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).