Takashi Murakami’s Kyoto Survey Shows the Artist’s Multiple Dimensions


It’s not difficult to think you “know” the work of Takashi Murakami. After all, it’s been seemingly everywhere for the past two decades, especially after his early collaborations with the luxury giant Louis Vuitton in 2003. Since then, the maverick Japanese artist has infiltrated almost every corner of contemporary culture, ranging from his famous cover design for Kanye West’s 2007 album Graduation to his reworking of the ubiquitous Vans slip-ons.

Only a handful of people, though, have scratched beyond the surface of a few scandalous incidents that have made headlines over the years, like his early sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy (1998)—of an anime character ejaculating a hefty rope of semen—fetching a jaw-dropping sum of $15.1 million at Sotheby’s in 2008. But Murakami’s practice is not all about the hype. His “Superflat” theory, which describes the ways in which postwar Japanese culture is characterized by a two-dimensional “flattening” of such divisions as high and low and East and West, proved to be a foundational tool to understand the cultural landscape of the nation upon its publication in 2001. Meanwhile, his enterprise Kaikai Kiki, which was initially founded to support his productions as an homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory, has now evolved into an operation that helps young artists launch their careers, as well as organizing exhibitions, commissions, and even an art fair.

In many ways, Murakami’s artistic vision has paved an iconoclastic model of art-making that blithely contradicts the conventions set forth by the art world. It is a tendency now on full display at his mid-career survey at the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, on view through September 1. The exhibition is a noteworthy endeavor that shows the multiple facets of the artist’s oeuvre, as well as the historical, political, and social conditions of the Japanese artistic infrastructure that shaped his practice as such.

View of an Edo-era painting that has been updated with Murakami figures and a vinyl print on the floor.

Installation view of “Takashi Murakami Mononoke Kyoto,” 2024, at Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, Kyoto.

Photo Kozo Takayama/©2024 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The artist’s predilection is particularly palpable in the structural logic of the show. At its entrance hangs Rakuchū-Rakugai-zu Byōbu: Iwasa Matabei RIP (2023–24), a sweeping 40-foot-long painting that digitally reworks an Edo-period painter Iwasa Matabei’s view of Kyoto, now designated a National Treasure in Japan. The updated work features characteristically Murakami iconography, such as skulls (engraved onto the gold leaf that fill much of the background of the picture plane) and the personified flower (standing tall compared to the miniscule figures depicted elsewhere and waving its hand).

A smaller but no less stimulating counterpart to Iwasa Matabei RIP comes in the form A Note on Viewing This Exhibition, Takashi Murakami Mononoke Tokyo (2023–24), a modest wooden panel of Murakami’s figure rendered in anime style with two speech bubbles that is installed in the same room as the immersive, large-scale painting. In the bubbles, Murakami reveals, in Japanese and English, that many of the works on view in the exhibition remain unfinished and that they will be replaced on a “rolling basis” upon completion, as the museum requested that he make almost all new works for the exhibition to reduce “shipping costs” and “insurance premiums.”

View of a museum exhibition showing two paintings on the wall and sculptures around.

Installation view of “Takashi Murakami Mononoke Kyoto,” 2024, at Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, Kyoto.

Photo Kozo Takayama/©2024 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

In an interview with ARTnews, Murakami offhandedly compared this strategy to the “drop” culture that defines the sales strategy of many of the trendiest streetwear brands. Although he called such a demand on part of the museum as “pathetic” in his speech bubble, the artist explained that he agreed to take on the exhibition purely based on his trust for Shinya Takahashi, who curated the show and whom he has known for the last 30 years. Despite his assertions to the contrary, Murakami is no “curmudgeon,” at least so it seems from this exhibition.

Navigating through the exhibition, I wondered how such an unconventional format, albeit borne out of logistical difficulties, could be articulated in the show. The exhibition’s second room features an installation of four paintings of deities that guard the four cardinal points—the blue dragon, the vermilion bird, the white tiger, and the black tortoise—surrounding another new sculpture entitled Hexagonal Double-Helix Tower (Rokkaku Rasendo) that takes its form from Kyoto’s famed Rokkakudo Temple. Presented in a darkened room with dramatic lighting, the installation points to the origins of Murakami’s practice—he earned his PhD in traditional Japanese painting, nihonga, at the Tokyo University of the Arts—while crafting a certain moment of august spectacle that is typically missing from most other areas of his practice. Another similarly exciting example comes in the form of his monumental painting of a red dragon, with the punchy title Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, ‘Why don’t you paint something yourself for once? (2010). Undoubtedly, this is Murakami at his best: moments in which his works veer into a certain droll reverence for the past, and the genre of history painting, in particular.

Installation view of a museum exhibition showing a large-scale painting of a red dragon on one wall.

Installation view of “Takashi Murakami Mononoke Kyoto,” 2024, at Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, Kyoto, showing Dragon in Clouds—Red Mutation: The version I painted myself in annoyance after Professor Nobuo Tsuji told me, ‘Why don’t you paint something yourself for once? (2010), at left.

Photo Kozo Takayama/©2024 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The rooms that follow look at different conceptual endeavors in Murakami’s practice over the past two decades, such as works related to Kaikiki’s recent venture into NFTs (108 Murakami. Flowers Collectible Trading Card 2023) or a suite of sculptures that are variations of characters invented by Murakami such as DOB, Yume Lion, and Panda. But these works proved to be less exciting, precisely because the earlier rooms explicitly demonstrated what Murakami could achieve without resorting to less formally exciting takes on contemporary culture.

Indeed, advancing a critical take on Murakami’s practice with the traditional vocabulary and analysis of art history may itself be an antiquated, if not anachronistic, attempt, as it is his ability to seamlessly move between the traditions of nihonga and the components of street culture that characterizes his unique perspective. Importantly, it is a point of view that extends to his attitude toward life.

View of a museum exhibition showing a grid of artworks on the wall.

Installation view of “Takashi Murakami Mononoke Kyoto,” 2024, at Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, Kyoto.

Photo Kozo Takayama/©2024 Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

At the opening ceremony for this exhibition, the artist himself showed up wearing a flower hat in rainbow colors that made him appear like a character of his own anime, only to launch a scathing critique of the budget of the show and a reform of the Japanese tax system that could help funnel more funds into the arts. It was then that he announced, with little hesitation, that there would not be future exhibitions of his in Japanese public museums due to the series of administrative obstacles that make it incredibly difficult for him to realize shows in such venues, including the current one. Ridiculous as he might have looked, it was an efficient press strategy. At his most gaudy in his appearance, the cameras started clicking nonstop—likely as a testament to what it is that sells among the public, especially when it comes to Takashi Murakami.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *