Somewhere, over the rainbow at the Serpentine...

Review by Lucy Hayes

A DOSE of visual psychiatric therapy for the depressed? An acid trip? Pissed-off paintballers? An Austin Powers groovy partay setting? A children's playground? My ideal bedroom décor!….. These gut reactions and possibilities filter through the brain as your eyes manically dart around the kaleidoscopic explosion of colour and psychedelic shapes that is Takashi Murakami's anime/manga inspired popart exhibition at The Sepentine Gallery.

Wallpapered walls of petals with smiling faces, framed acrylic art pieces, obscure shaped mushroom statues and two childlike rabbit figures dominate the exhibition.

Outwardly, the show is visually cheery and good for the soul; it can be appreciated literally, without looking into the deeper connotations, but it is apparent from the recurrent imagery and symbolism that there lies scars which are being picked at in reference to such things as the Second World War, Atomic bombs, the economic crisis, stereotypes in Japanese art, pigeon-holing, and Western ideals.

The unconventional Japanese artist studied through a traditional route and learnt nihon-ga, but decided to abandon, challenge and redefine the boundaries that exist within Japanese art, that all artists must revert to manga and not fine art, to create unique pieces of art that combine the two, fully expressing his individuality.

He was strongly influenced by cultural anime, which he felt more artistic than childlike anime, similar to the Digimon, Pokamon, Powerpuff Girls genre of today and was particularly inspired by The Pink Floyd film, The Wall, where a famous animated scene had a huge impact on him, moreso than Edward Munch's The Scream.

One of his most powerful character creations, Mr DOB, is a personification of this scene, as he is literally screaming out in frustration. He is a contemporary Japanese reactionary and iconic figure for Murakami, as he firstly created him to rival the infamous Warhol Marilyn Monroe image and, secondly, to ridicule the predominant trend of 'language' art that Japanese artists were creating, copying artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger but misquoting Wittgenstein and Derrida in English, French and German without realising the spelling errors, or the meaning of the words, and thus creating irony and killing the impact of their work.

Therefore, Murakami decided to attach a silly slogan to his animated creation and combined Dobojite (meaning why?) with a postwar Japanese comedian's phrase, Oshamanbe, meaning man with sexual connotations.

In the exhibition, he appears in several acrylic art pieces, predominantly in two paintings, entitled as homages to Francis Bacon - study of Isabel Rawsthorne and study of George Dyer.

The sharp outline of Mr DOB's face, mouth and eyes is used and, within him, a rainbow of colours is literally being shot into his wide open mouth, obscure shapes and a paintball effect in the former titled piece, while in the latter, a large, colourful fireball tongue is coming out of his mouth, with a mini Mr DOB on it and a medium-sized spaceship hovering beneath.

Murakami conveys in these pieces Bacon's degenerative and abstract style and they are so manic that they instil a feeling of nausea in the viewer, which is precisely the effect Murakami hopes to create, as they reflect a time in his life when he was ill and his art became his sole salvation.

Mushrooms feature prominently in the exhibition, especially Supernova, a large canvas art piece, where assorted sizes of brightly-coloured mushrooms with blinking eyes look outwards. They appear again in a fibreglass sculpture of Mr DOB, surrounded by mushrooms in a circular motion, his mouth aghast and his hand defensibly in the air.

The mushrooms can be interpreted on two levels; firstly, as a direct reference to the Atomic bombs of Hiroshimi and Nagasaki and the catastrophic effect they had on Japan and its people at the time and the ripple effects that the younger generation encounters with a sense of living for the moment, and, secondly, due to the magical association of mushrooms in fairytales.

A mass of petals and flowers adorn the walls, as wallpaper and large canvasses, illustrative faces in each of the flowers smiling at you. Flowerball is a mass of coloured petals in a circular 3D ball and is an image replicated in three different sizes across a backdrop of more petals, which visually give the illusion of the ball bouncing across the wall.

Flowers to Murakami has unique characteristics and emulate that of a human face in power and sexuality, so he combined the effect. In Kawaii!!

With Vacances d'ete, flowers on stems with grinning faces, some shocked, some with eyes open and some shut, he's created a piece in homage to that of a crowd scene in a film and is aware of spatial distortion. The flowers, although cheery, appear to have tears in their eyes, perhaps to express the sentimentality of Japan and its people.

KaiKai Kiki are two cute kids wearing romper suits with rabbit ears; KaiKai is white and grins in each picture, Kiki is pink with three eyes and howls. They, too, are iconic, Buddhist creations, 'gods of art' to Murakami, embracing power, bravery, sensitivity and, at the same time, appearing strange and disturbing, making us feel uneasy.

In KaiKai Kiki News, we see their faces, surrounded by a mass of flowers, which, to me, gave the impression that they, as children, are the voice of youth for the Japanese generation - the surrounding flowers. In a fibreglass sculpture, they stand side by side on Flowerballs, holding staffs with skulls at the end like Buddhist acolytes representing and preserving life and death.

Jellyfish Eyes is a visually distorting piece of art and has a hypnotic effect like that of the magic eye. The rounded, bulbous white eyes with green pupils and three black eyelashes, some with peach eyelids, surrounded by a peach backdrop are replicated in three different sizes.

As you pause to stare, you initially are the spectator; however, you soon become aware that you are the one being spectated, as the eyes look out at you in an almost oppressive way, giving you the illusion of moving forward.

Murakami's inspiration for the piece relates to a fictional Japanese character called Hyakume, meaning a hundred eyes, who had eyes all over his body and a vivid tale. He remembers it from childhood of a girl who was so afraid of a portrait with peering eyes hanging in her hallway that she refused to go home each night.

I loved all of the exhibition, but a creative masterpiece I particularly liked was Ovale, which was outside the gallery, a huge helium 3D flowerball, with a Buddha-type two-faced figure on top, meditating in one expression and cheekily grinning in the other.

As you depart, your eyes still blurred with mini-rainbows, and you step into the open air and start to focus on the blues of the sky and the greens of the grass, you realise that you've witnessed a truly original, mind-altering exhibition that definitely 'surprises, disorientates and, at times, leaves the mind blank' - just as Takashi Murakami intended.

The exhibition was showing at the Serpentine Gallery from November 2002 - January 26, 2003.

Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, W2 3XA. (Recorded information: 020 7298 1515). Nearest Tube: Underground Knightsbridge, Lancaster Gate, South Kensington.

RELATED LINKS: Click here for the Serpentine Gallery website...