Last thought on that Takashi Murakami exhibition in L.A. As mentioned yesterday, the big controversy when it first opened was over the decision to include a Louis Vuitton boutique as a gallery within the show — not just as a gift shop, but as an integral part of the show. (From which, let the record show, the museum would derive no income, which might compromise it’s non-profit status. What a relief to know that the profit from those $900 hand bags would flow only into the deserving coffers of LVMH.) Actually the boutique is on a mezzanine level above the main exhibition floor, though it decants you back into a final gallery of paintings. Paul Schimmel, the MOCA curator who organized the show, justified the shop as an expression of Murakami’s deliberate engagement with the world of merchandising.
Fair enough, but that opens two questions. One has to do with how odd it seems, once you understand the wellsprings of nausea, anxiety and loathing that underlie Murakami’s work — I talked about all this at length yesterday — that he was asked to attach his work to luxury merchandise. You have to wonder what exactly he’s thinking when he adds his little doodads to the Louis Vuitton bags, especially when you know that he thinks cute pop culture emblems are coded signifiers of anxiety and rage. Or are there two Murakamis? The angry guy who made the paintings downstairs and the irony-free cutie pie who puts little eyeballs on luxury goods?
By way of comparison, try to imagine Francis Bacon, another master conduit of nausea and one whom Murakami admires, being asked to “brand” anybody’s anything. Notwithstanding that Bacon actually was for a while an interior designer, I don’t think we’ll be seeing the Bacon Home Collection anytime soon. (Though it might be fun. Maybe he could sell “Bloody Stools”. In a set of four.) Louis Vuitton, of course, may not care about any of this. Their collaboration with Murakami has brought in hundreds of millions. And of course the people buying those bags probably never think about what Murakami’s larger project is. But I have to wonder what Murakami thinks he’s doing, in his heart of hearts.
Then again, even if they do know that Murakami’s images are the work of a man who sees cute kitsch figures as little emblems of fear and disgust, Lous Vuitton would not be the only hip merchandiser to be using art as a way to play with the consumer’s conflicted feelings about, well, consumption. Over in the U.K., Selfridges department stores have been collaborating with the American artist Barbara Kruger in a Christmas season tv ad campaign that plays off her famous 1987 screenprint Untitled (I Shop Therefore I Am) and other Kruger images. What began 20 years ago as a critique of consumerism, ends as an enabling device, allowing hip shoppers to address their own materialism through a sanitizing haze of irony, that all purpose postmodern defense mechanism. Ka-ching!
Last question. If a consumer transaction is in some way essential to the Murakami experience, and God knows the case could be made, why does it have to be one on the upper end of his merchandising universe? Doesn’t that deny the experience to any visitor who doesn’t have the disposable income for a $900 tote bag? (On my visit to the show last month I loitered around the LV boutique for some time, hoping at least to see someone else make a purchase — would that qualify as a secondary aesthetic experience? — but nobody treated me to the money shot.) Instead of a luxury boutique, why not have a gallery/salesfloor that sells any of the multitude of lower priced Murakami merchandise, t-shirts and so on? Weirdly, there was a gallery of those, in glass cases, but they weren’t for sale.
All the same, there was some Murakami merchandise available in the Geffen’s usual gift shop on the way out. As I picked through it I felt myself part of something larger. I just wasn’t sure what it was.