December 2019 – January 2020

by Miriam Cosic

‘Japan supernatural’
The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow (Shitakiri suzume), 1864 [detail]; woodblock print; ink and colour on paper; 36.7 cm x 75 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund 2019; photo by Jenni Carter, AGNSW

The concept of shibui permeates Japanese culture: its arts, its architecture, its dress, its food, its politesse. It refers to subtlety, simplicity, precision, elegance, understatement. It’s not an attribute of an old-school upper class but one found in the everyday.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’s wonderful exhibition, Japan supernatural, displays the id behind the nation’s superego, in an enduring engagement with the turbulent world of ghosts and monsters and terrifying supernatural goings-on that are the flip side of the outward Japanese self-discipline. Unlike in Europe, where the horror of traditional fairytales was eventually tempered for children’s consumption, the Japanese kept the psychological and the pre-scientific explanatory value of scary stories intact.

All manner of media, from early silk scrolls to towering contemporary sculpture, have been included in the show.

The centrepiece is a giant panelled painting by celebrity artist Takashi Murakami, commissioned by the AGNSW. Titled Japan Supernatural: Vertiginous After Staring at the Empty World Too Intensely, I Found Myself Trapped in the Realm of Lurking Ghosts and Monsters, it is as dizzying as it sounds. Despite its jumble of selfie-worthy spooks and samurai, and the giant cross-eyed cat at its centre, Murakami has said that the terrible 2011 tsunami was on his mind when he made it.

Less blinding but more engrossing is the large number of beautifully executed woodblock paints by the great 19th-century masters – Hokusai, Hiroshige, Yoshitoshi and more – lent by museums around the world. The style of Ukiyo-e – “pictures of the floating world” – is connected with ethereal images of landscapes and urban pleasures spanning from the Edo period in the 17th century to their time of profound influence on the French impressionists and post-impressionists.

The occult also fascinated 19th-century Japan, and ghosts and demons and towering skeletons were as much a part of that period’s artists’ repertoire as more tranquil subjects.

Another highlight is the contemporary photography and video by two women artists, both of whom explore femineity and death. Fuyuko Matsui’s mesmerising 2012 video, Regeneration of a breached thought, combines moving images of a beautiful white saluki (with tail-hair extensions!), the face of a lovely woman and a bleeding eyeball in a manner that magically coheres. And the grim photographs from Miwa Yanagi’s Fairy Tale series include one in particular – Little brother and little sister, of a woman lying prone in a plant-rimmed pond, like a memory of Millais’ Ophelia, but indoors, with a deer looking at her from the bank – that has haunted me ever since.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

December 2019 – January 2020 edition cover
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