Takashi Murakami’s latest exhibition, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow,” so generously feeds psychedelic spectacle to the pilgrims who flock to Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea flagship that measuring the show by standards other than volume of Instagram posts seems inadequate. The show renders a critic’s job (almost) obsolete.
The task we’re left with? Take it all in: a mural longer than a tennis court bursting with figures and details; a pair of towering, cartoonish demons with baroque musculature and Popeye biceps; a full-size ancient Japanese temple gate that might have come straight off a Cinecittà soundstage — and that’s just half the works in one of the exhibition’s four rooms.
And though there are a few shiny, Koonsian objects — one a nearly 14-foot-tall gold-leafed tower (destined, one assumes, for the monied precincts of Saadiyat Island) — there are otherwise few traces of the infuriatingly bald commerce of the 52-year-old art star’s Louis Vuitton boutique-within-an-exhibition of six years ago, when his Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles–organized retrospective — it was called © MURAKAMI, remember? — landed at the Brooklyn Museum. But in-exhibition merchandising is so 2008, and so much has changed since. Just think of the oligarchs’ wives who once swiped platinum cards in exchange for brown and gold satchels and are now subject to government sanctions.
In “Land of the Dead,” Murakami seems intent on speaking to these more straitened times, though any language spoken inside Gagosian is necessarily the patois of privilege. The artist says in his statement that he’s addressing the earthquake and nuclear disaster that terrified his homeland in 2011 (and, we assume, along with it the current global anxiety and economic uncertainty). Yet surely no expense was spared to create that temple gate — more than 21 feet tall and as wide as a pair of 18-wheelers, it’s an ashen wood hulk complete with curved roof and massive eaves. Modeled on the gate type originated in China but later imported to Japan, it’s the only slice of monochrome in an otherwise blindingly bright show.
For Murakami, that gate embodies the shifting meaning of a single image. In China such a formidable structure would have been used for fortification. In the isolated island nation of Japan, the imported form becomes a totem of power and pomp. Elsewhere in the show, in works based on Edo-period (1603–1868) paintings in turn based on Chinese precedents, Murakami shows us his ability to repurpose the old and make it utterly of-the-moment. The roiling seas in his massive mural unfold in riots of juxtaposed pattern and color that Vogue readers will recognize as this fall’s top fashion strategy. Backgrounds are gilded or covered in more iridescence than a cosmetics counter, while even the demons and shriveled old men populating so many of these works have the multicolored pedicures you’d expect from Vanity Projects.
Those familiar with Murakami’s output will see familiar motifs — piles of cartoonish skulls, snaggletoothed smiley faces. There’s a great piece here called Isle of the Dead that stars lesser-known cast members: an army of wizened dudes with more eyeballs per head than regulation would allow, staring out at us. They’re far less kawaii than Murakami’s earlier, seedier offerings, and that’s a very good thing. The see-no-evil yodas bear
astonished witness to the passing masses.