Ghosts and monsters dominate supernatural show
Vertiginous After Staring at the Empty World Too Intensely, I Found Myself Trapped in the Realm of Lurking Ghosts and Monsters. That’s a pretty big title for a work of art.
Then again, Japanese pop art superstar Takashi Murakami’s new mural, specially commissioned by the Art Gallery of NSW for its current blockbuster exhibition Japan Supernatural, is a pretty big proposition, in every way.
Guarded by two of Murakami’s eye-popping monster sculptures, the mural features cross-eyed samurai and bizarre beings battling a giant cat. Drawing on Japan’s rich yokai (supernatural creatures) mythology and Edo-period woodblock and scroll art, this infernal company threatens to leap off the wall, bursting with dazzling, dizzying energy. Vertiginous is the right word.
Murakami’s mural is only one of the exhibition’s nearly 200 artworks from the 18th century to the present which portray Japanese ghosts, monsters and their victims in just about every conceivable form and posture. Appealing equally to kids and adults, it’s not likely you’ll escape from this show in a hurry. Nor would you want to.
There’s Murakami’s other major work in the show, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow. There’s Toriyama Sekien’s epic silk scroll Night procession of the hundred demons, from 1772-81, as well as Itaya Hiroharu’s more comical take on the same subject from the following century.
Are these the first manga? Maybe.
There are contemporary Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima’s fantasies featuring cute, round-faced rabbit girls, rock girls and other otherworldly creatures in haunting watercolour on rice paper images.
Just as mesmerising are photographer Miwa Yanagi’s photographic series Fairy Tale, which reinterpret such European fairytales as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel, while curious netsuke and Hideta Kitazawa’s creeping masks of foxes, demons and kappa (weird, beaked creatures with water-filled indentations on their heads) elicit screams and laughter in equal measure.
Some weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to visit Japan with an AGNSW team and see some of the galleries, museums, shrines, temples, parks and graveyards where yokai might be said to flourish. I even got to meet the impish Murakami in his studio.
Seeing the works in this show, I was reminded of the haunting atmosphere of many of those places. And of just how tenuous is the divide between the so-called real world and the supernatural realm, where the inexplicable is normal.
Get to this show, if you can. And if you do, and you still can’t get enough of yokai and their spooky associates, check out the extensive public program, which includes a horror film retrospective, school holiday workshops in January and a lecture series entitled Phenomenal beings: spirits in Japanese art and culture. For anime fans, there’s even a Studio Ghibli festival.
And if you still haven’t had your fill, and you’re lucky enough to be heading to Japan with the family sometime soon, do visit the incredible Japan Yokai Museum in Miyoshi, an hour and a half away from Hiroshima by bus or train, through some majestic mountain scenery.
The museum’s centrepiece is the epic Ino Mononoke Roku, an enormous scroll telling the the story of one Heitaro, who as a boy endured a month of bizarre occurrences featuring a parade of yokai. There are also more scrolls, prints, pottery and more contemporary yokai-inspired merchandise.
As well as a comprehensive digital reference wall, and Teamlab Yokai Park for the kids, where you can transform yourself into a yokai and bring your yokai drawing to life to interact with other yokai creations on an enormous interactive digital display. I’m not ashamed to say I had a ball.
Japan Supernatural is at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney until March 8. For bookings and more information see artgallery.nsw.gov.au/ exhibitions/supernatural
Takashi Murakami’s vertiginous mural commissioned for the Art Gallery of NSW.
Embodiment of Um (2014).