Murakami Exhibit is a Popular Culture ‘Explosion’

In the years after Japan was defeated in World War II, the country went into a state of numbing shock. The atomic bombs dropped on Japan not only obliterated entire cities and wiped out generations of people, but also left the country’s citizens questioning their identity and culture. Some of the creative results of this post-war reflection are chronicled in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Curated by pop-cult arbiter Takashi Murakami, the exhibit, which features work by 21 postwar Japanese artists, is on view through July 24 at New York’s Japan Society.

The show’s title, Little Boy, is a double entrendre: Besides being the nickname for the bomb that flattened Hiroshima, it also represents Murakami’s belief that Japan is a country with an infantilized culture. As if to underline this last point, many of the pieces in the show are in the form of animated cartoons, comic books, and advertisements, rendered in the wildly popular Neo-Pop, anime, and manga styles. Most of the images featured also had their origins in children’s media, then made their way into other mainstream and “high” art.

Yet don’t be deceived by the seemingly innocent portrayals: While some of the pictures in the show are cute and bright, the themes are deadly serious. Murakami’s Time Bokan–Black, for example, depicts a skeleton with an atomic cloud over its head, while Shigeru Komatsuzaki’s Underground City is a stirring post-apocalyptic vision and fantasy of a safe utopia.

“American media has been presenting Japan as a country on the brink of recession, as a culture that’s almost defunct in some way,” says Alexandra Monroe, the director of the Japan Society Gallery. She says she brought the show to the U.S. “to tap into the psyche of contemporary Japan.”

To further expose that psyche, the Japan Society, along with New York’s Public Art Fund, will mount several installations created by Little Boy artists. A Murakami-designed banner will completely cover the façade of the Society, while Chinatsu Ban will install large yellow fiberglass elephant sculptures at the southern entrance of Central Park. Later this year, Chiho Aoshima will cover the city’s Union Square subway station in computer-generated, large-scale illustrations that will depict a flourishing magical landscape with glittery trees and oversized characters.

Little Boy is the last installment of Murakami’s Superflat trilogy, which aims to highlight contemporary Japanese artists and place their work in a historical context. But on a simpler level, Murakami says the exhibit also is a celebration of imagination. “The show is not about brandishing the political scars of the war,” he explains. “The reason I put this together was because of the completely wasteful and enchanting creations of human creativity.”

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