Tokyo

Takashi Murakami, The 500 Arhats, 2012, acrylic on canvas mounted on board. Installation view. From the White Tiger panel.

Takashi Murakami, The 500 Arhats, 2012, acrylic on canvas mounted on board. Installation view. From the White Tiger panel.

Takashi Murakami

Mori Art Museum

Takashi Murakami, The 500 Arhats, 2012, acrylic on canvas mounted on board. Installation view. From the White Tiger panel.

IT’S NO SECRET THAT, from the beginning, Takashi Murakami harbored ambitions to become a superstar in the global art scene. And, of course, he achieved this goal in short order: In 2005, Murakami completed his Superflat trilogy—begun in 2000 with “Superflat” and followed by “Coloriage” in 2002—with “Little Boy,” exhibited at the Japan Society in New York. The show was succeeded by a 2007 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which subsequently toured the world, and, three years later, by “Murakami Versailles.” What is left for him to accomplish? The largest painting in history, maybe? Indeed, “Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats,” the artist’s first major solo show in Japan in fourteen years, presents four murals that cumulatively span nearly 330 feet in length, depicting five hundred enlightened disciples of Buddha (the exhibition’s eponymous arhats).

The 500 Arhats, a suite of four paintings conceived for Murakami’s 2012 retrospective, “Murakami—Ego,” in Doha, Qatar, was still in progress when it was first shown. This exhibition marks the first presentation of the finished work. The completed wall-spanning murals featuring four sacred animals, one per panel—Blue Dragon, White Tiger, Black Tortoise, and Vermilion Bird, each nearly ten feet high and roughly eighty-two feet wide—offer a dazzling experience and signal a high point in Murakami’s career. The spectacle of this monumental work is unprecedented—with its firm, considered composition and impeccably crafted surface strewn with mesmerizing patterns and colors, and the figures of the five hundred arhats, each of whom is designed as a specific character. Surrounding these figures are images of surging waves, raging blazes, and distant galaxies, which seem to signify the ruthlessness of nature in contrast to the benevolence of the arhats—perhaps a reference to the nuclear crisis and tsunami caused by the great 2011 East Japan earthquake, as Noi Sawaragi, an art critic and longtime champion of Murakami’s, observed via Twitter after he first saw the work in Doha.

To underscore the magnitude of Murakami’s achievement, the exhibition includes a glass kiosk that presents numerous instructions, research materials, and color samples, demonstrating the exhaustive art-historical and technical research conducted by Murakami’s studio. A slide show further documents the meticulous and laborious execution of the four paintings, which were fabricated by more than two hundred assistants over the course of eight months. While the artist has previously invoked the model of Warhol, whose Factory employed a cast of aspiring artists and eccentrics to produce works that Warhol himself nevertheless “authored,” Murakami now seems to be emulating the Japanese master Kanō Eitoku, who established a workshop system in the sixteenth century. Like Eitoku, Murakami employs a massive and highly regimented team of artisans, as if to reinforce historical models of collective production rather than to question or critique the singular authorship of Western modernism, as Warhol did. Indeed, his atelier takes its name, Kaikai Kiki (which translates to “strange but intriguing”), from a description of Eitoku’s work. Quixotic as it might seem, Murakami has re-created the traditional studio system, albeit on a much bigger scale, in twenty-first-century Japan.

The 500 Arhats, presented alongside documentation of the work’s production, has convinced a number of Japanese viewers of Murakami’s artistic virtue, as it affirms the seriousness of his project by means of the extensive research it required. Indeed, it seems that one of the purposes of this exhibition is to alleviate the disparity between Murakami’s international reputation and the artist’s reception at home. Despite his global success and media stardom, Murakami has been eyed with skepticism in the Japanese art world, where he is often reproached for his commercialist Orientalism and slick appropriation of otaku culture. The artist was initially reluctant to stage this show because he was so disheartened by his home country’s treatment of him. (Murakami continues to retweet criticism of the show, as an ostensibly self-abusive gesture.) But the exhibition, which presents forty works by the artist including The 500 Arhats, all exhibited for the first time in Japan (and twenty-nine of which have been newly produced for this occasion), is clearly designed to reset his reputation in his native country.

Most of the works in the first gallery deliver the expected Murakami—hyperintricate surfaces festooned with foreigner-friendly Oriental motifs, such as the series “Ensō” (Circle), 2015–, and “Daruma,” 2007– (named for the founder of Zen Buddhism) series, reminiscent of well-marketed products for export that were popular in Japan’s Meiji era. However, these references to historical Japanese art also support an image of Murakami as a contemporary artist who is past his anime and kawaii phase. Evidence of this transition is found in a small adjacent side gallery, which reveals a more thoughtful dialogue, conducted via the project Nippon E’awase (Japan Picture Contest), 2009–11, produced in collaboration with Nobuo Tsuji, a highly respected historian of Japanese art.

Many will agree that this rather quiet section is the most rewarding part of the exhibition. It showcases the two-person endeavor, serialized in the art monthly Geijutsu shinchō (New Trends in Art) over the course of three years, which consisted of essays by Tsuji on canonical Japanese artworks—including Eitoku’s Chinese Lions and Itō Jakuchū’s eighteenth-century Elephant and Whale Screens—and new paintings, sculptures, and photos by Murakami based on the masterworks, each accompanying a corresponding essay. The works, some of his best to date, proved Murakami’s vigorous paintings to be able counterparts to Tsuji’s erudite connoisseurship. This magazine serial was compiled and published as a book in Japan in 2014, and certainly merits English translation.

However, there was a crucial problem with the project. Murakami’s ongoing dilemma is this: He is pressured to incorporate “Japanese” (exotic and Oriental, that is) motifs to please his overseas clients, but if he engages his cultural background too earnestly, he risks alienating that same global market, which seems to revel in both the kitsch and the implied parody of his clichés. Yet if he utilizes these references too bluntly, he risks further alienating his Japanese audience. As Murakami once complained, he initially struggled to find a collector for the highly contextualized paintings that arose from the Nippon E’awase. Murakami’s depiction of the five hundred arhats (a popular subject in Buddhist art) was also inspired by the artist’s dialogue with Tsuji, and was based on late-Edo-period painter Kanō Kazunobu’s rendering of the subject. While Kazunobu’s painting was to comprise one hundred hanging scrolls each depicting five arhats, he died in 1863 after painting (per one theory) 480 arhats in ninety-six scrolls, leaving the project to be finished by his wife, Myōan, and his student Kazuyoshi. Murakami’s attempt to transform the subject into a gigantic mural can thus be understood as his self-imposed challenge to translate his art-historical preoccupations into a commercially and critically acceptable spectacle.

But acceptable to whom? Murakami has stated that the idea of painting the five hundred arhats occurred to him as a way to heal souls and recover hope after the East Japan earthquake. However, he created these gigantic panels for an exhibition not in Japan but in Qatar, which was underwritten by the country’s royal family. Granted, the marked difference between his international fame and belittlement at home may be reconciled somewhat by this Tokyo exhibition. But if Murakami continues to work for his global market (which is inevitable, as there isn’t much of a domestic one), the gap between his overseas and native reputation will never be resolved. Does Murakami really have a stake in today’s Japan?

Hard-core Murakami haters would say no, but I would say yes. That he deeply cares about the Japanese art scene is evident in Baka (Idiot), 2012, a small self-portrait displayed at the end of the show. On the background is inscribed an autobiographical statement—visible from up close—in which he criticizes the Japanese art system for its petty insularities and exploitation of naive art students. To counter this situation, Murakami vows to “edify the world of Japanese art universities and the art scene and send, on [his] own, artists of quality out in the world.” However, examining the work from a remove, we can recognize the Chinese characters that compose baka emerging on the work’s surface. Who is the idiot here? Art students in Japan? Audiences like us? Or Murakami himself? He probably means us all.

For me, Murakami’s rebellious spirit is best demonstrated in works like Baka. If you want to see his technical virtuosity, consider his response to Tsuji’s criticism that he relies on his assistants at the cost of his own voice. Murakami’s homages to Jakuchū’s Elephant and Whale Screens and Soga Shōhaku’s Dragon and Clouds, 1763 (Study of Jakuchū’s Elephant and Whale Screens, 2009–10, and Dragon in Clouds, 2010, respectively), painted mostly on his own, are breathtaking. Although not shown in the current exhibition, their iconography is included as a main motif in The 500 Arhats. So why not more works like these? If Murakami’s previous work appeared as an overturning of traditional individual authorship in order to parallel the hyperbolic scale and mass production of contemporary global capitalism (whether as affirmation or critique), this startling return to the sheer skill of his own virtuosic hand seems to move both forward and backward, inward and outward, at once.

With a nod to the historical workshop production of Eitoku, these recent paintings may ultimately still be subsumed under a single name and artistic body, but they are also, perhaps, a wry acknowledgment of the strange persistence of the value of singular authorship in today’s supposedly postcritical, pluralist market. And if these works are still successful in international venues, this success is the result of their recognition of the global demand for localized art and that of the locally specific debate about what constitutes global art. Whether or not Murakami will be called a contemporary master ten years from now depends on this newly complex engagement with the global and the local. Such endeavors may eventually bring him newfound respect in his own land, as well as elsewhere in the world.

Hiroko Ikegami is an associate professor at Kobe University, Japan. She is the author of The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art (MIT Press, 2010).