discovering Murakami

For me, as an artist who is also a mother, I am often on the lookout for ways to invite my kids to join me in interacting with art of all types. More and more, I am learning the value of experiencing something as a family that is brand new to all of us, not just the kids. I find that my kids – each of whom have wildly different attention spans and artistic interest levels (ages 13, 10, 8 and 5) – will engage more with me when they don’t feel like I’m coming at them as an expert on something (life lesson, anyone??). Modern art is an ideal medium to engage with kids.  We can pop over to the Art Institute and marvel at Seurat in the Impressionist wing, or stand like ants beneath the Renaissance masters, but inevitably the contemporary stuff immediately engages my 21st century (iGen, is it?) babies.

Housed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Murakami (b. 1962) exhibit, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg*, opened surprisingly simply:  a blue velvet curtain with a single star gave way to a series of three small square panels in solid red, yellow and blue. Immediately, my oldest son chimed in with, “Wait a minute. What is this stuff? I could paint that! This stuff is in a museum!” My daughter offered, “this curtain is like in a play before it starts.” Aha. Yes. Good! They asked me what I thought, and I offered that I wasn’t exactly sure, but if I had to guess, I would say he is bringing us to a simple starting point — building expectation, excitement. I was learning/guessing/processing right alongside them.

Those primary colors and curtain were a genesis to the exhibit and indeed, Murakami’s whole career. Powerful opening, really.

As we wandered through the rooms, Murakami brought us from those simple elements to masterful and complex intersections of modern and ancient, Eastern and Western, high + low art. What he does is nothing short of masterful.

The exhibit continued to open up into room after room of what Murakami is really known for; his “superflat” style, noisily intersecting traditional high art with flashy commercialism. This can be seen in his collaborations with Kanye West (“Graduation” cover), Louis Vitton, Pharrell Williams (“It Girl” video).

The earlier works show genesis and development of recognizable characters like Mr. DOB, the trippy Kaikai Kiki flowers (my daughter’s favorite), into a mid-career phase of abstraction.

These were my favorite pieces. Incredible color, scale and development. The piece we hung out the longest on together was 727 (1996). Mimicking Japanese screen paintings, the piece shows Murakami’s beloved Mr. DOB as a time traveler traversing Asian art history. The kids didn’t need any help from me to see what it was trying to do.

Murakami’s later works come away from the playful characters of earlier works and instead explore topics of death and spirituality; particularly the legend of the arhats — a band of Buddhist monks who roamed the land in an effort to heal and comfort people. My most empathetic 10 year old was particularly taken with the pieces in this series, lingering and studying each one closely. They spoke to him.

Perhaps the thing that stood out the most to me about the aptly-named The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg exhibit was this relentless sense of self-discovery and reinvention. Murakami shows us his process—one that isn’t afraid to ask questions, to learn and reevaluate direction and to change. His looking forward never loses sense of what came before. If only the same could be said of each of us!

*”The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg comes from a Japanese folk saying that hints at this process of regeneration and reflects a biological fact: an octopus in distress will chew off a damaged leg to insure survival, knowing that a new one will grow in its place. Similarly, Murakami often feeds off his own work and Japanese history in order to explore our contemporary world.” – from the exhibit

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