After an hour in the storage facility of the Guggenheim Bilbao
reviewing two paintings by Miquel Barceló, I thanked Miguel López Remiro, sub-director of the Curatorial Department, for the opportunity. He gave me his card and asked Tania Tapia, an intern from Galicia, to show me around the museum.
I had half an hour before I would have to hurry out to catch my bus back to Madrid. We decided to spend my short time hustling through the recently inaugurated Takashi Murakami (Tokyo, 1962) retrospective called ©Murakami. Tania had worked on the exhibition for months and had taken an interest in Murakamis work. She was keen to explain to me what she had learned and I was happy to hear it.
As we approached the first gallery she asked me what I knew about Murakami. I assured her I knew nothing, so she started with the basics. Takashi Murakamis work ranges from original works of art worth millions of dollars to mass-produced plastic toys worth a couple bucks apiece. Tania pointed out a display filled with 2-inch high plastic figures that reminded me of Pokémons and Teletubbies.
Around the corner from the case of toys, stood Miss Ko2, a life size sculpture of a scantily clad waitress with supernaturally large breasts and impossibly thin legs and waist. The blond, fair-skinned figure with slightly Asian facial features had become a sex icon for the otaku, Tania explained. Otaku refers to a group of Japanese men and boys obsessed with anime and manga. When Tania pointed out that much of Murakamis work meant to satirize Japanese culture, it seemed ironic that the otaku had taken such a liking to Miss Ko2.
We hurried on to the next work in the gallery, an enormous canvas filled with a circular face and two round ears that looked to me like Mickey Mouse. This was Mr. DOB, Murakamis alter ego that appears throughout his work in various incarnations. Tania explained that Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon had inspired Mr. DOBs appearance. Much of Murakamis work blurs the line between high art and popular images. Many have referred to him as the Japanese Andy Warhol.
In the following gallery, we stopped to look at an enormous painting of a decidedly more disturbing Mr. DOB. In Tan Tan Bo Puking, a.k.a. Gero Tan, Mr. DOB was vomiting a strange multi-colored substance. The work also contained strange figures that resembled distorted versions of some of Murakamis plastic toys. Tania explained that this painting probably took aim at Japanese consumerism. It depicted a sort of self-destruction by way of excessive consumption. We lingered over the intriguing image before getting moving again.
After breezing through a room devoted to Murakamis Louis Vuitton work, we hustled along a platform suspended above the airy lobby of Frank Gehrys seemingly extraterrestrial museum. We arrived at a monumental statue of an odd, seated figure called Tongarikun. Murakami drew inspiration from Buddha and Shiva to create the shiny, multi-armed, icon whose face resembles that of Mr. DOB. The result is a strange combination between religious and popular imagery.
We crossed another elevated platform, which overlooked the Nervión River through the vast windows that form one side of the Guggenheim Bilbaos central lobby. We passed a large, blow-up Mr. DOB head and Tania noticed, with both amusement and concern, that it seemed to be deflating. She mentioned that Murakami had made inflatable works, in part, because they were practical for galleries that found it cumbersome to deal with large paintings and sculptures. Several times during the tour, Tania clarified Murakamis intentions: he was a serious artist, but fully intended to make himself wealthy.
Before entering the next gallery, we passed a case of merchandiset-shirts, caps, toys, etc.designed by Murakami and sold by his company. Next we passed by three even more overtly sexual versions of Miss Ko2 before stopping to look at a smallish silver statue of a two-faced DOB.
Before moving on, Tania gave me the disclaimer that the next room contained the most controversial part of the show. Inside, a life-sized man and woman stood on either side of the room facing each other. The lean and muscular, nude male figure triumphantly held onto his comically large erection which was ejaculating a thick stream of semen that fantastically spiraled around his body. Like Miss Ko2, he was blond and fair with slightly Asian features. His female counterparts watermelon-sized breasts seemed about to burst the thin strings that held together her diminutive bikini. Her nipples projected streams of milk that spiraled around her. Facing each other on the remaining sides of the room, two paintings entitled Milk and Cream depicted white fluids flying through the air. Tania explained that Murakami sought to critique the way that the anime and internet culture had depersonalized sex creating impossible ideals of appearance and sexual performance.
Inochi, a robot boyinspired by the Steven Spielberg movie AI, according to the artiststood in the center of the final room. Tania explained that this was a metaphor for the excessive interest in technology on the part of some of the Japanese youth. On a screen behind him, short films in the style of movie promos ran. In the film clips Inochi arrived at school, presumably for his first day. He caught a glimpse of a classroom full of girls undressing themselves. Authority figures prohibited him from watching the girls, but he could not resist the temptation. He became interested in one girl in particular, which confused him. Later this girl shared a milk carton with him and Inochi became violently ill. The clip ended proclaiming, Inochi, youre alive! perhaps an appeal by the artist to an over-teched youth.
Having blown through ©Murakami in 30 minutes, I thanked Tania, collected my suitcase and rushed to the bus station. If you have the chance to spend more than half an hour in the exhibition, I recommend it. The show, curated by Paul Schimmel of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), closes at the Guggenheim Bilbao on May 31, 2009.
Michael Damiano can be reached by way of his website www.michaeldamiano.com