Taken together, two solo exhibitions currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art demand this odd question. The shows are "The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg," a blockbuster retrospective by the Japanese superstar Takashi Murakami, and "Smoke, nearby," the first major presentation by Tania Pérez Córdova, a Mexican sculptor little known in the United States. I doubt that these two artists have ever been exhibited in the same building, and my guess is that they will not be again. Their work has nothing in common, save providing the perfect and necessary antidote for one another.
Begin with Murakami, whose exhibition demands immense fortitude of viewers. It's no small feat to withstand thousands of hallucinogenic fungi, psychotic mice, smiling daisies, vomiting giants, rainbow skulls, nightmarish deities, technicolor tsunamis, and a hip-hop bear, all of it slickly fabricated at mammoth scale. We're talking a 59-foot-long painting of a frothing dragon, a 14-foot-high sculpture of a violent blue demon, three-dimensional candy-colored mushrooms dotted with green eyes, and mural-size canvases crowded with dozens of hideously distorted spiritual figures, each draped in layers of clashing fabrics. Everything is so loud and so bold as to be unmissable, except by dint of being overwhelmed by everything else.
Leave time for Pérez Córdova, because of the quiet relief provided by her witty sculptures. Modest combinations of clay and bank cards, makeup and marble, glass and cheap foam, they require intimate completion by attentive visitors, and sometimes by unnamed people elsewhere in Chicago. A single crystal drop earring dangles from a brass rod; somewhere a women wears its matching other. A bent and stained piece of glass rests on the floor; above it gapes a hole in the ceiling fixture. Atop a waist-high marble column rests a watery divot; in it floats a single colored contact lens, barely visible, its pair who knows where. Everything is so subtle as to be easy to miss, but that just encourages harder looking.
For three decades, Murakami has acted like a giant computer into which choice aspects of Japanese and Western culture and history have been fed, amalgamated, and churned back out. He has incorporated the 18th-century painting style of ukiyo-e and the traditional technique of Nihonga, legendary figures from Buddhism and folk tales, the cartoony characters of anime and manga, the disasters of Hiroshima and Fukushima. He's designed luxury handbags for Louis Vuitton, sneakers for Vans, and an album cover for Kanye West. The conscience of Anselm Keifer, the vanguard showmanship of Yves Klein, the commercial brazenness of Andy Warhol all figure as prominent artistic influences from early on. To complete, reinsert bits and pieces of Murakami's own past work and run it all through Kaikai Kiki Ltd., the company he founded in the 1990s on the outskirts of Tokyo and which today employs some 100 young artisans to produce his artwork, in addition to running galleries and a biannual art fair, and managing the careers of young artists.
Murakami cannily summarizes the overarching effect of his oeuvre in a video that plays near the entrance to his exhibition. "What is the greatest art piece?" he asks. His answer, "emptiness," betrays a discomforting knowingness about the excess and superficiality of contemporary life, and a willingness to deliver it with maximum force.
Pérez Córdova's exhibition, meanwhile, actually looks empty, or at least as if the gallery was being deinstalled. Wood partitions with unpainted backing stand askew or lean against a wall; a dozen damaged panes of glass fill a corner; rough objects rest atop protective mats. Colors range from dull to neutral, except for a rectangle of cracked pink foam and a glass of fluorescent yellow water that could have been accidentally left behind by a preparator who needed somewhere to put an uncapped highlighter pen.
To experience any of this as art requires attentiveness to situations that do not ask for it, the cleverness to look for clues in sometimes-hidden captions, and the willingness to see beyond what's strictly visible in the gallery. It's useful to believe what the artist claims of her materials and then some: that a man's flexed bicep really did leave that impression in the pink foam; that those silvery concave shapes are really the result of pouring molten aluminum into a hole in a hill; that the debit card pressed into the center of that clay bowl really links to a unique Banamex account; that somewhere in Chicago there really are people wearing garments and contact lenses that match those here. Time is vital, too, more that the average of 15 to 30 seconds that most people spend looking at an artwork, according to museum researchers. Pérez Córdova offers direct assistance on this one: a ceiling fan hung from a bracket of 2-by-4s spins at a rate of 111 seconds per rotation, the minimum amount of time the artist believes a patron needs for each view. Move too fast, and "Metronome" itself remains imperceptible.
If Murakami's studio functions like a movie production company, with his exhibition displaying its highly finished creations, Pérez Córdova's show is a film set, where almost everything has already taken place. The former, like all blockbusters, can't keep from giving us the entertainment we think we want. The latter helps us transcend it.
- Lori Waxman