The first thing you notice when you pull up outside the front doors of Larry Gagosian’s eponymous gallery is the long line pouring down the street. The line is made up of both young and old New Yorkers in skinny blue jeans and black fedoras. You might look down at your phone to double-check the address and ensure you have not mistakenly arrived at the opening of a new hip night club. You have not: the address is correct, and this is the opening reception for Takashi Murakami‘s latest exhibition, entitled In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow.
If you are familiar with Takashi Murakami’s artwork and the artist’s ability to both draw from and seep back into popular culture, this scene does not confuse you. The line, the crowd, the entire affair, fits perfectly in line with the career of the Tokyo-based artist whose work has appeared both in the salon of the historic Chateau of Versailles near Paris, and imprinted on a not-so-limited edition of cherry blossom Louis Vuitton bags.
However, Murakami’s latest exhibition, on display at Gagosian Gallery’s Chelsea location until January 17th, 2015, takes a dark departure from much of his work that precedes it. Since the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011, Murakami has “explored Japanese art produced in response to historic natural disasters.” His new exhibition is a colorful commentary on traditional and contemporary belief systems as they evolve out of disaster and calamity, combining, “fiction, manga, and Buddhist and Shinto imagery, Murakami investigates the role of faith amid the inexorable transience and trauma of existence.”
In the Land of the Dead… opens with perhaps its most spectacular piece, “Bakuramon”, a life-sized 56-ton wooden replica of a sanmon temple, Rashomon, the historical gate to Heian Kyo (Kyoto), Japan’s capital and largest city of the eleventh century. Many Japanese myths and legends begin at the gates of Bakuramon. But here the wooden structure sits heavily in the center of the clean cubed room, its rugged edges and chipped exterior a juxtaposition to the space around it. You may notice the light scent of aged wood that fills the large room, and then the two menacing deities with spiraling horns, towering over the gate at its side – presumably on guard (“Embodiment of ‘A'” and “Embodiment of ‘Um'”). Immediately, you know you are in a land that you have never been to before.
Viewers can then walk through the temple to enter the larger exhibition space, first coming face-to-face with the title piece of the show, “In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of the Rainbow”. This sprawling mural spans the entire width of the gallery wall with a visual narrative that flows horizontally in the tradition of a scroll painting. At its center and seen prominently from the gate’s entrance are a collection of human skulls. This particular painting was inspired by an 18th century painting by Soga Shohaku, titled “Immortals”.
The installation also features two other panorama murals, each both complex and disarming. In a smaller gallery room is a silver sculpture interpretive of the artist himself, a rendition of a piece common to Murakami’s collections of works. Also of note are two shimmering gold totem sculptures in the image of welcoming demons, and discs of smiling flowers, which too find their rightful place among this “Land of the Dead”. Altogether the show is a vibrant blend of both of ancient and modern inspiration, forming something quite removed from and more compelling than both.
And since you are familiar with Murakami’s work, it would not surprise you to also find, during the opening reception for his latest exhibition, the artist crowded by a horde of people wearing a helmet of flesh-like material: a triple head with three sets of eyes. In the world that Murakami seeks to portray this too is fitting. Of this world, Murakami says: “chaos is natural, but we have to make sense of it somehow.”
Takashi Murakami: In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of the Rainbow is on view at Gagosian Gallery, 24th Street, New York, Nov 10, 2014 – Jan 17, 2015