The title for Takeshi Murata’s current show—Get Your Ass To Mars—is a command, stolen from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hauser/Quaid character in Total Recall, based on Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” For the Hauser/Quaid character, what awaits him on Mars is textbook Dick: a conspiracy based on money and greed; instability in memory and identity, or in discerning reality; plus our own straight-up hedonism. And like it or not, with his new show at Ratio 3, Murata asks us to consider many of the same issues. The good news is—as much as I love Philip K. Dick—Murata does all this and keeps a sense of humor.
With Get Your Ass To Mars (2010-2011), a set of nine, exquisitely-rendered still lives, Murata references the 16th-century tradition of vanitas painting, a type of 16th-century still life that features skulls, fruit, dead animals, and other perishable or ephemeral items that evoke death, or the fleeting experience of life. The name itself means “emptiness,” implying that all earthly experience is empty compared to what lies beyond. The paintings were also an excuse for the artist to test his or her skill, and the objects depicted were often overripe, or had a perfection of form rarely found in the items they were modeled on.
Murata’s pieces continue these themes, evincing a too-perfect-to-be-in-the-world lushness. More importantly, they evoke the tension of a three-dimensional space that reveals itself over and over to be a void. Despite their photorealistic appearance, the works were made in Cinema 4D. Murata isn’t trying to deceive his viewers into believing the objects in these still lives actually exist. Rather, even as he shows off his technique, he is careful to include less precise—even crude—details. In Golden Banana (2011), for example, the texture of the skull’s horns is unreal on close examination, and the flaccid trombone in Gumbone and Coke (2011) has the opposite problem: it’s velvety, fleshy texture is hyper-real, and thus equally unbelievable. Murata also plays with the vanitas formula by using not only skulls, fruit, eggs, and instruments, but also bronzed fruit, coffee cups, books, videotapes and other pop culture paraphernalia.
As complicated, coded and beautiful as the images of Get Your Ass To Mars are, they are one-liners compared to Murata’s video, I, Popeye (2010), which was first displayed in New York at the New Museum in 2010. Times are rough for our spinach-guzzling friend. He is not the Bluto-bashing cartoon hero of our childhood, or that of our parents’. Somehow—like his audience and the animation techniques with which he’s rendered—he’s matured. This Popeye is emotionally grizzled, like an addict who’s been sober for years but fails to see the point in the emptiness that surrounds him.
Everything in the film starts out gray: the landscape, the spinach factory where Popeye works, the smoke billowing from the smokestacks, and even the sky. A bleary-eyed Popeye stands at a gray conveyor belt, pushing a green rectangular button. With every push, a stream of spinach squirts into a gray can, and a mechanical arm stamps a lid down. He falls asleep at the conveyor belt and wakes up from a brightly-colored, hallucinatory dream in an overflow of metal cans and a shower of sparks. He gets sacked, of course; walks out of the factory; arrives home; and heaves himself on the couch, only to be served an eviction notice by Wimpy. Finally, after one last spinach-fueled rampage, Popeye commits suicide and drives off into his video game inspired afterlife in a shiny Model T, to the tune of Rush’s Tom Sawyer (“a modern-day warrior, mean mean stride”).
Aside from this afterlife, which involves fluorescent green smoke, the film is spare. Similar shapes show up throughout—the doorknob in his apartment and the tombstones in the town cemetery are all polygonal, for instance. Popeye’s bulging forearms never wobble and his jaw is the squarest and firmest I’ve ever seen it. He’s even wearing a t-shirt with his caricature on it, featuring an airbrushed and winking Popeye, the cocky scrapper we’re all used to.
Murata’s genius is that he manages to keep the video’s trajectory both poignant and humorous. He portrays Popeye as a much more nuanced character than we’ve ever seen. For example, Popeye meets Wimpy’s eyes for a long time after the eviction notice is handed over. The staring contest ends when Wimpy gives up, tips his hat to Popeye, and scuttles off, after which Popeye makes two final trips: one to a graveyard where he lays daisies on the graves of Olive Oyl and Swee’pea, and the other to visit Bluto in a hospital, where he’s lying comatose. The only sound is a respirator. Popeye sits with Bluto for a while. For a split second, he even turns to Bluto like he has something to say, but then turns away again.
Get Your Ass To Mars and I, Popeye challenge us to reconsider how two-dimensional objects and characters, or even such ephemeralities as memory and life itself, can be “rendered,” or made three-dimensional. As long as psychology is involved, this transformation will always be about more than trompe l’oeil effects.
Get Your Ass To Mars is on view at Ratio 3 in San Francisco through June 11, 2011.