Japan Supernatural on at the NSW Art Gallery till March 2020
Sometimes it is very easy to forget that belief in the existence of a supernatural world is a part of the everyday life of all cultures. When one lives in what is seen as the secular west one doesn’t always see that the Zombies in movies and computer games, the vampires in fiction – the legend of Dracula, the Vampire Tales, the Twilight series, Jane Austen and Zombies – the fairies in fairy tales, the angels and the devil of the Abrahamic faiths are all part of the supernatural world that inform our everyday lives, some in more obvious ways than others.
Japan Supernatural exhibition at the NSW Art Gallery brings thoughts about our own culture’s belief systems to the fore. While ostensibly an exhibition of art depicting the supernatural it is also the exhibition of a belief system that has existed in Japan from time immemorial and is seen to have flowered in times of particular stress for the Japanese people. The exhibition displays images – paintings, statues, film, photographs, of supernatural beings from the EDO period (1603-1868) to the present.
While at times humorous some of its depictions are also confronting. Yet, the Grimm brothers’ collection of fairy tales – Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella – are just as gruesome and even the sanitised versions that my own children grew up with are still questionable as is depicted by the black and white photos of Miwa Yanagi, which portray scenes from some of these fairy tales, including, Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel. They may also cause the viewer to question the role of women in these fairy tales as may some of the other depictions of female demons or ghosts – which the original artist may not have intended.
The confronting nature of the supernatural is also present in other cultures as I was reminded while listening to a “So you want to be a writer podcast” interview between Allison Tait and K. M. Levis, author of the soon to be released Young Adult series, The Search for Adarna, which is rooted in Filipino mythology.
In the interview Ms Levine describes one of her favourite Filipino mythical creatures, a Manananggal as: “this gorgeous Victoria Secret woman during the day, and then at night her upper body rips from her lower body and she grows wings and fangs and then she flies around and sucks foetuses out of pregnant bellies”.
Ms Tait’s reaction – very similar to mine was: “What?! That’s horrible!! So that’s based in Filipino mythology?
Kristyn: Yes. I grew up with that. I watched that as a six year old.
Allison: Okay. As a six year old.
And yet we read Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding and Rapunzel to little ones younger than six without turning a hair. Our reactions are definitely based on our upbringing.
A Syfy survey undertaken when launching their Haunting Australia series in 2014 and quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald found that “88 percent of Australians believe that paranormal phenomenon may well exist” and 50 percent believe in ghosts and spirits. And a 2016 National Church Life Survey found that 28% of people surveyed said they had had a supernatural experience and 25% believed that a supernatural experience could happen.
While a Pew Research Centre Survey in 2009 found that 29% of Americans surveyed believed they had been in touch with the dead and 18% had had a ghostly experience.
In all cultures, ghosts, elves, demons and other supernatural beings are often used to explain the unexplainable.
As is seen in Toriyama Sekien’s (1712-1888) painting of the Night Procession of the 100 demons Hyakki yako zu, over 5 metres long and shown under glass in the centre of the room as you enter the exhibition, the scroll, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and usually only shown a section at a time is here shown in its entirety.
The delicate paintings depict yokai (supernatural beings) in their natural habitat. There are cat demons, water demons, women with long necks (I don’t know enough about long necked women demons to verify whether they are in fact in their natural habitat!).
Sekien also painted a series of books depicting Yokai. Our guide said his paintings took ideas that had always been a part of Japanese folklore and culture and gave them a visual image and these images took the Yokai out of people’s imaginations and turned them into how Japanese people view Yokai today.
The first two books featured the Yokai that everyone was familiar with the fourth and last one also featured ones Sekien painted from his own imagination.
In the next room, Hiroharu Itaya’s Night Procession of one hundred demons (Hyakki yagyo). A six metre scroll that is part of the AGNSW’s Asian Collections is also shown in its entirety and depicts objects that have acquired a spirit. Legend has it that if objects reach 100 years they are imbued with a spirit.
Itaya’s images reminded me of Disney movies and particularly the animated Beauty and the Beast where inanimate objects are imbued with life, however, the objects depicted in this scroll seem more mischievous than anything else. Opposite the painting is an interactive wall, which children will love. It allows the viewer to see the painted objects named, enlarged, and in more detail.
There are two great wall murals in the exhibition, both by Takashi Murakami. The first 25 metres long was painted after the 2011 Tsunami and earthquake and the second, 10 metre mural in a separate room leading from Miwa Yanagi’s photos of fairy tales was commissioned by the NSWAG and funded by its Foundation specially for this exhibition.
Compared to the delicacy of Toriyama Sekien’s paintings and drawings Takashi Murakami’s paintings are large, bold and beautiful and very much a continuation of the depiction of supernatural beings in Japanese culture.
It was a toss-up as to whether this article would be posted because some of the supernatural beings are decidedly dicey – but after listening to Allison Tait’s interview with K M Levis – I decided I was being too squeamish!