Ryo Mikami,

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

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.”

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