Disaster and Disruption
The first gallery visitors discover as they enter the Museum, Marquand Mather Court, gets a new face this season in response to an extraordinary work of art. Takashi Murakami has emerged in the past fifteen years as one of the most influential artists working in contemporary Japan, and his Tan Tan Bo – In Communication is one of the most powerful of his recent works.
While at first glance clearly invoking the artist’s distinct style, and featuring his round-eared alter ego, it gains profoundly in meaning when we understand that it was made in response to the devastating Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami of 2011. It is a post-apocalyptic scene that is at once dystopian and hopeful, as life emerges from the rubble of catastrophe.
Tan Tan Bo was first shown at Gagosian Gallery in 2014, where it was undeniably the star of a dynamic exhibition, from which it was acquired by a prominent Princeton alumnus and his wife. Its loan to the Art Museum provoked us to shape a different context for it, beyond that of either contemporary Japanese art or post-Pop aesthetics. Rather, it has served as the lynchpin for a consideration of varied ways in which artists of the past forty-five years have responded to disasters and other societal disruptions, filtering through their artworks events of their time as well as historical moments. While Murakami’s may be the most recent work in the gallery, the earliest work in the installation is Andy Warhol’s Electric Chairs (1971), in which the artist marries his concern for the dark side of popular culture with a rumination on the nature of death in America.
Lest all this sound unbearably gloomy, many of the artists chosen for this installation find hope in despair. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Poison Oasis (1981) locates comparable strategies in an altogether different visual language of gestural marks, bold colors, and personal symbols. The naked black man wearing a crown of thorns—Basquiat’s symbol of a spiritually superior human being—is threatened by a snake; the presence of death is nearby in the form of a decomposing cow. But survival is possible, even in this poison oasis. One of the more recent works on view, Andrew Moore’s Model T Headquarters, Highland Park (2009) similarly affords both a sense of despair in the Ford Motor Company’s former executive offices, where the carpet has evolved into a forest of moss, and the hope of a new future as the force of nature—and ultimately revival—prevails.