The close, almost incestuous relationship between art and money is a very old story. You might even say it is the only story at the moment.
You can know this, understand it to a certain extent, and still have it rear up and bite you on the bum. Such was my experience of attending the exhibition preview of Takashi Murakami’s The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
The show is the first major retrospective of Murakami’s work in Canada, and the VAG has spared no expense in marketing the living hell out of the thing. From the massive cephalopod installed atop the dome of the gallery, to the ocean of smiling cartoon flowers, to the posters papering every inch of downtown Vancouver, it is in a word: huge.
If you don’t know much about Murakami the show is illuminating, in many different ways. Expansive in extremis, the exhibition includes more than 50 works that trace a path through the evolution of Murakami’s style and aesthetic, moving from his early dark textural paintings that blatantly ripped off Anselm Kiefer, to his later pop-art style (Superflat), familiar from Kanye West albums and Louis Vuitton handbags.
The term “sell out” has been actively, even gleefully embraced by the artist, although it is hard to separate how much is marketing shtick from a genuine and authentic position.
But make no mistake, money runs underneath the VAG show like an engine. You can feel it in the air, thrumming with a strange radioactive current, like a heat mirage coming off the people madly snapping selfies next to the Kanye Bear sculpture.
The artist himself seems particularly aware of how much of a financial edifice surrounds the human impulse to make images. In an on-stage interview with senior VAG curator Bruce Grenville during a media preview for the show, Murakami spoke plainly about the need for survival (a.k.a. money) that has propelled his career.
Given the scale of the work, this is not without practicality. As Grenville informed the assembled media, one of the things that he noticed during the installation process was the list of names, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, on the backside of the paintings. As Murakami’s studio Kaikai Kiki expanded, the necessity to bring on extra bodies to do the work became an increasing reality. The artist explains that it was film credits, the endless scroll of names after a movie like Star Wars, that inspired the idea to cite all the folk variously responsible for creating his large-scale pieces. “When I started my career, I had no money, I needed help.” This often involved enticing friends with beer, food and partying. The credits are also a way of telling future audiences about the largely invisible folk who contributed to its creation.
The title of the show takes inspiration from Japanese folklore about a creature that sacrifices part of its own body so that the greater whole might survive. In the natural world, an octopus will chew off its own leg if there is an infection, and then regrow the missing limb. In the art world, the idea pertains to the practice of regurgitating (recycling) old ideas to serve the endless voracious demand for new stuff. “I don’t have the talent to come up with new ideas, so in order to survive, you have to eat your own body,” Murakami explains, citing his need for deadlines, and very bad economic conditions, that lead to a state of almost Dostoyevskyian desperation. “Please give me the money now!” he yells, and the assembled press laughs on cue.
The challenge of deadlines is one thing, but as Grenville asks, “What is the additional need to surpass your own aesthetic, pushing into areas that mix high and low culture, mixing folkloric traditions with anime, graffiti, street art and various eccentric subcultures?”
“Number one, I am looking for excitement, and number two, I have to survive,” answers the artist. But as the Vancouver show makes clear, there is also a little something called posterity at work. Western artists have had an easier route to success, “But I’m Japanese, that’s why I have to do something different,” Murakami says.
For an extended essay on the artist’s motivations, influences and conflicting impulses, seek out curator Michael Darling’s monograph on Murakami’s work, Doomed to Survive. No doubt it is available in the VAG gift shop, along with $300 plush replicas of the artist’s smiling flowers, posters, stuffies and T-shirts. On the exhibition’s opening day, some of the larger limited-edition prints were already sold out.
The artist has been critiqued for flattening all distinctions between consumerist culture and high art, essentially maintaining that the divide no longer exists. Feeding the art world machine is one thing, but Murakami’s work has increasingly strayed into the Moloch maw that is fashion and pop culture. The scale and volume of the work has superseded almost everything else.
Even the press conference in Vancouver was thronged with folk, some media, but other denizens of the art and fashion world, distinctive in their fabulous chunky shoes, crisp haircuts and oddly wide pants. What is it about cropped balloon pants that draws the art crowd, I wonder? It is a distinctive and immediately recognizable aesthetic, that silently screams “I AM CULTURED!”
There are those moments in Vancouver when you realize that you’ve crossed over into some other population stream, running concurrently with your own but separated by rivers of money, power and privilege. So it was here, as I looked at the sea of chic women, with very red lipstick and very big pants, and wondered, “Who are these people?”
The man at the centre of the event was not immune to the siren call of fashion, dressed in a pink and purple ensemble, snaked over with tentacle motifs and shot through with shining gold thread, all topped off with an enormous plop of a hat that resembled a cheery octopus eating the artist’s head. It was, to be sure, a statement outfit, rendering the relationship between artist and his work in naked fashion.
But despite being clothed in shining regalia that echoed and amplified the spectacle of the show, Murakami seemed somewhat sad. At the press event, as the tech dudes adjusted the podium mics and moved lights around, Murakami sat quietly, his hands folded in his lap, washed over by what looked like exhaustion or maybe the greyness of jet lag. But when the show got going, he mugged and posed for the flashing cameras with the air of a seasoned performer. A wandering Octopus mascot bumped and bumbled its floppy tentacles amongst the sea of assembled art and media types, who cheered Coun. Andrea Reimer’s proclamation of Murakami Day in the City of Vancouver.
Before the exhibition officially opened to the public, several other events were planned, including Murakami’s Birthday Bash and After Party, a $1,000 sit-down dinner, and a $350 party at the Commodore Ballroom featuring the musical styling of one DJ Mix Master Mike, late of the Beastie Boys.
The artist’s responsibility to address larger issues like gender, politics and the environment was the final question posed during the Q&A, before the media were allowed into the gallery to see the work. Murakami took his time before answering, speaking through the nice female translator beside him. “Artists don’t have that much power in the world, but they can speak to the audience of the future, who look at the artwork from a certain era, like Goya paintings, and see not just social commentary, but an artistic point of view. The job of the artist is to dig deep into human beings.”
Which is a nice sentiment to be sure, but increasingly art is about celebrity and profit. Record-breaking shows like Alexander McQueen’s Savage Beauty and Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between demonstrated an easy appeal for both audiences and corporations. One of Murakami’s earlier exhibitions featured a Louis Vuitton pop-up shop as part of the show. Closer to home, the Fight for Beauty exhibit mixed fashion, art and development in a decidedly queasy-making mixture.
There is money to be made in culture of a certain scale, with scale being the operative word. Get big or get out.
A recent article in the Vancouver Courier about the Oakridge redevelopment plans highlighted the relationship between development and culture in raw numbers: “1,000,000 square feet of retail, 2,600 homes for 6,000 people, office space for 3,000 workers, a 100,000-square-foot community centre and daycare, the city’s second-largest library, a performing arts academy, a live music venue for 3,000 people and the largest public art program in Vancouver’s history...”
Westbank’s Ian Gillespie was quoted extensively, outlining the integration between the city and the developer. “The development team will also work with the city’s chief librarian to figure out the future of the library, while the 3,000-seat music venue will create an ‘incredible music scene.’” The term “cultural hub” also pops up so many times it’s almost funny, in a horrifying kind of way.
But bigness often squeezes out artists and musicians who simply can’t compete. Folk who can’t fill a 3,000-seat venue, or pack in thousands of visitors, like the Murakami show, are out of luck.
Vancouver artists, who struggle to survive in the city and have done so for quite some time, were singularly unimpressed with the Oakridge development proposal. Selina Crammond, a local musician and all-around firebrand, summed up the divide in a few eloquent sentences: “I mean really, who is going to make up this ‘incredible music scene’ and fill all of these shiny new venues? Many of my favourite local musicians have already moved away from Vancouver because they just can’t make it work. Who’s going to pay the musicians and workers? Who’s going to pay the large ticket prices to be able to maintain these spaces? I don’t think space is the problem. I think affordability and distribution of wealth and funding are the problems artists and arts workers are facing.”
The stories continue to pop up, the most recent being the possible sale and redevelopment of the Rio Theatre. The news sparked an outpouring of anger, but the story is repeated so often in Vancouver, it has become something of a cliché. You need only to look at the story of the Hollywood Theatre for a likely ending to the saga.
Which brings me back around to the Murakami exhibit. To be perfectly frank, the show is incredible and well-worth visiting. I enjoyed every minute of wandering through it taking in the sheer expanse of mind-boggling, googly-eyed detail. I would urge you to attend, if you can afford it. But there’s the rub. I was there for free, and general admission to the VAG is $22.86. This may not seem like a lot, but in a city where people can barely make rent, culture becomes the purview of them that can afford it.
The City of Vancouver recently launched its Creative Cities initiative to look at issues of affordability, diversity and gentrification.
We shall see if anything real emerges from the process. But in the meantime, Vancouver artists might have to eat their own legs simply to survive.