Impermanence is also manifested in the undramatic nature of the expressions on the masks themselves. Most describe inner emotional states of the type experienced in solitude and not shared — there is no raging anger or boisterous joviality here. The feelings depicted include desire, skepticism, silence, and hope. “In order to express the varying emotional undulation,” Mikami said, “I pay close attention to the rather subtle and quiet facial expressions. Such subtle distinctions in expression can show emotions with greater depth.”
In this way, Mikami hopes to convey a different idea about masks, which are ordinarily associated with concealment. “In some Japanese traditions,” he said, “masks are used to represent holy gods rendered as tangible human forms. In the same way, rather than to hide our true nature, I make masks to bring out ... the inner emotions of ordinary people, who are mere ‘ shadows of gods.’”
For Mikami, who was born in Japan and studied at the Tokyo University of the Arts, the mask series is a radical shift from the utilitarian vessels for which he is known. “Most current Japanese ceramics are high-fired functional works like bowls and vases,” he said. “I had wanted to broaden my scope and experimented with conceptual doki work, which has a very long history in Japan, dating back to the Jomon era. When Akiko and Tim [Wong] from Touching Stone Gallery visited me last year, they were very excited by the several masks I had set aside in the back of the studio. That provided an incentive and opportunity to devote my full energy to this project.”
Wong, who hails from China, and Hirano, whose ancestry is Japanese, had a difficult time working with Mikami on titles for the masks. They had to find the best approximation in English for the kanji characters of Chinese origin that are used in the Japanese writing system and that Mikami had used to title his works. The kanji characters can convey a multitude of meanings. “The mask Desire,” Mikami said, “was inspired by the Buddhist concept shiki soku zeku (form is equal to emptiness).” Though shiki soku zeku might not be the first association an English-speaking audience would have with the word desire, it’s the one that Mikami believes best expresses the concept of this mask.
Each kanji character is painted on the cover of decorative wooden boxes that accompany the masks. Touching Stone originally intended to exhibit the masks inside the boxes but decided instead to mount them on stands fabricated by local artisan Phil Nakamura, who had to customize each box to the size and features of each mask.
Mikami did not start out intending to create his masks to fit emotions or physical expressions. The titles described by the kanji characters came about in the development stage. “Before starting to create each mask, I did not have a title,” he said. “I relied on my feelings and emotions at the time while I pressed raw clay inside out. I repeated the process over several days; faces with expressions gradually emerged from the clay and came together with the emotions in my mind. The masks make my emotions visible.”
Mikami’s masks are quite thick. They have a raw, earthen appearance enhanced by cracking and natural discoloration resulting from woodfueled pit firing. On some, the artist has added small touches, such as the polished cheeks and forehead of a piece titled Coy or the inlaid bits of precious stone on one called Contentment. Other pieces, including Desire, have incised designs.
The bowl is the last piece in the sequence, and it is empty. In contrast to the masks, the bowl is thin and fragile looking, almost like porcelain. How it relates to the masks is what makes Mujo a thoughtprovoking exhibit. “Each mask and the tea bowl represents an independent moment,” Mikami said, “and at the same time conveys a different aspect of the whole.”