The Octopus Eats its Own Leg

by Wesley Kirk, correspondent

“The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” is an exhibit on display at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Chicago through September 24th. It comprises the work of artist Takashi Murakami and speaks powerfully about Japanese culture, the nature of commercial media, and the artist himself.

Murakami’s paintings are immensely detailed and vibrant, both spectacular and overwhelming. He executes a balance of accessibility through a more commercial style while incorporating a level of depth and intricacy that keeps the attention. In a world of highly stimulating media, Murakami can keep up.

If you’re into hip-hop, you probably know the work of Takashi Murakami, which is featured on the cover of Kanye West’s classic album “Graduation.” What initially grabs the eye about his visual style is its sheer scale and its manga influence. Murakami often employs as many as 100 creators to accomplish his massive visions.

In one painting, a gargantuan Mickey Mouse-esque head plows menacingly through a scene, baring pointed teeth and vomiting out a noxious looking liquid. In another, a legion of multicolored dandelions grin from the canvas manically. Almost everything is wildly vibrant while pointing back to the introspective artist.

Much of what sets Murakami apart, especially in his early work, is a drive to make a name for himself. For some artists, this motivation might produce a devalued result. But Murakami navigates this precarious motive with grace. He draws from the contemporary greats, such as Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and George Lucas, as well as successful modern artists, without tipping over into affectation.

Murakami earned his PhD in the Japanese painting style nihonga, which is distinguished by its use of mineral pigments rather than western oil paints. His earliest exhibited work is in this style. The curator comments that Murakami deals in this medium with a “wild irreverence.” This brashness is what Murakami accredits his success to throughout the exhibit. In fact, the title of the exhibit and its titular piece refer to this quality of wild self-reinvention. It is a reference to a Japanese proverb: “an octopus in distress will chew off a damaged leg to ensure survival, knowing that a new one will grow in its place.”

One such reinvention was his drastic shift to a style inspired by the explosion of manga and anime in the 1970’s. Many of his renderings exist in his signature space, which he refers to as ‘superflat.’ The characters who fill his art and their environment consist of vibrantly shaded line drawings, very intentionally created to look two dimensional.

More seriously, Murakami examines Japanese catastrophes like the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, considering them a window into the nation’s psyche. One of his earliest featured works shows three silhouetted men on a shore with a nuclear power plant in the background. Images like this one provide a more explicit introduction to his subtler later work. But the theme lurks throughout, like the lingering effects of past trauma.

This theme resurfaces in Murakami’s most recent work revolving around the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. After this catastrophe, he made a sharp return from his exploration of western styles to traditional Japanese culture. He does so chiefly with his monumental work “500 Arhats,” a 100-meter-long painting depicting Buddhist monks who, having achieved enlightenment, symbolize healing for society. The hall in which this painting is exhibited is guarded by two towering demons.

If for no other reason, go check it out to take in the sheer spectacle of Murakami’s images, which invite the serious student and the casual visitor alike. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago is located at  220 E Chicago Ave. Admission is free to IL residents on Tuesdays. On other days, it is $8 for students and $15 for adults.

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