09/15/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Even when it's without its towering Christmas tree, New York City's Rockefeller Plaza is a tourist mecca. There's the skating rink, NBC's windowed Today studios—and, starting Sept. 9, a 30-ft.-tall fiberglass sculpture that could be the whimsical love child of Hello Kitty, a Buddha and a portabello mushroom.
Meet Mr. Pointy—Tongari-kun in Japanese—star of a monthlong outdoor art installation, "Reversed Double Helix," by Takashi Murakami. Hot in the galleries—his sculpture of a would-be comic book heroine sold in May for $567,500—Murakami, 41, is better known to the American public for the Louis Vuitton handbags with candy-colored logos he helped design. At up to $4,500 apiece, the limited-edition bags had celebs waiting in line (and fakes for sale on every Manhattan street corner) earlier this year. But now anyone, for a few weeks, passing through Mid-town can enjoy an authentic Murakami free of charge.
Initially created for a New York children's hospital, "Reversed Double Helix," says Murakami, "began as a message to kids with death close at hand, telling them they would attain the highest good." Smiling beatifically from his perch on a discshaped frog, Mr. Pointy suggests ancient representations of Buddha on a lotus. "I want to take old religious legends and transpose them on cute characters of today," explains Murakami, who, though he holds a Ph.D. in classical Japanese nihonga painting, finds equal inspiration in saucer-eyed anime cartoons and the films of Steven Spielberg. "I cried when I saw E.T. as a child," says Murakami (okay, he was 20). "Sure, now I think that was stupid, but these watershed moments, when you experience such a feeling of pure emotion, are important."
Raised in Tokyo in a family of art-lovers and artists (his younger brother Yuji is a master of nihonga painting), Murakami says he has "no regard for the difference between high art and low culture." Or, it would seem, between sculpture and handbags, though some critics have questioned his choices. "The commission by Louis Vuitton was a bit controversial," admits Amada Cruz, who curated a 1999 Murakami show at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. "But his work is so strong that he cannot be easily dismissed."
Which brings to mind that other artist with pop-culture instincts—Andy Warhol. Called the Japanese Warhol, a flattered Murakami says, "The nickname might stick for a few years, but it will fade in time." Still, he has no intention of settling for Warhol's famous 15 minutes. Single and keeping studios in Tokyo (where he enjoys near rock-star status) and Brooklyn, Murakami declares, "I want to keep on creating until I die."
Christian Storms in Tokyo and Anne Driscoll in New York City