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Japanese Artist Turns New York Streetscape into Fantasy World - 2003-09-10

Rockefeller Center, New York City's famed outdoor plaza, has been transformed this week into a psychedelic fantasy world. Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has installed his open-air universe of sweetly mutant cartoon characters.

Two giant brightly colored balloons are suspended 18 meters in the air above Rockefeller Center Plaza, looking like an eerie pair of eyeballs. They are part of Takashi Murakami's whimsical outdoor sculpture exhibition in midtown Manhattan at one of New York's prime tourist attractions.

Dressed in a pair of baggy short pants and a rumpled T-shirt, 41-year-old Mr. Murakami looks like an overgrown child. His world is equally fantastical. It is filled with happy flowers, smiling alien babies, and fanged mushrooms.

The focal point of the solo exhibit is nine-meter high Tongari-kun, Japanese for "Mr. Pointy," named for an enormous spire at the top of his head. Some artistic observers say the figure is reminiscent of a religious icon of Buddha. But Mr. Murakami says that there is no real deep meaning to it all. "He's an ancient person who's like a sage," said the artist. "But it's just a being. It's just there, it doesn't do anything specific like give advice."

The exhibit came to New York with help from the Public Art Fund.

"Takashi has become recognized internationally for his ability to blend high and low art," explained Susan Freedman, president of the Fund. "He's classically trained in Japanese 19th century style painting, but his love of pop culture has led him to create artwork that is inspired by Japanese animation, comics, music and fashion."

Mr. Murakami is often compared to America's celebrated pop artist Andy Warhol, who blurred the separation between high art and blatant commercialism. Mr. Murakami has collaborated with designer Marc Jacobs to design handbags and the Louis Vuitton fashion house. Mr. Murakami also has mass-marketed inexpensive toys and clothing which bear his signature characters at stores throughout the United States and Asia.