Gimme Mori

Left: Artists Kentaro Shimura and Yuka Shimura of the SHIMURAbros. Right: Artist Takashi Murakami at the Mori Art Museum. (All photos: Cristina Sanchez-Kozyreva)

UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES the Tokyo art world favors discretion over the spotlight. But it’s not every day that Takashi Murakami opens a show like “The 500 Arhats” at the Mori Art Museum, the artist’s first solo exhibition in Tokyo in fourteen years and the Japanese debut of his titular opus, a three-hundred-foot-long painting first shown in Qatar in 2012. Could an enduring global phenomenon like Murakami pull the same weight at home as he does abroad? we wondered. The stakes seemed high and the show galvanized an unusually ebullient art week that happened to begin with the second edition of the annual Terrada Art Awards.

The awards—organized by a reputable warehouse seeking to become a reputable art incubator—took place the Wednesday before last on the sleek Tennozu Island, a former Edo-era battery post in Tokyo Bay. “I like short speeches,” promised Terrada CEO Yoshihisa Nakano at a boutique ceremony featuring petits fours, giving thanks and promptly raising his champagne with a sharp “Ganbei!” “Our work shines by itself; therefore, we will wear shades,” announced brother-sister artist duo Kentaro and Yuka Shimura of the SHIMURAbros before donning sunglasses and accepting the ¥5 million grand prize. They weren’t the only ones doing their best to stand out in the crowd. “Do you think he’s handsome?” asked a staff member, pointing at actor Iseya Yusuke, there promoting his environmental-sustainability initiative, the Rebirth Project. Her colleague nodded in agreement.

Left: Dealers Atsuko Ninagawa and Yukari Hagiwara. Right: Dealer Shugo Satani and writer Andrew Maerkle.

At dinner on Thursday, dealer Shugo Satani, who was forced to move his gallery three times because of development projects—the latest related to the upcoming Olympic games—talked about his most recent setback, prompted by the discovery of an old Samurai house on the construction site. While he wades through bureaucratic red tape, collector Seiichi Yoshino has lent him a glass-walled space next to his own Capsule gallery in which to exhibit on Saturdays and Sundays—the appropriately named ShugoArts Weekend Gallery. I also caught up with dealer Atsuko Ninagawa, on her way to Art Taipei, and her husband, writer Andrew Maerkle, who told me about his current project with Koki Tanaka, the artist who represented Japan at the 2013 Venice Biennale, scheduled to launch in February at the Art Tower Mito complex.

The next afternoon I entered the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills and made my way to the namesake museum on the fifty-third floor. Murakami’s massive exhibition was opening with more than thirty new works, his already-storied painting the lodestar. One of the largest in the world, it was made as a gesture of thanks to Qatar after the nation donated $100 million to Japan for disaster relief following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. According to curator Miki Akiko, the artist was reticent about exhibiting the work at every turn, but she persisted. “When, one month prior to the exhibition, he said ‘no’ again, he finally made me doubt too,” she shared with the audience, who giggled at the artist’s stage fright. Fumio Nanjo, the Mori’s director, meanwhile called it history in the making, comparing The 500 Arhats to Picasso’s Guernica.

The painting’s water-sanded surfaces are stunning, blending colorful billboard aesthetics, art-history references, self-portraits, peacocks and dragons, traditional Japanese iconography and mythological characters of Murakami’s own invention. Performers dressed as manga-Arhats danced around the guests. Building from a years-long dialogue with art historian Nobuo Tsuji, memorialized in their E’awase—an old Japanese tradition, like a sing-off with visuals—published in the magazine Geijutsu Shincho, Murakami’s Japanese artistic lineage seemed secured. As if embodying this achievement, the artist changed during the vernissage from a silver suit to an Arhat costume with a mask of his own face split in two.

Left: Artists Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami at the Ebisu Yokosho afterparty. Right: Collector Budi Tek and Michelle Tek.

From the opening we went to Ebisu, where we stopped at Japanese Ice Ouca to sample postprandial cherry blossom and soy ice cream before heading down the street to the afterparty. As Brad Plum of Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki explained, they had reserved the entirety of Ebisu Yokocho, a popular covered market now joyfully occupied by large groups of dancers, staff, and VIPs, feasting and showing off their costumes amid the stalls. After a quick pass through the crowd, I followed curator Tobias Berger of Hong Kong’s Central Police Station outside for some air, eventually settling in at the party’s karaoke room. There, collector Budi Tek crooned through Chinese tunes while art adviser Viola Raikhel-Bolot revived her phone with his charger. “I am literally attached to this man,” she said with a smile. After many sake-inspired Beatles songs, I made my way toward the exit, bumping into Gagosian’s Nick Simunovic at another stall on the way. He pointed me toward Yoshitomo Nara and Murakami—who by then had changed into a massive plush flower costume. We had a joyful photo session with thumbs-ups and serious noodle posing before I finally dragged myself into a taxi.

Saturday was more studious, as I did some gallery-hopping around Roppongi. At Ota Fine Arts, Chinese artist Chen Wei showed mesmerizing photographs of empty nightscapes intensified by electric light, while a group show at Hiromiyoshii Roppongi elegantly mixed antique terra-cotta figures with Styrofoam cups installed by Tom Friedman. In Ginza I dropped by Shiseido Gallery, where Tsuyoshi Ozawa showed a World War II–era illustrated narrative of a Japanese painter posted in Indonesia, and took a long look at Jiang-Hong Chen’s fluid landscapes at Galerie Taménaga. Blum & Poe’s Harajuku space featured Yoshitomo Nara’s pale waifs inhabiting round fiber canvases, while at Taka Ishii, Mario García Torres tackled the Anthropocene. And in case I hadn’t had my fill of Murakami, I swung by Kaikai Kiki to catch the artist’s Ensō series of circular brushstrokes depicting his spiritual quest after the Tōhoku quake.

For my final stop, I visited the studio of artist collective Chim ↑ Pom, located in a prewar house in Koenji, the epicenter of Japan’s punk scene. Member Ushiro Ryuta led me upstairs to survey some pictures on a table, where a taxidermied rodent, painted yellow to resemble the Pokémon character Pikachu, stared at me from beneath a glass box. “What started as some postclubbing fun came to full realization in 2011,” he said, describing the evolution of the group’s iconic Super Rats project, started in 2006. “After the earthquake it became a metaphor for Japanese strength and the potential for adaptation. Japanese, just like Tokyo’s rats, can grow resistant to chemicals.” Resistance matched with levity—what fertile ground for a vibrant art scene.

Left: Members of artist collective Chim ↑ Pom in their studio. Right: Tobias Berger, head of art for the Central Police Station Hong Kong, and advisor Marleen Molenaar.

Left: Terrada CEO Yoshihisa Nakano and actor Yūsuke Iseya. Right: Dealer Elisa Uematsu and artist Mario García Torres at Taka Ishii gallery.

Left: Art Fair Tokyo's executive producer Kish Naohiko. Right: Vernissage dancers at the afterparty at Ebisu Yokocho.

Left: Ota Fine Arts's Sakura Shimizu. Right: Dealers Emmanuel Perrotin and Etsuko Nakajima with curator Michael Darling.

Left: Architect Kentaro Ishida and SCAI The Bathouse's Yurika Shiraishi. Right: Art Basel's Natane Takeda and Adeline Ooi.

Left: Artist Jean-Michel Othoniel and art advisor Viola Raikhel-Bolot. Right: Eri Ishikawa from Tomio Koyama gallery in front of Tomoko Nagai's work.

Left: Artist Masaya Tani. Right: Collectors Asako Oketa and Shunji Oketa.

Left: Mori Art Museum's Fumio Nanjo, art historian Nobuo Tsuji, Takashi Murakami, and curator Miki Akiko. Right: Curator Yayoi Kojima.