He’s watching me. As soon as the door swings shut behind me at Al Riwaq, the specially constructed exhibition space on the Museum of Islamic Art grounds, I come face-to-face with the artist himself, Takashi Murakami. Well, maybe not face-to-face—more face-to-kneecap. The entry is dominated by a giant self-portrait balloon, several stories high.
‘He’s welcoming you into his building. Murakami-EGO pretty much stands for getting into his dream world,’ says Jeroen Vahrmeijer, the Head of Installation at the Qatar Museums Authority. He knows this exhibit inside out, because he was there when they were building it. ‘When we have a power outage his body deflates. And the clothes are put on afterwards! When we first put it up, it was a naked balloon! It’s a very detailed balloon.’
The exhibition in Qatar has a number of his works from the past 15 years, as well as brand new art.
‘He’s very pop art, he’s a very funny person. He’s hilarious,’ says Vahrmeijer as we walk past the looming Takashi and enter the exhibit proper. ‘It’s sort of saying ‘yes I’m using this, but don’t take anything too seriously’. Especially don’t take him too seriously.’
The building itself is bedecked with bright, Technicolor cartoon flowers—a Murakami signature.
‘A lot of people, they’re like ‘yeah my kids loved it’. It’s good to have kids come in, but there’s a much more personal and deeper meaning in it.’
Enter, Mr. Dob. Stepping into the first room, he leers up at us from a forest of mushrooms and quixotic cartoon characters.
‘This exhibition shows a couple of his famous characters that he uses over and over again. One is Mr. Dob, it has a kind of Mickey Mouse look to it. You actually see a couple of portraits of Mr. Dob, and also the mushroom clouds, turning into the skull. It’s much more grim and serious than just what you think could be for kids,’ says Vahrmeijer. ‘He likes mushrooms, and death and decay is a big influence in his works. The mushrooms are pretty much how he represents the mushroom cloud of the Hiroshima disaster.’
But he’s done it with fluorescent colours and mouse ears. This layering is what makes Takashi Murakami so unique. The Tokyo-born artist blends Warhol-esq portraits, anime and manga characters, evoking traditional Japanese stories done in ways that would do the graphic novelists behind The Walking Dead proud. Through it all, however, it’s uniquely Murakami.
But is it Doha? ‘So far the reaction has been really great, especially from the local population,’ says Vahrmeijer. ‘People do get it. It’s a different kind of art.’
And then we reach what Vahrmeijer says is still referred to behind the scenes as ‘the wow room’. ‘Welcome into Muarakami’s mind!’ he says, stepping into a giant black space. In the middle, a huge tent blares music and sound—there’s a constant stream of Murakami’s cartoons, as well as the trailer for his upcoming live action movie, and Kanye West’s Good Morning, staring Murakami’s Kanye Bear.
But the draw of this room is what’s arching its way around it: a hundred meter painting making its debut in Qatar.
‘This is completely new, and it was finished really like hours before it was shipped from Tokyo. He was actually inspired by the disaster in Japan and made this as a reaction to it. It’s four 25 meter elements. This is water, then you have fire, mountains and forests. And especially in this one you see the waves that are linked with the waves to the tsunami. What you see here is the frightening characters. They’re completely more serious, and darker if you see the looks on their faces. We’re very happy that he actually was able to complete this work.’
Floating above it all are Kaikai and Kiki. The two 12-metre balloons normally live in New York, where they were previously used for the 2010 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. They’re two of his favourite characters, adorable and yet slightly disconcerting (that may have to do with Kiki’s third eye).
‘When they first came here, they inflated them on the floor, and it was like ‘how are these going to fit?’ but it worked out perfectly,’ says Vahrmeijer. ‘They seem like two opposites of each other, but they actually complete each other and are kind of one. You can see how we are entering his dream mind and this crazy world. You’ll see a lot of self portraits in the show as well. These two figures are pretty much Takashi himself.’
Before we exit the building, we pass the last statue. This one is white, pure white, and incomplete. It’s done on purpose, a work in progress.
‘This is kind of ‘I’m showing what goes into the process’. This is kind of like ‘look you saw my art, but look this is what’s in it’.’
Murakami- EGO is open at the Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall, on the Museum of Islamic Art grounds, until June 24. It’s open Sun, Mon, Wed 10.30am-5.30pm; Thurs, Sat noon-8pm, Fri 2pm-8pm. Entry is QR25, free on Monday. Or, get entrance to EGO and Gifts of the Sultan at the Museum of Islamic Art for QR35. For more info, www.qma.org.qa