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Takashi Murakami's life-sized female fiberglass figure looks like a Japanimation hologram come to life. Hiropon (slang for heroin) is an infantilized, petite running thing with tiny feet. Naked but for a teeny top, she sports a hairless pudenda with no genitalia; parted, breathless lips (of course); Caucasian eyes; and gigantic bazoombas barely held back by her microscopic bikini top. She squeezes her long, phallic/udder-like nipples, which explode in a gusher of milk that surrounds her like a cosmic jump rope.
If you think of Murakami's art as a Van Gogh landscapeas something to be enjoyed purely for itself, to be reveled in, or just looked atyou'll have a pleasant time at "The meaning of the nonsense of meaning," Murakami's sophomorically titled survey at Bard's Center for Curatorial Studies. Co-curated by Amada Cruz and Dana Friis-Hansen, this uneven but eye-popping exhibition is so shallow it acquires its own kind of depth.
Surface is everything to Murakamiit's all there is. I don't know if you're allowed to say this, but like a lot of contemporary Japanese artists Murakami is a craftmaster-whiz of flawless visual effects. He draws on traditional Japanese themes like flatness, pattern, and ornamentation. His kaleidoscopic paintings of Hokusai-like waves, his Lichtensteinian splashes, and DOB, his big-headed Mickey Mouselike creature, are so immaculate you will think a machine made them. And his painted figurative sculptures (like Hiropon) are so vivid they seem almost real. Magically vapid, these Pygmalion/Barbie/Sex Toythings are less than spectacle and more than mere technical accomplishments. But all is not right.
Murakami's lack of depth may be dazzling, but his essential vision of this world of surface is fairly clinched and immature. His ideas about sex, consumerism, and fantasy especially in recent workshave a dated familiarity. If you want substance or meaning, you're barking up the wrong show. You will leave here empty, irked at Murakami's "boyishness," his hackneyed ideas about sensuality, his imitations of Warhol, and his ironic lack of imagination. But if you go with the visual flow, thunderbolts of impeccability can keep these thoughts at bay for wonderful minutes at a time.
Murakami is a style rider who works between pop art and popular culture. The sum and substance of this tradition, of course, is Andy Warhol, and it probably includes Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, maybe Damien Hirst, and unfortunately Mark Kostabi. But it is also deeply Japanese.
If style is an ocean, and history a series of ongoing, unspoken connections, then Japan is the island of least resistance and total receptivity; a nation where style is the bounty as well as the sea. As Midori Matsui, a Japanese critic, writes in the showcatalogue, "Nothing that grows in Japan is purely native. Everything is a reaction to and a modification of a received foreign culture. For centuries the major influence was China, since the late 19th century it has been the west." Insular and xenophobic, Japan is also utterly open and adaptable. It is the hermit crab of nations, the puppet who intermittently becomes the puppet master, the android who finds life.
Murakami wishes to inhabit this shell and make it his own. Born in Tokyo in 1962, he splits his time between Japan and New York ("where I get my fix of reality"). He began his career as a consumer-oriented artist in search of a product, an art object to call his own.
Initially, Murakami thought he might be that product, and began by making prints and posters of his own name. That was tabled for a foray into early '90s activist art, when he marshaled hundreds of tiny toy soldiers onto a vertical Nauman-like plinth, possibly a comment on the American occupation of postWorld War II Japan.
Luckily he returned to the human-as- product theme in a clever little piece called "The Kase Taishuu Project," based on a real-life story about a Japanese entertainer who forfeited the right to his own name to his manager, who in turn gave the name to another actor. Murakami compounded things by hiring four art students to use the same name and even managed to convince the public and the press.
Then came DOB, an all-purpose character that Murakami first made manifest in 1993. A Disney-esque, muppet thing derived partly from a monkeylike figure the artist saw in Hong Kong, DOB is all head; a happy face with big eyes, mouse ears, a button nose, and a wide, grinning mouth. Occasionally he has a mouse body, with a little lightning bolt for a tail.
Murakami put DOB on key chains, T-shirts, telephone straps, and mouse pads. Kids got tattoos of DOB. He has his own handbook and Web site. Not only had Murakami found his product, he had created an alter ego.
As featured in a number of intensely decorative paintings, DOB was pulled apart and smacked around. He is transformed into drips, test patterns, DNA strands, or multi-mouthed creatures. Other times he erupts into camouflage pattern, or all-over psychedelic abstraction. In the killer Castle of Tin Tin (1998), DOB is a cyclone, a whirling vertical column, spurting out little DOBs and rivulets of liquid.