An octopus in distress can chew off a damaged leg to ensure survival, knowing that a new one will grow in its place. Or so says the press release for Takashi Murakami’s retrospective “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” at the Museum of Contemporary Art. As a metaphor for Murakami’s practice, the phenomenon is apt. From his early paintings incorporating conventional nihonga materials to his mid-career anime-inflected work to his more recent neo-traditionalism, Murakami has siphoned off and remixed aspects of his native Japan into his own art.
Among the retrospective’s strengths is its inclusion of seldom-seen canvases from Murakami’s early career. By arranging Murakami’s oeuvre in a loosely chronological order, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” traces the development of Murakami’s preoccupations over his decades-long career. Despite their differences, the pieces presented here might be interpreted as documenting Murakami’s relationship with Japan, from early anxieties over nuclear energy to an embrace of otaku and kawaii pop culture to a return to Asian art history.
Even to the initiated, the bewildering array of Murakami’s influences can seem overwhelming. One room contains “jellyfish eyes” referencing the impossibly large eyes of anime characters while the next pair of eyes belongs to a wizened arhat. But Murakami is not eclectic for its own sake. According to this theory of the “Superflat” as described in the catalogue, “distinctions between high art and low culture had become irrelevant in postwar Japan.” But what if Japan is just a canary in the coal mine? Could it be we are all moving toward a world wherein there is no difference between avant-garde and kitsch?
If so, Murakami is at the forefront of this transition. Including his collaborations with Kanye West, this exhibition shows an artist comfortable weaving the commercial and the cultural. As an exhibition, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” is part of a broader trajectory for the MCA, which is in the midst of a renovation that will open a ground-floor restaurant and publicly accessible spaces within the museum. But food is not the only ally the MCA is calling upon—the museum’s fiftieth-anniversary gala features a Janelle Monáe performance.
But one begins to wonder whether Murakami and the MCA are creating trends or running after them. “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” feels less like accompanying an individual through a set of preoccupations and more like watching someone capitalize on whatever happens to resonate. Although the exhibition shows a sustained engagement with Japanese visual culture, it traffics in the most well-worn of Japanese stereotypes, pre-digesting the East for the West. We might understand Murakami as a sort of seismograph, registering cultural changes but apparently uninterested in critiquing them. In his exhibition essay, Michael Darling interprets the idiom from which the retrospective borrows its name as describing a situation wherein one is ultimately doomed. But does this sense of doom stem from circumstances actually outside of our control or from the fact we’ve spent more time gaming culture than changing it? (Brandon Sward)
Takashi Murakami’s “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” shows through September 24 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago.