It feels like it has been rainy and grey on the West Coast for weeks, so to walk by the Vancouver Art Gallery right now is to receive a badly needed hit of colour and light. The smiley-face flowers beckoning from the windows of the building and the giant octopus-inspired murals on the grand façade facing busy Georgia Street are an invitation to step out of the rain, in every way.
And once inside, wow. Entering the Takashi Murakami exhibition The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg is like bathing in brilliance; the bold and complicated beauty of the superstar Japanese artist's work is exactly the thing to jolt you out of your midwinter funk; an antidote to the blahs – or, if things are going well in your world, a complement to the la-la-las. Yet for all its perky dazzle, the show has its dark moments, equally exciting on the eyeballs.
The show opens in Vancouver this weekend, after breaking attendance records at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. It's easy to see why it was such a hit. I had barely left the VAG before I felt like returning.
Mr. Murakami is a star who straddles the worlds of contemporary and commercial art. His success and influence reach far beyond the visual-art world. He has collaborated with hip-hop stars Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, and designed for the fashion and beauty industry with Louis Vuitton, Issey Miyake and Shu Uemura. He draws from influences that include pop art, manga and traditional Japanese painting, Nihonga – in which he earned his PhD. He is the founder of the art production and management company Kaikai Kiki. His curiosity seems endless; his current research obsession is bitcoin.
His first retrospective to be shown in Canada is a stunner that lives up to the hype from the moment you enter the rotunda. It is installed with Mr. Murakami's octopus- and skull-themed wallpaper, and rising from the centre, an ominous five-metre-high waterfall sculpture splattered with graffiti messages such as "Seek & Destroy" and "Mad Sucky Wuz Here."
The exhibition's work dates back to 1982: early dark monochromatic and even textured paintings that differ wildly from the anime/manga/graphic-design-inspired Superflat work for which he became famous. This theory suggests a world – postwar Japan – where the lines between high art and low culture are blurred; flattened metaphorically by the atomic bomb and brightened by a saccharine consumer culture (think Hello Kitty).
The Kanye Bear (2009) is a surefire selfie magnet in a sea of photo opportunities; another is the wall of Flowers, flowers, flowers (2010) across the way.
One darkened gallery is a gasp fest; you could spend all day in front of just one of the three large-scale murals in this room: 100 Arhats (2013), 69 Arhats Beneath the Bodhi Tree (2013) and Isle of the Dead (2014), which address Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami. (An Arhat can be defined as an enlightened one in Buddhism.) Zoom in to intricate details such as rainbow pupils, multicoloured pine-needle eyebrows and skeletal earrings. Keeping watch over the room are two enormous sculptures, Embodiment of "Um" (2014) and Embodiment of "A" (2014): grotesque yet irresistible monster figures wielding spiked clubs. Kids are going to love this (or have nightmares).
The show also features work created for Vancouver, including three paintings so new they're not even finished.
"I am writing these sentences to express my apology because I wasn't able to complete my paintings," the self-deprecating wall label reads. "My apology is addressed to you, the viewers who are visiting the Vancouver Art Gallery and are looking at this painting right now. I am truly sorry for exhibiting unfinished works. I have to also confess that this is not the first time I am exposing my work uncompleted to the museum audience. In fact, I'm a repeat offender."
Mr. Murakami, who turned 56 on Thursday, is on a "boom" as he calls it, with multiple museum shows, wild demand and critical success. In addition to Chicago and Vancouver, Octopus will also travel to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas. He is also in exhibitions currently at the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, the Pompidou-Metz in France and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
"That's why I'm [trying] very hard – no sleeping, no rest," he said during an interview as installation was nearly complete ahead of the Vancouver opening. "But after the booming is gone … that is my big, big fear."
He is with a translator (whose services he mostly chooses not to use; he prefers to answer the questions himself in English) and wearing a get-up of his own design: white Nike Air Jordans (a birthday gift from DJ/designer Virgil Abloh, according to Mr. Murakami's Instagram), turquoise tights, pink bow tie and baggy octopus-inspired shorts, blazer and most prominently, novelty-sized hat, its tentacles curling up to frame his face. It's warm inside and we're not taking photos, so I suggest he remove some of the costume so that he can be more comfortable.
"Then I would be naked," he told me.
Much of what Mr. Murakami does is performance – there was an octopus-like mascot at Thursday's media preview, trailing around behind the artist and posing for photos.
Mr. Murakami clothes himself in a wacky persona, but there is a shrewdness to it. He credits the influence of Takeshi Kitano, filmmaker, actor and comedian, who wears wild costumes but makes serious work that can have a powerful blindsiding impact on the audience. "This distance … is very important," Mr. Murakami says.
He is a mass of contradictions – funny answers to serious questions, lighthearted responses to dark times. But not always. As the show's curator, the Chicago museum's Michael Darling, writes in his catalogue essay, "the artist resists pat explanations of his work."
Hearing the exhibition's title, I wondered whether it was a comment on the state of the world – the United States specifically,
with tentacles reaching every which way but foolishly eating its own leg (electing Donald Trump), a leg which will ultimately regenerate? Is this a message of hope for America and the world?
No, Mr. Murakami corrects me. "This is my self-portrait. So I have no talent," he responds. "Sometimes I have no time, I have to remake many [of] my very popular pieces, so that moment was of great shame. I make it again and again, the same thing. A feeling [like] I'm eating myself. Very embarrassing."
At the media preview, we were told this is a Japanese expression that doesn't exist in English, referring to a dire situation that requires you to sacrifice something of yourself. You might get diminished, but you survive. Mr. Murakami, with so many demands on him, feels he doesn't have what it takes to create everything from scratch – so he recycles ideas, motifs. He says his creative process is fuelled by a certain doom.
Could the great Takashi Murakami really use self-doubt as the theme for this major exhibition? And does he actually feel that level of insecurity?
"Oh yes. I cannot believe [in] my talent. … When my boom stops okay, I change my business," he says in the interview, describing a scenario where he is bankrupt and running a coffee shop. "So I'm sitting in front of the café, and 'hey, hello, you remember my name is Takashi Murakami. … Go ahead, two dollars [for a] coffee. Thank you.'"
Perhaps this has something to do with how he is received in Japan, or at least how he perceives it. "In Japan, my position is superbad. Kind of everybody hates me." He is talking about critical approval; his fame and commercial success are without question.
I bring up the 2009-10 Tate Modern exhibition Pop Life: Art in a Material World, which also included work from Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. According to Sarah Thornton's book 33 Artists in 3 Acts, the show was originally titled Sold Out – but someone objected.
Mr. Murakami may be viewed by some as a sell out – handbags, album covers, makeup cases – and he has been criticized for his studio system (he is not the only artist to employ others to help make his work; and in the VAG show, he offers credit, listing their names). But at the beginning of his career, he was poor – there was a point when he paid assistants in food and beer. He now says he channels much of the profits into more art, in particular his film work. He is working on a sequel to his 2013 feature, Jellyfish Eyes.
At the media preview, he was asked whether he feels artists have a responsibility to use their art to convey a political message. He responded that he didn't think artists have that kind of power, but rather, they can create a document for the future. He cited Goya's war paintings as an example.
He had provided a somewhat different answer the day before, when I asked him a similar question.
"I am not a political artist," he said. "My target is children." This is something he realized during the seminal Superflat exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2001 (where he first met VAG director Kathleen Bartels, who was at MOCA at the time). On family nights, he saw the joy children took in his work. "I found my market, my sweet spot. Okay, this is my zone – for the kids."
In Jellyfish Eyes, the children and adults are at odds, but it's the kids who are correct. "The message is please don't believe the adult. Please believe yourself, children, kids. You are right. The world is complicated, the world is stupid, but you're right," he says. "So this is kind of my political message." But then, in the same breath, he adds that he can't really offer a serious political message and, as evidence, gestures toward his octopus suit.
This work is not completely apolitical. There are skulls, apocalyptic mushrooms and other allusions to nuclear devastation.
But perhaps eschewing overt politics in your art – as Mr. Murakami says he does – is a political act in itself. Maybe providing people with a refuge of colour and warmth is also a way to message outrage. Or, at the very least, a way to make the world seem like a better place for an hour or two.
Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg is at the Vancouver Art Gallery Feb. 3-May 6.