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 art­ ex­hi­bi­tions/su­per­nat­u­ral

Pic­ture: Kaikai Kiki

Takashi Mu­rakami’s ver­tig­i­nous mu­ral com­mis­sioned for the Art Gallery of NSW.

Pic­ture: Joshua White

Em­bod­i­ment of Um (2014).

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