It's a good thing that Buddhists aren't Muslims, at least not those of the fundamentalist variety. Otherwise the giant Buddha images by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami in his current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles would provoke a world-wide conflagration of outrage. (You'll have to check on the MOCA site for images of the Buddhas, but it's worth the time and effort to view and listen to Murakami's tour.)
But more of the Buddhas shortly. First, be it said that if you wish to see a relentlessly sly, subversive--yet savage--assault on the skewed values of contemporary civilization, you need look no further than this show. Murakami outWarhols Warhol in this plethora of work where kitsch meets high fashion meets Madison Avenue marketing meets, um… art. Included in the installation is a complete high-end Louis Vuitton store where fashion accessories may be purchased for barely mentionable sums of money. When we were there, my wife spotted a young woman cheerfully charge $1,000 and significant change on one of the knick-knacks on sale there.
Murakami skewers--and profits from!--not only the high end market, however. Included in the show are dozens of the tiny, cheaply manufactured and cutely bizarre toy figures he produced to be marketed with candy and ice cream—goods as toxic, in their way, as the cigarettes with which baseball cards were once mass-distributed. His high-gloss, psychedelic adumbrations of the human form, ranging all the way from miniature to monumental, combine the terminally cute with the hideously grotesque, sci-fi anime with fairy tale, the child's innocence with the overtly obscene. Garish in color and material, their shapes blend the streamlined finish of the automobile with the sensual rotundity of the egg—or the baby’s bottom, or the mushroom, both frequent icons in this work!—with the harsh, sharp edge of weaponry or mechanics.
His subversion of the post-Romantic, modernist view of the art object as unique, original, disengaged, and isolated in its own aesthetic bubble of perfection could not be more complete or dismissive. His "superflat" paintings, for God's sake, not only "go with" the wallpaper; they match it! Or they reduce the imagery to a single, cartoonish character or line,
a huge, grinning, devastatingly altered Mickey Mouse face, for example, or a branching lightning bolt. He is not above regaling his viewers with a million of those cheap and pretty flower shapes
and simple, repetitive patterns of all kinds. His mushrooms are rendered with the simplistic cheeriness of those you see on the nursery wall, with colorful dots and friendly, bulbous stalks. Every tawdry, cliché’d graphic device is grist for his tireless mill.
A further strategy of subversion is infantilism. The child-like cartoon characters, recurring everywhere in this work, from painting to sculpture to video, are the counterparts of those in the typical Disney film;
indeed the entire installation is a kind of nightmare Disneyland, where cuteness reigns supreme in a kind of extravagant cultural gesture of denial of the grim geopolitical realities that face us in an increasingly at-risk world. It’s no accident that those nursery mushrooms remind us tauntingly of the clouds above Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the innocence of Murakami’s little people covers for something quite different beneath the benign appearances, and much closer to the surface than is the case with those cute Disney dwarfs and monsters.
Which brings us back to those Buddhas, two of them, towering assemblages of multiple parts on a base, in each case, of the traditional lotus plant. In the most recent, “Oval Buddha,” 2007, the figure of the Buddha sits atop a huge turtle and a tall pedestal encrusted with a profusion of rococo detail. (Tour #6 on the link above will give you a view of this Buddha, and a partial glimpse of the other.) Gone, though, is the traditional pleasing serenity of the Buddha’s smile, replaced here by two faces, one on each side of the head—the first an angry scowl, the other a devouring grimace with ferocious teeth. Murakami’s subversion, it seems, extends from the physical to the spiritual realm, in a world where suffering is omnipresent beneath the mask of material well-being. It’s a deeply disturbing vision, but one that should compel our attention and demand a reconsideration of many of our treasured assumptions about ourselves, our human nature, as well as about our spiritual aspirations and pretensions.