaction with an intellectually-challenged child) show sharp fangs and whimsical facial features in vivid pink, red and white. (The term kaikaikiki can be translated as "dangerous yet appealing.") Murakami's depictions of these figures, after which he named his company, precisely target the boundary between charming and vicious. This combination of the dangerous and the appealing may be initially understood as a playful visual juxtaposition. However, in echoing the exhibition's erasure of the boundary between the low and high arts, it more deeply suggests the non-dualistic modes of cognition inherent in a postmodern society--a denial of black and white distinctions.

This idea also related to Murakami's Oval Buddha Silver (2008-11), displayed under the theme of religiosity and placed next to an eleventh century sculpture of the historical Buddha. Murakami introduces two faces of the Buddha in his sterling silver sculpture: a calm and tranquil face on one side and a vicious face with open mouth and sharp fangs on the other. These two faces might represent a dichotomous art world divided between intellectual and mass art, or the unification of such oppositions axiomatic in postmodern Japanese art.

One final highlight of the exhibition was Murakami's large acrylic panel painting Dragon in Clouds--Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo told me, "Why don't you paint something yourself for once?" (2010), which was juxtaposed with Shohaku's Dragon in Clouds (1763), a fusuma (sliding door painting) from the Edo period. Murakami took only 24 hours to complete this almost seven-meterlong painting, which he based on the traditional artwork but to which he added spontaneous movements and quick brushstrokes reminiscent of action painting. The section of the exhibition in which this object was displayed, focusing on the theme of eccentrics, also highlighted connections between Murakami and idiosyncratic artists of the past.

The six themes highlighted by this exhibition presented a sweeping approach to Japanese art in the traditional, postmodern, and contemporary periods. One could quite easily organize an entire textbook on Japanese art based on these themes, but this show offered a perfect two-hour exploration, appropriate for general audiences and experts alike. The exhibition also surveyed the ways in which Murakami himself has been inspired by the history of Japanese art and how he reinterprets these objects, offering even the most unfamiliar audience an excellent introduction to the visual arts of Japan and their larger historical relevance. Challenging the staid intellectual approach, this collaborative exhibit provided a glimpse of how an individual might approach Japanese art both didactically and personally, with both insight and whimsy.

Yumi Park Huntington

Framingham State University

Caption: Figure 1, left. Installation view of Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, October 18, 2017-April 1, 2018 with Murakami's Kawaii-vacances (Summer Vacation in the Kingdom of the Golden), 2008, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas mounted on aluminum frame, 9 ft. 10 1/8 in. x 29 ft. 6 3/8 in. x 2 in. (300 x 900 x 5.1 cm) at center. (Photo: author)

Caption: Figure 2, above. Exhibition wall text, Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, October 18, 2017-April 1, 2018. (Photo: author)

Caption: Figure 3, above. School of Tawaraya Sotatsu, Poppies, 17th century, ink and color on gold-leafed paper, 66 1/2 x 147 in. (168.9 x 373.4 cm). Gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Photo: author)
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Author:Huntington, Yumi Park
Publication:Art Inquiries
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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