Man at work

Rigour, neu­ro­chem­i­cals and 24/7 as­sis­tants at Takashi Mu­rakami’s stu­dio as he pre­pares for his show at Moscow’s Garage Mu­seum


Takashi Mu­rakami, his toil­ing team, and dog, as dead­line looms at his stu­dio

So far, 2017 has been a busy year for Takashi Mu­rakami. His first solo show in Scan­di­navia, ‘Mu­rakami by Mu­rakami’, ran from Fe­bru­ary to May at Oslo’s Astrup Fearn­ley Museet, and was closely fol­lowed by ‘The Oc­to­pus Eats Its Own Leg’, an ex­hi­bi­tion of his paint­ings at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art Chicago, on show un­til 24 Septem­ber. Just five days later, the artist’s first ma­jor sur­vey in Rus­sia opens at Garage Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Moscow. Mu­rakami likes it this way. ‘I am very grate­ful that my ex­hi­bi­tions are held si­mul­ta­ne­ously around the world,’ he says. ‘In the midst of this boom of a sort, I feel my head is spin­ning, though I feel anx­ious when I think about a quiet fu­ture with­out such flur­ries of ac­tiv­ity.’

Mu­rakami re­ally lives for his art. He lit­er­ally camps down in his fac­tory-sized stu­dio in Miyoshi, a rather bleak, pre­dom­i­nantly in­dus­trial area about an hour out­side Tokyo. He sleeps there, in a large card­board box in a cor­ner of one of the rooms. He eats there, of­ten pre­par­ing his own sim­ple meals. And, of course, he works there. The stu­dio is in op­er­a­tion 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the early evening, the night shift takes over from the day shift, and the hec­tic work­ing sched­ule runs on.

The stu­dio is re­mark­ably clean and highly or­gan­ised. Large sheets of card­board give in­for­ma­tion about who is on duty, pro­duc­tion sched­ules and dead­lines, and changes to art­works. When a dot of black paint has been added to a paint­ing, the paint­ing is pho­tographed. This pho­to­graph is then printed

‘I live like a monk, which is a way to in­duce the re­lease of neu­ro­chem­i­cals in my brain’

out, time-stamped and added to the pro­duc­tion board for the art­work so Mu­rakami can go back to previous ver­sions if he chooses. He is con­stantly mak­ing changes and doesn’t like dead­lines for wrap­ping up his art. ‘The dead­line of an ex­hi­bi­tion used to be my dead­line,’ he says. ‘Today, if I am re­ally un­happy about a par­tic­u­lar work, I will ask for it to be re­turned to the stu­dio af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion so I can com­plete it. If I keep at it for more than two years, how­ever, the gal­leries and the clients start to be­come se­ri­ously up­set, so when their anger reaches tip­ping point, I de­liver the work.’

In lieu of win­dows, the stu­dio is il­lu­mi­nated by hun­dreds of flu­o­res­cent tubes, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to tell the time of day. There is also hardly any sound. Staff work as­sid­u­ously at com­put­ers or crouched over paint­ings. Mu­rakami sits at his ta­ble, sketch­ing or mak­ing cor­rec­tions on trans­par­ent sheets of vinyl su­per­im­posed over print­outs of works in progress. From time to time he walks around, with his dog Pom in tow, to check on what’s hap­pen­ing and give or­ders to as­sis­tants. ‘I live like a monk, which is a way to in­duce the re­lease of neu­ro­chem­i­cals in my brain to heighten the senses and achieve a state of alert­ness,’ Mu­rakami says of his rigid work­ing style. When Wall­pa­per* vis­ited, his fo­cus was on the ex­hi­bi­tion at Garage. The open­ing was barely two months away and sev­eral of the com­mis­sioned works for the show were still un­fin­ished.

Garage Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art was founded in 2008 by oli­garch Ro­man Abramovich, an avid art col­lec­tor, and his then wife Dasha Zhukova. The mu­seum takes its name from the bus garage, de­signed by con­struc­tivist ar­chi­tect Kon­stantin Mel­nikov, that was its first home. Af­ter a brief pe­riod in a tem­po­rary space de­signed by Shigeru Ban, the mu­seum moved in 2015 to a per­ma­nent lo­ca­tion, a pre­fab­ri­cated con­crete pavil­ion that pre­vi­ously housed a restau­rant. The space had been out of use for more than two decades and was in ru­ins when Zhukova com­mis­sioned an over­haul by OMA, which wrapped the ex­ist­ing con­crete struc­ture in a dou­ble poly­car­bon­ate skin. The wide, open spa­ces were ren­o­vated but kept as close to their orig­i­nal form as pos­si­ble. A beau­ti­ful mo­saic mu­ral de­pict­ing au­tumn, which now greets vis­i­tors en­ter­ing the mu­seum, was also sal­vaged from the restau­rant.

For the past two years, Garage’s se­nior cu­ra­tor Katya Inozemt­seva has been hard at work on the ex­hi­bi­tion. To ex­plain Mu­rakami to a Rus­sian au­di­ence, she has or­gan­ised more than 70 art­works into five sec­tions, each ex­plor­ing a Ja­panese cul­tural phe­nom­e­non that is ex­am­ined in Mu­rakami’s art. In the ‘Kawaii’ sec­tion, a new 3m-long paint­ing serves as a back­drop. Fea­tur­ing Mu­rakami’s trade­mark smil­ing flow­ers, the partly

gilded piece in­tro­duces vis­i­tors to the artist’s treat­ment of the Ja­panese con­cept of ‘cute­ness’, via an all-star cast of Do­rae­mon, Poké­mon and Hello Kitty char­ac­ters.

The ‘Gei­jutsu’ sec­tion prom­ises to ap­peal to vis­i­tors in­ter­ested in Mu­rakami’s back­ground in tra­di­tional

ni­honga paint­ing. Si­t­u­at­ing his art in a his­tor­i­cal con­text, it also fea­tures older works by Kat­sushika Hoku­sai, Kawan­abe Kyo­sai and Uta­gawa Ku­niyoshi, on loan from the Pushkin Mu­seum of Fine Arts, to help view­ers bet­ter un­der­stand the ref­er­ences to Ja­panese art his­tory of­ten found in Mu­rakami’s work. ‘Be­cause the Rus­sian pub­lic only has an ap­prox­i­mate no­tion of Ja­panese his­tory and his­tory of art in par­tic­u­lar, we don’t recog­nise the in­flu­ences and ref­er­ences he con­tin­u­ously makes,’ says Inozemt­seva. ‘Mu­rakami ba­si­cally con­tin­ues what has been called the “lin­eage of ec­centrics” that be­gan in the Edo pe­riod [1615-1868] with artists like Iwasa Matabei, Kano Sansetsu, Ito Jakuchu and Soga Sho­haku. There has never been a show that ex­plores these kinds of con­nec­tions to his­tory, which is why I wanted to take this ap­proach.’

An­other sec­tion, ‘The Lit­tle Boy and the Fat Man’, ex­plores how the Hiroshima and Na­gasaki bomb­ings in 1945 trans­formed Ja­panese vis­ual aes­thet­ics. In a Euro­pean first, Mu­rakami’s Sea Breeze in­stal­la­tion from 1992 is on dis­play. The piece is a large, open box on wheels, with a set of mer­cury lamps in the mid­dle. The lamps turn on and off in pow­er­ful glares rem­i­nis­cent of the flashes af­ter the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Na­gasaki. Ac­cord­ing to Inozemt­seva, ‘this is the cru­cial and very early piece that re­veals and out­lines the shape of Mu­rakami’s in­tense in­ter­est for the whole post-bomb­ing/post-war the­matic’. One of the artist’s trade­marks also fea­tures promi­nently: a skull ap­pear­ing out of a large mush­room cloud, which he calls ‘Time Bokan’ af­ter a fa­mous Ja­panese anime TV se­ries. These mo­tifs en­gage in a vis­ual con­ver­sa­tion with the large neon Time Bokans that dec­o­rate the façade of the mu­seum.

Rather than sim­ply hang­ing the art­works on its walls, Garage is mount­ing many of them through­out the space on a spe­cially made metal mesh. Inozemt­seva wanted to make the back of Mu­rakami’s paint­ings vis­i­ble. ‘The back sides are per­fect, no less elab­o­rate than the front,’ she says. ‘Plus, you can see the names of all the con­trib­u­tors who par­tic­i­pated in the cre­ation of each paint­ing. Some­times Mu­rakami works on one paint­ing for years, so the list can be al­most end­less. I be­lieve it re­veals his at­ti­tude to his team. They are not just anony­mous as­sis­tants, like in a medieval stu­dio or con­tem­po­rary art fac­tory. They are highly de­voted and ap­pre­ci­ated col­lab­o­ra­tors.’

To of­fer an in­sight into the work­ings of the artist’s stu­dio, Garage is recre­at­ing its mood and struc­ture in the ‘Su­ta­jio’ sec­tion (a pho­netic ren­der­ing of the Ja­panese for ‘stu­dio’). This is an­other first for a Mu­rakami ex­hi­bi­tion: as­sis­tants are stay­ing on af­ter the in­stal­la­tion to give classes on his art and tech­niques. The fi­nal sec­tion, ‘Asobi & Kazari’ (fun and dec­o­ra­tion), spreads play­ful pieces through­out the mu­seum, ex­tend­ing Mu­rakami’s uni­verse to the gift shop, the façade and the world be­yond.∂ ‘Takashi Mu­rakami: Un­der the Ra­di­a­tion Falls’, Garage Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Moscow, 29 Septem­ber 2017 – 4 Fe­bru­ary 2018,

above, mu­rakami’s many as­sis­tants work in near si­lence at the stu­dio, which is op­er­ated 24/7, in shifts. on the wall hangs work in progress of a piece com­mis­sioned for the garage ex­hi­bi­tion

bot­tom, a work in progress Model of the garage ex­hi­bi­tion. spe­cially de­signed Mesh Mounts will al­low some works to be seen from both sides

left, Mu­rakami sketches and Makes cor­rec­tions on trans­par­ent vinyl sheets laid over print­outs of his works in progress

be­low, the stu­dio’s im­pres­sive cac­tus gar­den in­spires some of the forms in Mu­rakami’s art­works

above, on sheets of card­board, a record of the many changes each art­work goes through be­low, mu­rakami’s vans dry off out­side the stu­dio

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