You’ll know Japanese artist Takashi Murakami is in town before you even enter the Vancouver Art Gallery. For his only Canadian stop on the global tour of his exhibit The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, he’s wrapped the Georgia Street facade of the venue in a giant custom-made octopus.
The exterior wrap is just one of many new additions to the touring show that Murakami and his team at Kaikai Kiki Co. have created for the Vancouver edition of the exhibit.
Murakami, who is celebrating his birthday on February 1, just ahead of the show’s opening to the public, explains that in part he created more art just for Vancouver because he became enamoured with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s curators, in particular Bruce Grenville, whose laid-back vibes let the artist feel more motivated to fill the gallery’s many unique spaces.
One space is the rotunda, which is indeed decked out in Murakami’s signature splashes of colour and nods to pop and street art. Omnipresent are the octopi, the central motif of the show (though there are plenty of those smiley-face acid trip cartoon flowers, to be certain).
Murakami, through a translator, explains that the name of the show takes its inspiration from a Japanese folklore saying, meaning that sometimes in order to survive, you have to take from yourself, and deplete your own reserves, just to get by.
He humbly adds that part of his quest for survival is that he feels he lacks talent, so he must constantly borrow from himself–eat his own leg–to create new work, and work that the public demands. In a way, though, being just that hungry is part of the challenge that makes him thrive.
Survival is a central motif in the life and work of Murakami, who readily talks about leaner years–figuratively and literally–when he was starting his career and bringing people on board to help and paying them in beer and food.
But one other way that Murakami pays it forward is by offering credit to his collaborators and the dozens of staff at Kaikai Kiki who help make his large-scale–epic, often–artistic visions a reality. Grenville points out that behind the scenes, the names of a piece’s contributors are put on the back, and notes that for visitors to the exhibit, they’ll see those names displayed as part of the show.
Credits are important to Murakami, who says they were somewhat inspired by a youth spent watching movies. Movies continue to inspire Murakami, who says he is endeavouring to create a sci-fi film, and part of the process is to jump into the unknown and go through the struggle of being out of his element (despite a deep love of movies like “Star Wars,” which he mentions a couple of times as example).
While Murakmai has been steadily approached by hip hop artists in search of collaboration (Kanye West being the first), Murakami is perhaps more interested in letting the work he produces do less about changing the current world we live in, and instead illustrate the world that we had lived in to future generations of viewers.
Some of those viewers maybe the kids that are easily drawn to Murakami’s kooky colour palates and cartoon-y characters (though keep your kids away from the gift shop, where even the smallest trinkets are in the $35-100 zone), and Murakami admits that he is a “niche” artists by design. He’s found a way to draw people into his art, and to give the public a reason to bring art into their lives.
Murakami’s work, as Councillor Andrea Reimer put it in her welcome remarks (ahead of presenting the artist and birthday boy with the declaration February 1, 2018 is “Takashi Murakami Day in the City of Vancouver,”) “exemplifies the edge Vancouver lives on.” That edge is evident in our geography, our proximity to Asia, and a place where in the ever-mingling blend of cultures “no idea is too crazy.”
Crazy is an appropriate word for many of Murakami’s works, but they are wildly compelling, and will certainly draw easy crowds to the Vancouver Art Gallery. And in turn, Murakami will realize his vision of building community, leaving a legacy reflective of his time, and make a little money in the process. A powerful lesson in survival disguised as a seven-legged octopus.
Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg is at the Vancouver Art Gallery from February 3 to May 6, 2018.