A giant, blow up self-portrait sculpture of Takashi Murakami adorns the foyer of Doha's Al Riwaq Exhibition Hall. Seated in a Buddha pose, the artist's right hand is upturned in the abhayamudra gesture of reassurance, Murakami offering his blessing for a safe passage through the visual roller-coaster that awaits. Once inside the aptly titled Murakami - Ego retrospective, the visitor is required to willingly surrender himself to the artist's trippy world of kawaii characters and blazingly coloured manga landscapes.
A large four-panelled panorama featuring the oval shaped head of Tan Tan Bo Puking aka Gero Tan (2002) decorates the whitewashed walls, his undulating tongue dripping with psychedelic lava, while in the centre of the room we are introduced to DOB - one of Murakami's many recurrent personalities - striking a Minnie Mouse pose amid a "strange forest" of mushrooms.
Any survey of Murakami, who was born in 1962 and has a PhD in Nihonga painting (traditional Japanese painting) from Tokyo University of the Arts, demands a full introduction to his recurring personages. Kai Kai and Kiki are favourites and are set against a backdrop of Kai Kai Kiki land on the "superflat" canvases for which the artist is best known. Murakami coined that term to describe post-war Japanese culture and society, as well as the aesthetic characteristics of creative tradition and, indeed, to label his own artistic style.
While the paintings are meticulously plotted, the implication of the imagery is both distorted and grotesque - we are sardines in a can, they seem to say, living our lives by prescribed regulations that encourage and enforce a form of contented and unquestioning uniformity.
In the next gallery is The 500 Arhats (2012), a 100 metre-long painting specially commissioned for this retrospective. Based on the 2011 tsunami, it takes the works of the little-known 19th-century Japanese painter Kano Kazunobu as a departure point and imagines an apocalyptic landscape of spectacular colours, with the five hundred arhats (monks) lined up at its foot.
As a tale of destruction and chaos unfolds on the left, large duotone paintings of dragons hang on the right and Murakami's characters loom from all angles, lit up in the darkness around the large, inviting tent at the gallery's centre. This cosy recess provides a den for watching the adventures of Kai Kai and Kiki as they tumble through happy lands (with the occasional flash into a dark world of despair).
The exhibition finishes where we started, with Murakami appearing in a series of self-portraits, where you begin to develop the sense that he has abandoned our world for his own.
Across town at Mathaf, a museum committed to presenting an Arab perspective on modern and contemporary art, Cai Guo-Qiang's Saraab exhibition (Arabic for mirage), closed last weekend after a lengthy run. Consisting largely of works linking Chinese and Arabic culture, the exhibition was created in collaboration with 200 Qatari volunteers. The links between the two cultures may seem tenuous, but Guo-Qiang's installations repeatedly set this misconception straight. Homecoming (2011) presented a lyrical positioning of large boulders shipped from his home city of Quanzhou, the starting point of the maritime Silk Road, while the writings engraved on the stones were duplicated from graves of Muslims who passed through the city centuries ago.
Saraab examined a complex web of conceptual and material connections between China and the Arab world, of dynamics between historic localities marked as much by the passage of ideas as by material trade. Each work tied itself to Middle Eastern themes, such as miniature Islamic paintings, the embroidery of abayas, calligraphy and geometric patterns.
From / The National