Japan Supernatural: Demons of the Past and Ghosts of the Future
From 17th century demons to contemporary Murakami-samurais, this unique exhibition weaves together Japan’s ancient folklore and modern depictions of haunting creatures.
A hundred lanterns glow from above, their soft hue creating an immersive environment when one enters the exhibition in the gallery. A turn towards the first room reveals a warning, as the supernatural is approached:
“If you’re the sort who follows the conventional wisdom of shying away from talk of SPIRITS AND DEMONS you might find yourself wishing to avert your eyes.” Maki Tōei (1721–83)
Japan Supernatural at the Art Gallery of New South Wales came together collectively. Director Michael Brand travelled to Japan, US and Europe to borrow artworks, senior Asian art curator Melanie Eastburn first dedicated a supernatural-themed exhibition, and the gallery’s designers and engineers translated the artists’ intense subject matter into an immersive experience.
Eastburn shares that this was an incredibly exciting exhibition to pull together, as the supernatural has seeped into so many parts of contemporary pop culture. It also reflects on the audience’s cross-cultural relationship with characters from Japanese Folklore — as seen in Pokémon, Spirited Away or The Ring. “The bakemono (‘changing things’, monsters, shape-shifters), mononoke (‘things that transform’, mysterious things), as well as yōkai (a fluid term for supernatural beings) and yūrei (ghosts),” Eastburn describes the creatures in her essay Japan Supernatural: Untangling Realms Beyond from the exhibition catalogue.
The first room prepares the visitor for the mixed art of the Japanese supernatural; diverse in medium specificity — the exhibition has scrolls, masks, wood carvings, paintings, prints, video, and photography — but also in the periods it spans, from the Edo period (1603–1868) and Meiji era (1868–1912), to modern adaptations in manga and anime.
At the center of the room stands the iconic, Edo-period Toriyama Sekien picture scroll, Night procession of the hundred demons, (1772–81), believed to be one of the first depicters of the yōkai. Paired on the walls are four masks, with vivid colours and expressive features, made between 2013 and 2018 by Tokyo-based woodcarver, Hideta Kitazawa. Eastburn believes Sekien would have no problem identifying the same tenko (fox), Hannya (female demon) and Oni (demon) that appear throughout the scroll.
Here is one of the successes of the exhibition, the pairing and contrasting between old and new. But also the way the curation and design pull visitors into the environment of this art. The second room modernises Hiroharu Itaya’s Night procession of the one hundred demons (Hyakki yagyô), circa 1860, through an interactive screen. Viewers are invited to play with the object-goblins, spiritual creatures who take the form of a broom, kitchen utensils, or musical instruments, as they dance across the screen.
Anime creator Isao Takahata used Hiroharu’s goblins for his 1994 Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko. The movie gave a platform to environmental degradation and over-development; it was the creatures taking the supernatural into their hands to win back the right to maintain their land. “There is an old idea that was often being discussed in Japan, that the supernatural is what helps us understand the things that we don’t understand or are not comfortable with in the world we live in,” Eastburn explains in a phone interview.
The week following the opening of Japan Supernatural, the Art Gallery of NSW began construction of Sydney Modern, the $344 million extension to the gallery, which has Australian cultural commentators questioning the value of this new building coming out of public funds and land. The Japanese, Pritzker Prize-winning architects, SANAA won the commission to design the extension, and as such, a Japanese Buddhist priest was invited to the ground-breaking ceremony to bless the land.
In Australia, ceremonies are opened with a Welcome to Country, by a traditional custodian of the land. In Sydney Modern’s case, young Aboriginal children were brought together by artist Tony Albert and Gadigal Elder, Charles (Chicka) Madden. Sydney Modern will become a much-needed Sydney hub for contemporary and traditional Aboriginal art, which responds to future generations as an evolving site. There was a cross-cultural moment that acknowledged a deeper sense of connection to the land.
Japanese curator and art figure, Mami Kataoka wrote the preface in the exhibition catalogue, titled Listening Today to a Warning from The Invisible World. In it, she also acknowledged the world’s oldest living culture. “For over 60,000 years the first Australians have communicated sensitively with unseen signs and energy, including guardians for ancestral and living spirits,” Kataoka writes.
The hub of the exhibition (and the future walls of Sydney Modern) is centered around the new Takashi Murakami commission, Japan Supernatural: Vertiginous After Staring at the Empty World Too Intensely, I Found Myself Trapped in the Realm of Lurking Ghosts and Monsters. The work is the largest to ever be acquired by the gallery at three × ten meters, using 502 individual silkscreens. Murakami departed from his usual style, away from the flowers or “pop” prints ingrained in Western culture, thanks to partnerships with Louis Vuitton or musicians such as Kanye West and Billie Eilish.
Instead, the artwork vividly borrows from traditional Edo-period block prints, with writhing yо̄kai, stampeding samurai, dancing cats and the giant feline spirit that fills the center of the artwork. Bright colors and vast patterns take the viewer through a pop lens of the supernatural. Murakami shared at the opening that his attempt was to create a storyboard and collage, in a game of chance or luck. “I have hoped and tried my best to arrive at a good theme and composition,” he added. “I am happy that great inspiration came to me in the end, truly like a miracle, and I was able to achieve a good composition.”
Joining the commission are two over-sized embodiments of ‘A’ and ‘Um’ (both 2014) by Murakami. These figures translate the supernatural into the manga we are familiar with; the Pokémon of art. The dark walls and floors transform the viewing space, as it does continually throughout the exhibition, with lit artworks being reflected on shiny black floors. In the top corner of the rooms, a glowing Tokyo back-alley neon-white sign indicates a marker — in here: MURAKAMI.
Outside of Murakami’s blockbuster works are the more sensitive, modern depictions of the yōkai and yūrei. A room painted in crimson pink, with a neon sign indicating FAIRY TALE, contains a series of works by Miwa Yanagi. In these dark, black and white photographs, women and girls play out the grisly Brothers Grimm stories and twisted Japanese Folklore.
An eerie sensibility plays out through the rest of the gallery, where the spirits move from block prints to moving images. An octopus tentacle darts out from a woman’s shadow in Tabaimo’s The Obscuring Moon (2016); while Chiho Aoshima’s bright-eyed spirits play in an enchanted graveyard forest in the three-part video, Little Miss Gravestone’s Absent Musing (2016), casting color reflections on the blacked-out gallery floor.
Scary stories were told in Japan to bring a chill into the hot, sticky summers, and if the haunting qualities of Japan Supernatural are anything to go by, it’s not hard to see why. The stories of the supernatural are engrained within Japanese culture, and they pose an interesting reflection on both the world’s fascination with these stories and, how in countries like Australia, they can be interpreted with a detachment and through their own culture. With the new exhibition space Sydney Modern, and the link to Japanese architects, Sydney may hopefully reveal in next summer’s blockbuster, that it is ready for the yōkai of its own country.
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
November 02, 2019 — March 08, 2020
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