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Poster of the Takashi Murakami exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo

Poster of the Yoshitomo Nara exhibition at Yokohama Museum of Art

Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki
DOB in the Strange Forest - Red

Yoshitomo Nara
Little Ramona

Yoshitomo Nara
My Blackguard Angel
Japan's Year of Narakami
by Kay Itoi

The "Yokohama 2001: International Triennale of Contemporary Art," supposedly Japan's first huge contemporary art exhibition, opened with a bang last month and is still on (through Nov. 11). But inexplicably, the show omits the two artists who have clearly dominated the art scene here in 2001. This has been the year of "Narakami," a recently coined term that is shorthand for "Nara and Murakami," or Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami.

Today the pair would require little introduction. Murakami and Nara, aged 39 and 41, respectively, both came of age during Japan's miraculous bubble economy, an upbringing that constantly exposed them to an increasingly materialistic society. They both hit it big in the West with their colorful paintings and sculptures inspired by Japanese cartoons and animations on view in solo shows at museums and galleries too numerous to mention. Murakami even curated "Superflat," a show of Japanese artists (featuring Nara) that debuted at MOCA in Los Angeles and subsequently traveled to several additional prestigious venues.

The mainstream Japanese art world took its time in "officially" recognizing the two artists. But this summer, the pair was honored with their first large-scale solo exhibitions in Japan at the nation's two most important museums.

A show of Murakami's work titled "Summon Monsters? Open the Door? Heal? Or Die?" is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Aug. 25-Nov. 4, 2001. The artist is to be complimented for a spectacular presentation of new works, along with well-known scandalous sculptures Hiropon and My Lonesome Cowboy.

The Yokohama Museum of Art organized Nara's exhibition of new works, called "I Don't Mind, If You Forget Me," Aug. 11-Oct. 14, 2001. It is slated to travel to three other Japanese museums. Among the most stunning works on display is Fountain of Life, an installation of seven crying baby heads mounted in a large teacup.

Unlike most other Japanese artists, Murakami and Nara seem to disregard the line between the fine and commercial arts. Murakami, who runs a assistant-filled workshop he calls "Hiropon Factory," an homage to Andy Warhol, repeatedly says, "Art is meaningless unless it sells." Nara is actively involved in such projects as designing book covers for popular authors and selling picture books. In August, Gallery, a Japanese art monthly, speculated that their celebrity outside the conservative art community had kept them from receiving mainstream recognition, but that now their success has became too overwhelming to ignore.

Gallery was hardly the only publication that cashed in on Narakami's combined appeal. The cover story of the Sept. 1 issue of Brutus, a hip lifestyle magazine, was titled "Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami are global languages!" Eureka, a poetry criticism journal, devoted its October issue to the two artists. Newspapers and TV shows tirelessly ran articles and segments on them.

Five hundred mostly young Japanese packed a 300-seat auditorium of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, for a public conversation by the two artists, called "The Narakami Dialogue," in September. Murakami's rugged charm and Nara's boyish good looks (not to mention the fact that they are single) undoubtedly helped them gain pop-star status that no visual artist in Japan had ever enjoyed before.

Of course, not everybody is excited. A Tokyo-based Mainichi Newspaper critic wondered in his August column why major museums were suddenly holding exhibitions of these ultra-popular but unconventional artists. Crowd-pleasing exhibitions of famous artists are hardly what we need museums for, he claimed "What if some artists, who are talented but not as famous, will never get shown?" he wrote. But in the current climate, it's hard to find anyone who questions either artist's talent.

Of all the things the artists have in common, the most important may be their Tokyo dealer, Tomio Koyama. Having worked with Murakami for 12 years and with Nara for eight, he has been instrumental in promoting them overseas, bringing their works to international art fairs and introducing them to foreign galleries. To maximize the impact of the summer, Koyama Gallery mounted a two-man show, complete with collaborative paintings jointly made by Murakami and Nara together.

KAY ITOI writes on art from Japan.

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