Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street, London, June 27 – August 5, 2011
Having established himself pushing the logic of cheap thrills to their surreal conclusion, for his latest solo show Takashi Murakami has made another thrill so cheap it’s free. A two metre tall school girl perches on a low plinth, cheery for all the world despite her angular, massively oversized box-shaped head balancing on a triangular body. Visitors could take away a perforated paper sheet to assemble their own 15cm high Big Box Paper Ko2 (2011). I’d actually stumbled upon one of these little dolls previously, unaware of its origin; but then noticing that the flat-bottomed base included the detail of the girl’s underwear, I knew it was from the Murakami stables.
From hypersexualised nurses, spurting erections and a smiling clitoris, here Murakami picks up again his long self-appointed role as the armchair Freud of the Japanese psychosexual terrain. Pinning the primal scene of Japan’s sexual identity in its cartoons and comics, he’s made a career out of transposing the exaggerated attitudes and physiques of these anime fantasies into sculpture and paint for art audiences to ogle. She might be able to bounce around in her ‘sexy maid’ outfit on screen, but brought into physical being 3m Girl (2011) leans forward under the weight of breasts the size of the rest of her giant body, trying to make her inability to deal with the load look cute. She’s just the latest, slightly taller, model of an ongoing series that Murakami started in 1997 with with Miss Ko2 (of which, in this show, both Nurse Ko2 and the Big Box girl are updates) and the breast-milk spurting Hiropon, an army of vacantly doe-eyed clones that bring out the patent absurdity of what, in the mangaverse, is meant to be alluring.
Adding a slightly different tact in this show to swell these ranks, Murakami traverses one wall with four sets of painting triptychs. One set is a direct reproduction of a turn-of-the-century painting of three nude women, done in a realist style, the title spelling out his intent: An Homage to Seiki Kuroda “Wisdom, Impression, Sentiment,” Reinventing the Spirit of the Meiji Cultural Enlightenment in the Modern Age, 2011. The other three sets are the results of handing the figures over to three different manga character designers; and though there are slight variations between the three, the most remarkable difference of the ‘translations’ is the uniform use of the anorexic teenager as the body for this ‘modern age.’ Standing between the row of girls and the show’s tiers of genitalia, it’s apparent Murakami’s diagnosis of Japan’s sexual psyche is of a never-ending, pubescent phallic stage.
While Kuroda’s work did cause a stir in his time, this doesn’t feel so much like a ‘homage’ as Murakami ingesting him into his art machine. Murakami has often used elements of Japanese art history as the MacGuffin to put outlandish porn-pop explosions in a gallery space, incessantly trying shock the audience. But this isn’t all that outrageous, and his diagnosis is pretty obvious- sure, this is satire, with all the hyperbolic language, but none of the bite. Drained of any critique, you feel more like he’s just getting a chuckle out of the sexual proclivities of anime fans. His method hasn’t progressed since the naked, morphing Transformer-style female of Second Mission Project Ko2 in 1999; but this has given way to hear another, quieter voice in his work behind all the stylised quotation marks, sounding like an old-fashioned parent yammering on about the dehumanising effects of pop culture.
First published in Art Review 53, October 2011