by Manu SharmaJun 13, 2023
When philosopher and writer Joseph Campbell was asked why human societies feel the need for God, he quoted the Upanishads. ‘When, before a sunset or a mountain and the beauty of this or that, you pause and say, 'Ah, that is participation in divinity'.’ Divinity, he said, is ‘the realisation of wonder.’ Today, human beings, in a growingly homogenous global society, are caught in relentless pursuit of the tangible, of wealth and worldly gain. Little thought is given to the forces of the psyche, that ocean of the subconscious that churns beneath the surface, waiting to be called upon. This is why Japan Supernatural at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a mammoth show curated by Melanie Eastburn, was so special. It was part of the 2019-20 Sydney International Art series and contained works that have been sourced from across the world.
Between 1603 and 1863, Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. ‘Pleasure quarters,’ or red-light districts, bustled all day long – a hub for prostitutes and games of dice, where the sake never ceased to flow. Here, people gathered in groups to swap tales of the undead, the monsters, the shape shifters, and vengeful ghosts – yokai, the blanket term for all things supernatural.
In fact, Kawanabe Kyosai’s Illustration of the hundred demons, published in 1890, opens with a scene of a party huddled around a brazier listening to otherworldly tales. As a man in a black robe narrates, his audience, both captivated and frightened, hide beneath quilts.
Telling stories of magic and the divine dominated the approach to art in the Edo period. Of these, a seminal work is Toriyama Sekien's Gazu Hyakki Yagyo - the Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. The Gazu Hyakki Yagyo is one of the oldest and most important works in the show, brought on loan from Boston.
Japanese artists have long since held a fascination with the creatures of the Night Parade. Hyakki Yagyo depicts a supernatural army invading the realm of the living - in some narratives it is a riot, in others, an orderly procession that is no less terrifying. Anyone who comes across the procession will either perish or be spirited away. The only protection - exorcism scrolls, handwritten by Onmyoji spell casters.
Japan Supernatural gave the visitors an exhaustive tour, from the works of masters like Sekien and Katsushika Hokusai, all the way to the celebrated, contemporary artist, Takashi Murakami, from woodblock prints to manga. Hokusai, the much-loved Japanese artist, was on display with works like The ghost of Oiwa and Laughing Demoness. More contemporary work included Miwa Yanagi, with a series of black and white photographs made between 2004 and 2006. Yanagi re-imagined moments from stories by writers like Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
These mingled with untitled photographs of Sunna Onna, the sand woman, and an interpretation of the Japanese legend, Hitotsuya. And of course, there was Takashi Murakami’s 25-foot masterpiece, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, made up of 25 vertical panels. In his Serkien meets Warhol way, Murakami ‘catapults scroll and screen painting traditions into the present on a vast scale’, as Eastburn put it. Hell Courtesan by the acerbic Kawanabe Kyosai, regarded as the last virtuoso of traditional Japanese painting, was also part of the show.
Rich in symbols and motifs, traditional Japanese art might seem daunting to a viewer unaccustomed to the complexity of Oriental folklore, but the stories will captivate the audience.
As Eastburn wrote in her curatorial note, “The intricate narratives and powerful imagery of Japanese art make the invisible world of the supernatural tangible, imbuing it with a depth of experience through which to communicate very human experiences of love, amusement, fear, betrayal and loss’.