Takashi Murakami Goes to Moscow, but Keeps Politics at Bay

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Behold: A story coming out of Russia that has nothing to do with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Crazy, isn’t it? Japanese artist Takashi Murakami debuted a new retrospective at Moscow’s Garage Museum on Thursday. At a preview walk around the exhibition, he wanted me to know that his body of work, which is famous for its playful, toy-like facades and complex, often graphic subtexts, should be viewed outside the arena of politics. “Artists create their own situation,” he said. Dressed like one of his characters, as he is known to do, Marakami was wearing a giant hat with bug eyes popping out of it. “I’m an artist. I can walk along this tightrope, and this is not the tightrope of politics.”

That’s not exactly true. Some of the largest influences in Murakami’s work include graphic comics inspired by Japan’s sexually repressed society and America’s dropping of atomic bombs at the end of World War II. “Cuteness and catastrophe,” he brands it. When I recently visited him at his Tokyo studio, he explained that in Japan his art is like “therapy.” Yet, it’s clear that Murakami, who is also famous for his bright and cheerful collaborations with Louis Vuitton, is not trying to subvert his hosts. “The museum’s goal is how many people can we bring into the space?” he says. “It’s a form of tourism, which I’m very understanding of. General people [here in Moscow] don’t have a strong history with contemporary art. How can they enjoy this? It looks like shopping in some ways.”

Indeed, the museum’s gift shop is full of all manner of Murakami merch, including key rings, iPhone cases, and stickers. The museum is offering a Murakami burger in the restaurant that features one of his figurines char-grilled into the bun. (As a committed journalist, I had to eat one. It was delicious.)

This exhibition, the artist’s first show in Russia and the first time the Garage has dedicated so much of its space to a single artist, is the result of two years of preparation. It’s a retrospective that looks at not only Murakmi’s work but what inspired it, including 7,000 toys that he brought from Japan, animated movies, and ancient Japanese scrolls, which are on loan from the Pushkin Museum. Murakami is coming off a retrospective, which closed this week, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The difference between that show and this one is simple: “The curators here are very strong,” Murakami says with a sly grin. “They wouldn’t budge on anything. Very Russian.” Anton Belov, the director of the Garage, says, “I think this is the first time that someone pushed Takashi so much.”

The Garage is housed in a museum designed by Rem Koolhaas in the middle of Moscow’s Gorky Park and is essentially a glass box, void of the white walls that Murakami is used to in galleries. Here, the works are suspended from poles. “My concern was security,” the artist says. “If something gets damaged, I get insurance money but it takes time, and I don’t want to waste time.” Clearly, Murakami does not like to wait. At his studio he takes naps in a giant box while assistants move him so he can wake up in front of a different artwork. Dasha Zhukova, the founder of the museum, told me Murakami asked to sleep in the museum during the show’s installation, so the museum ended up creating an exact replica of his Tokyo studio inside the space. It looks like an installation, but he also created eight works especially for the show. (Also attending the opening and the after-party was Roman Abramovic, the co-founder of the Garage, and Zhukova’s soon-to-be ex-husband. Together they announced last August that they were separating and are New York’s latest example of consciously uncoupling.

Murakami’s contemporary universe of plush toys, cartoons, and neon colors is something of a foreign concept in Russia. After all, Moscow is where Russian artist Kazimir Malevich first exhibited The Black Square in 1915, which was literally a small black square, and heralded the dawn of contemporary art as we know it. Belov believes Murakami will cast a spell on the austere landscape that is still dominant here: “We wanted to present this as Murakami’s story. He’s the person who is changing the world around him, like a magician who can change the world for the people in the space around him.”

How does Murakami think the locals will receive his work? He offers a long answer: “Last year, I went to Complex Con in Long Beach, California, which is a like a hipster sneaker culture festival. I was invited to participate as a panelist on visual arts, and Pharrell did the music. I had no idea what I was doing when I accepted the offer, but once I got there everyone knew me in the audience. They treated me like a superstar like I’ve never experienced! I realized it has to do with the 90s Japanese fashion and subcultures, and the kids who were absorbing this culture who knew me were all there. I think something similar may happen [in Moscow]. When I went to the Japanese festival [here several months ago], there were people dressed in animation costumes and very inspired by my culture. Some percentage of [the people who come to this show] will see it as a serious art and some will just think it’s a funny subculture. I’m not seeking a specific reaction. Just a reaction.”

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