Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Exhibition review: Japan Supernatural, Art Gallery of NSW

What a fantastic exhibition this is, one that brings together pieces from a range of different places including galleries in Australia (AGNSW, NGV), the National Library, and a gallery in Minneapolis, among others.

The show runs for a while (2 Nov 2019 to 8 March 2020) so there is still plenty of time to go and see it yet. Attendance when I went – mid-afternoon on a January weekday – was solid and if these numbers are repeated across the entire period you’d have to say that it has brought dividends to the gallery that put the show on.

The catalogue contains a lot of useful information, so I would recommend buying it if you can. A good preface by Mami Kataoka provides a guide to the influence of Buddhism on Japan, especially as it relates to traditional Shinto practices. Kataoka contrasts the “old Shinto” practice of revering living things with the practice, once Buddhism entered the archipelago in the 7th century, of revering also such things as rivers and trees.

For the Japanese the link between the physical world and the supernatural is special and, while the Japanese are determinedly secular in their outlook they are also notably superstitious. The real-supernatural dichotomy is evident in such cultural products as the movies of Hayao Miyazaki, the animation master, and the novels of Haruki Murakami (in his latest novel, which I reviewed here about a year ago, there is a special place in the narrative for a Subaru Forester car).  This focus on the physical world, despite the apparently magical influence of spirits or ghosts, is something different about Japanese culture though, I suspect, the same ideas are present in Chinese culture as well (“zen Buddhism” means, after all, “Chinese Buddhism”).

There is so much good stuff in this exhibition and you will want to go back to see the items viewed on the day of your visit, so do buy the catalogue. The reproductions are very high-quality and the essays are solid and illuminating.

In the catalogue I couldn’t find the reference for the painting where the detail above comes from, but this is a mother and child.

Above and below: Details from Itoya Hiroharu’s ‘Night Procession of the Hundred Demons’, c1860.

Above: Detail from Tsukiyoka Yoshitoshi’s ‘Miyamoto Musashi and the Exorcism of the Evil Fox of Princess Osakabe’, 1863.

Above: Detail from Takashi Murakami’s ‘In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow’, 2014.

Above: Takashi Murakami, ‘The Embodiment of “Um”’, 2014.

In addition to the items shown here, for me a standout part of the show was the photos of Miwa Yanagi. The ‘Fairy Tale’ series she made in 2004 is just outstanding.

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