Takashi Murakami in front of Dragon in Clouds—Indigo Blue, 2010 Credit: Maria Ponce Berre/MCA Chicago

In 2008 I was lucky enough to see “© Murakami,” a significant retrospective of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami’s work, at the Brooklyn Museum (the show had opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which organized it). The exhibit was very much of that moment in time, visualizing and addressing the symptoms and aesthetics of mid- to late-2000s capitalism, right before the housing market was about to collapse the global economy. So when the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago announced “Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” which opened last week, my first question was how that artwork would appear now, a decade later, after Obama’s election, the recession, Kimye, drones, advances in smartphone technology, Trump’s election, et cetera.

The MCA’s approach to this question is shrewd: it has bookended the moment in time. “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” contains some of the same pieces that appeared in “© Murakami,” but they make up a little less than half of the exhibit. One room is dedicated to some of Murakami’s earliest paintings, which hardly ever appear in major exhibitions of his work, and the rest is devoted to what Murakami has produced since 2008, some of which was made specifically for “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” and none of which has been seen in the United States before. “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” is just as revelatory and insightful as “© Murakami,” the former saying as much about our own present moment as the latter did in its era.

“© Murakami” arrived when the artist was arguably at the peak of his fame. Part of this celebrity was due to his association with Kanye West—Murakami had created the cover for the 2007 album Graduation as well as the iconic “Kanye bear” that’s featured on the cover. Another factor was Murakami’s work for Louis Vuitton, especially the “Multicolore Monogram” design, a rainbow-on-white pattern that became a trademark of luxury wear during the mid-2000s. Murakami’s collaborations with West and Louis Vuitton manifested aesthetic and cultural trends of the mid-2000s: bright colors, gaudy accessories, and a nonsensical kind of conviviality. Despite the Iraq war, Afghanistan, the fallout from 9/11, and an impending financial disaster, the mood in the United States was weirdly upbeat, even celebratory. Graduation is remembered now as West’s brightest and most jubilant album, full of zapping major-key synths and lyrics that were more self-assured and optimistic than on any of West’s albums before or since.

If you were really attuned to the times, however—Children of Men, The Wire, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Burial, M.I.A., Roberto Bolaño—things seemed very grim. Part of what made “© Murakami” such a timely and brilliant show was the wink of irony that infused every piece (after all, the title of the exhibition has a copyright tag in it). The most memorable portion of “© Murakami” was a fully operational Louis Vuitton shop that was located in the museum. The store resembled a Louis Vuitton outpost in Beverly Hills or Manhattan and had a staff that worked temporarily for the shop—they weren’t artist’s assistants or Brooklyn Museum employees. Was this a tongue-in-cheek commentary on contemporary capitalism, or a blatant act of commerce masquerading as “fine art”?

To Murakami, there really isn’t all that much of a difference. He’s most famous for pioneering Superflat, a Japanese art movement predicated on the idea that the boundaries that separate artistic and commercial production have been flattened. Murakami has said in many places that he sees no distinction between something like Flower Ball 2, a circular acrylic work that resembles a ball of cartoon daisies with open-mouthed smiley faces at the center of each flower, and a mass-produced key chain of one of those daisies. But the morbid humor of some of his artworks and his deep knowledge of art history mean that Murakami’s lack of differentiation between art and commerce is just as much of a punch line as a theory, a grand joke on the art world. How else to look at My Lonesome Cowboy, a statue that was part of “© Murakami”? It’s an eight-foot-tall naked male manga character with spiky blonde hair, holding his ejaculating erect penis with one hand and with the other wrangling the ejaculate like a lasso. In 2008, Sotheby’s sold it for $15.1 million.

Visitors to “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” who also viewed “© Murakami” will recognize the multiple artworks featuring Mr. Dob, a cartoon mouse that was the subject of many of Murakami’s pieces during the 90s and early 2000s. A maniacal take on Mickey Mouse, Mr. Dob appears in simpler form in early works such as ZuZaZaZaZaZa (1994), a five-foot-tall painting in which he is depicted leaping in midair against a red backdrop, a stream of white liquid trailing beneath him. But by 2002’s Tan Tan Bo Puking—aka Gero Tan, Mr. Dob is a grotesque monstrosity, painted onto four nearly 12-foot-tall panels and filled with fluorescent whorls and stains, looking like Godzilla seen through the eyes of someone who just ingested an unhealthy amount of psilocybin mushrooms.

Takashi Murakami, Tan Tan Bo Puking—aka Gero Tan, 2002Credit: Courtesy MCA Chicago

Most of the pieces from this time period are heavily informed by manga, which Murakami acknowledges as a major influence, along with otaku, a term commonly associated with diehard anime fandom. Murakami in fact first wanted to be an animator, but the manga elements of his work belie his impressive art- history background. He attended the Tokyo University of the Arts and received a PhD in Nihonga, a traditional style of Japanese painting that’s created with specific techniques and materials. But Murakami was more excited about contemporary art, especially Anselm Kiefer, the German neo-Expressionist painter who often uses substances other than paint in his pieces.

Kiefer’s considerable impact on the young Murakami is obvious in the early contributions that appear in “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.” Nuclear Power Picture (1988) is a hazy nighttime painting of three shadowy figures standing in front of cooling towers pumping out smoke. Made with straw, cardboard, silver, and gold pigment, the piece is a blatant rip-off of Kiefer’s aesthetic—its nonpaint materials extrude from the surface of the canvas. But Nuclear Power Picture signals the undertones of horror in Murakami’s artwork, foretelling the unsavory elements of even his most buoyant pieces.

During an artist talk that took place a few days before the June 6 opening of “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” Murakami told curator Michael Darling that the latter had chosen “my superembarrassing paintings.” But later Murakami explained how Kiefer informed his own eureka moment as an artist, in an unexpected yet apt parallel with Jeff Koons. Both Kiefer and Koons use contemporary modes of their countries’ means of artistic production to address their nation’s history and social climate. Murakami does the same: he employs many craftsmen, like a manga studio, to create artworks that fuse traditional Japanese art with modern Japanese culture. And his work functions as a continuous commentary on both Japanese society and the rest of an increasingly interconnected civilization.

The sections of “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” that showcase Murakami’s efforts from the past decade signal that his commentary is bleak. Instead of Mr. Dob there’s Embodiment of “A” and Embodiment of “Um” (both 2014), 14-foot-tall statues of hellish demons, one red and one blue, holding humongous clubs, standing on top of multicolored daises that look like the game Simon. In place of cute cartoon characters there’s 100 Arhats (2013)—ten nearly ten-foot-tall panels depicting hideous, deformed, geriatric human beings and mutants with crooked noses, festering sores, and drooping faces and limbs. The figures in 100 Arhats reappear in Isle of the Dead (2014); both paintings reference the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resultant Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. But these monstrous beings aren’t meant to represent people who’ve been disfigured by catastrophe—”arhats” are legendary Buddhist monks who aided the sick.

Takashi Murakami, Embodiment of “A”, 2014Credit: Courtesy MCA Chicago

In other words, though the second half of “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” seems more extreme than Murakami’s pre-2008 output, the new material actually reflects a gentler, more mellow direction and a reengagement with Japanese history. Some of the contributions wouldn’t be terribly out of place in the Art Institute’s collection of 19th-century Japanese art. Korin: Tranquility and Korin: The Golden River (both 2015) are circular acrylic pieces, one gold and one silver, with colorful flowers overlaid on a rippling, electric river. Dragon in Clouds—Indigo Blue (2010) is daunting and awe-inspiring, even for Murakami. Over ten feet tall and more than 50 feet long, it’s a multipanel artwork with a goofy-looking dragon resting his chin amid branches and leaves, all painted in blue on cream-colored surfaces. However, because of how gigantic Dragon in Clouds is, up close the patterns look like swirls and elegant brushstrokes. It’s the loveliest and most serene artwork by Murakami I’ve ever seen.

The final room, which showcases artworks Murakami created specifically for “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” boasts busy, enormous, and remarkably intricate pieces. They’re similarly applied to panels or round canvases, with fluorescent colors and detailed linear patterns. Kraken in Another Dimension is a turquoise extraterrestrial cephalopod that resembles the alien baby Will Smith delivers from a parked car in Men in Black. In North Equatorial Current and the Dragon, a rainbow-coated half dragon-half fish crashes into water that’s the color of a candy store, an LSD-addled approach to 18th-century Japanese art. And in the middle of the room is Chakras Open and I Drown Under the Waterfall of Life, a collaboration with graffiti artists Madsaki and Snipe1 that’s nearly 20 feet tall and made out of Styrofoam, water-based urethane, wood, iron, and acrylic paint. Its placement is jarring, surrounded by the gentler art on the walls—it resembles a spray-painted column that’s been removed from a building in early-1980s Manhattan, or a set piece from Blade Runner.

Chakras Open once again recalls Fukushima—Murakami says it’s supposed to be a water spout—and the various components of “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” are explicit references to traditional Japanese art. The takeaway is that Murakami has reached some kind of chaotic harmony, presently preoccupied by a fusion of antiquated styles and contemporary forms of expression. “In general, fine art people perceive someone just sitting down and focusing on creativity and production as really good,” Murakami said in an interview with GQ Style, “and if there’s a big boom or too much hype around something it seems like, Oh it’s too commercial, but in fact from the creative side to be pushed to that kind of chaotic level with the boom—when you have to keep producing and you don’t even know what you’re doing, what you’re creating—in that state sometimes you can achieve that purity that’s otherwise not possible . . . ” He says in wall text in the last room that the title of the exhibit invokes a Japanese folktale about an octopus who eats its own leg to survive, knowing the tentacle will regenerate. Murakami is the octopus: he consumes the history, culture, and even his own oeuvre to persevere as an artist.

What’s notable about this stage in Murakami’s practice is how closely it mirrors Kanye West’s. Last year’s The Life of Pablo was a messy, fractured, sometimes vulgar, ambitious, and occasionally brilliant album about the trappings of success and the challenges of artistic creation. It featured a bevy of samples, guest appearances, coproducers, and shifts in mood—an unfiltered, haphazard release that can only be understood by the internal logic of its creator. It’s no coincidence that “Real Friends,” a cut off of The Life of Pablo about how fame makes genuine friendship impossible, so closely mirrors in sound and delivery “Good Morning,” the opening track of Graduation, a triumphant declaration of professional and financial achievement. Eight years later, Kanye’s elation has curdled into paranoia and isolation.

Another way of viewing “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” is that each one of us is the octopus, consuming information and then using it to maintain our own creative survival. Murakami indicated as much during his artist talk. At one moment Darling brought onstage Marc Ecko, the creator of the Ecko clothing line and Complex Media. Ecko discussed Complexcon, his convention for “creatives,” and how Murakami had influenced his work, and how art and fashion could help save the world. Basically, he said a bunch of bullshit. Someone in the audience asked Ecko the most obvious question: Aren’t fashion and goods just commerce, not art?

Murakami helped address this, with the aid of a translator, and his answer was thoughtful. He said that the Internet has changed art comprehension—everyone understands everything about art because of Wikipedia and Google. He mentioned a retrospective at the MCA of Dan Flavin’s work in 2005; he pointed out, as relayed to him by Darling, that people didn’t understand how Flavin’s fluorescent light sculptures were art. Now, thanks to smartphones, anyone can read criticism and commentary on art as soon as he or she has seen it. At Complexcon, he saw how the Internet has collapsed the distinction between streetwear and contemporary art, flattened the boundaries between merchandise and the art market. In other words, the Internet is the medium everyone operates in now, and it’s equalized everything, high, low, and sideways. Ecko may have been putting on a fair of neoliberal fantasies, but Murakami saw something else—how people will perceive artistic creation in the future.

I’m still not sure that Murakami really answered the audience member’s question. The Internet may be a new global marketplace that everyone can access, but not everyone has equal footing in that marketplace. “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg” advances the logical and amplified version of Superflat, not just a flattening of artistic mediums but a flattening of history, nations, commerce, and even biography. But there are two ways of looking at its message. On one hand, the future of the art world is a utopian landscape where all creative pursuits are treated equally, so that skateboarding and video games and comic books are accorded the same prestige as fine arts, filmmaking, and literature; the octopus eats itself knowing that its leg will regenerate. The alternative perspective is that supporting oneself creatively is only available to the wealthiest people on earth; those without the means to become professional artists are also eating their own limbs, but there’s no guarantee they’ll grow back.  v