Five reasons to visit ‘Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats’ exhibition

Written by
Annemarie Luck

Other than to see if you can actually account for all 500 arhats, here's why you need to check out the acclaimed Japanese artist's new solo show at Mori Art Museum...

1. It’s Takashi Murakami’s first solo show in Japan in 14 years

That’s a long time considering he’s one of the country’s (and the world’s) most acclaimed contemporary artists. But that’s not to say he hasn’t been busy. Over the last few years, the 53-year-old has been running his company Kaikai Kiki, which nurtures and manages young artists in Japan; he directed his debut film ‘Jellyfish Eyes’; and then there’s the small business of actually creating ‘The 500 Arhats’. The monumental painting was originally produced in 2011 as a token of gratitude to the State of Qatar, which offered immediate support after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. It was unveiled in Doha in 2012, and this is the first time it's been shown in Japan.

2. He actually painted one of the works himself

Wait, what? Murakami doesn’t paint his own art? Well, of course he has in the past, but the prolific artist – who was once called ‘the next Andy Warhol’ – is known for gathering together groups of art students and directing them as a sort of commander-in-chief. This is how he’s been working for the last decade, and it’s how he created ‘The 500 Arhats’, enlisting over 200 Japanese art college students to help him complete the task. But besides the main painting, this exhibition also showcases several new works, one of which boasts Murakami’s own brushstrokes. During the exhibition launch, Murakami joked about how he was challenged by art historian Tsuji Nobuo, who cheekily asked him: ‘Do you actually draw anything yourself any more?’

Murakami (second from right) with art historian Tsuji Nobuo (third from right) at the opening of 'The 500 Arhats'


3. ‘The 500 Arhats’ is 100m long!

This makes it one of the largest scale paintings ever produced. It’s too big to fit into one room at Mori Art Museum, but it makes sense to break it up anyway since it’s divided up into four sections, each one bearing the name of a Chinese guardian of the four celestial directions: Blue Dragon (east), White Tiger (west), Vermilion Bird (south), Black Tortoise (north). Accordingly, each section has a very different atmosphere and colour theme. The thread that joins each section together is, of course, the arhats themselves. Looking like a cross between hunched old men and newborn aliens, Murakami’s arhats look at once grotesque, animated and humorous. As usual, the artist has successfully put a new spin on Japanese traditions through his art.

4. You can view the original microscopic ‘Five Hundred Arhats’

If at this point you’re wondering, ‘But what exactly is an arhat?’, here’s a little background: The 500 arhats are thought of as enlightened disciples of Buddha. Faith in the arhats became popular in Japan during the Heian period (8th-12th century) and flourished during the Edo period (17th-19th century). Paintings and sculptures were created in their honour, including Kano Kazunobu’s ‘Five Hundred Arhats’, which consists of 100 hanging scrolls. You can see a portion of these scrolls at Murakami’s exhibition along with Nagasawa Rosetsu’s microscopic ‘Five Hundred Arhats’ (there is actually a microscope provided so you can view the work). Both of these works inspired Murakami’s modern version, which unsurprisingly carries themes of religion, human mortality and limitations.

Murakami's 'modern' arhats were inspired by traditional Japanese paintings

5. Mr Dob, the artist’s alter ego, is alive and evolving

Any long-time fan of Takashi Murakami will be familiar with Mr Dob, the cat-robot-like character that the artist created in 1993 to act as a kind of self-portrait. As the years have gone by, Mr Dob has evolved to represent Murakami’s own changing internal landscape. He is present in several of the additional works on display, providing insight into the artist’s different life stages. Perhaps even more intriguing, however, is Murakami’s decision to include a few ‘real’ self-portraits, many of them animated but one being a photographic print called ‘Reborn’. It’s always nice when an artist lets the enigma unravel a little…

Mr Dob

'Enso' self-portrait series

'Reborn' self-portrait

'Takashi Murakami: The 500 Arhats' is on at Mori Art Museum until March 6, 2016. More details here.

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