Takashi Murakami  (b. 1962) recently opened a major exhibition at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. This is Murakami’s first exhibition in Japan after many years and we were fortunate to have the chance to experience his work in the country that has been integral to his artistic explorations.

Takashi Murakami was an original inspiration when we began Magic Pony. His character-based artworks, connections with Otaku culture, and promotion of the Superflat movement were in alignment with what we hoped to achieve with Magic Pony: more specifically our hope to elevate character design and toys as a form of valid creative expression and to blur the line between high and low culture. As Murakami’s profile continued to grow, his art practice deepened to explore the sociological impact of Japan’s history and it’s relation to contemporary culture. More recently, after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake Murakami’s art began to take on a more global reasoning, using his position as an opportunity to examine the role of art and religion in facing social turmoil and human mortality.

The 500 Arhats exhibition at the Mori Art Museum  focuses on work made following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Epic in scale and content, the show is comprised of works from 2012-2015 ranging from large panelled paintings to towering metallic sculptures. Beginning with a re-examination of some of Murakami’s most familiar characters, cute panda-like creatures, the infamous Mr Dob, brightly coloured flowers and Murakami’s own cartoon likeness, these seemingly cute elements soon reveal a new plane of reality.

Painted on aluminum surfaces, his characters posed flat on top of environments resembling broken digital code in metallic inks, executed with the precision of a machine (the work of his assistant painters at the KaiKai Kiki/Hiropon Factory) seem to be trying to hold on to worlds that are disappearing under the spread of technology. Mixed with these cartoonish characters are traditional motifs ranging from animals like the tiger and elephant, to historic figures, all struggling to hold on. Within these conflicting environments, Murakami often places his protagonists on piles of cartoonish skulls. Less alarming at first glance because of their unassumingly cute style, the meaning of the skulls resonates deeply when the realization of what piles of bones truly represent sinks in. Each piece effectively taking on the tension that seems to be overtaking us.

As the exhibition continues characters like Mr Dob begin morphing, appearing stretched and sick, resembling DNA code or cells dividing, puking rainbow-filled dinners filled with blobs of eyes, an altered reality of high weirdness and science fiction, a maniacal overtaking of the freakishly cute. Within these overwhelming environments, beautiful and terrifying, small details remained stoic and understated. A few scattered noble flowers standing tall on the remaining green hills, a tiny dog, smiling faces offering a sense of hope and grounding in the otherwise exploding universe.

Near the end of the exhibition, The namesake work The 500 Arhats (2012), fills an entire room. Standing 3-meters high and 100-meters long, the painting of the 500 enlightened followers (arhats) of Buddha highlights the power of prayer that transcends religious differences in a dynamic vision of the intersection of finite life and the infinite nature and universe.

There is a deep sense of the importance of remembering the past as we move forward. The high contrast between history and future, tangible realities and imagined worlds helps place the current confusion of the human race in balance. From this point of view, perhaps we can see a bit more clearly. Though not explicitly positive, there was a sense of hope within the exhibition, perhaps through empathy and understanding, quieted egos and looking both at the big picture and the details within, and embracing meaning in all forms of life, we still have a chance to transcend towards a new state of being. The world is going to keep turning, changing and morphing with or without us.

The 500 Arhats is on exhibit at the Mori Art Museum until Sunday March 6, 2016.

Curators: Miki Akiko (Guest Curator, Mori Art Museum), Nanjo Fumio (Director, Mori Art Museum)