October 21, 2009

Japanese Monsters Inc.

From the scary to the sublime, Japanese art brings spirits to life in a new exhibition at the Art Gallery

By Taylor McNeil

As you walk into the Tufts University Art Gallery, you first notice five oversized troll-like monsters, with bright fake fur and convex mirrors for eyes. It’s a good introduction to Sacred Monsters: Everyday Animism in Contemporary Japanese Art and Anime, which is on view through November 22. With 21 works by eight Japanese artists, as well as eight anime films by Japanese directors, what’s on display ranges from the sublime to the scary, the apocalyptic to the commonplace.

Click on the play button to watch a narrated slideshow about the Sacred Monsters exhibition, on view at the Art Gallery through November 22.

Take Strawberry Voice, a sculpture the size of a small room by Mr., as the artist calls himself. It’s the head of typical anime girl—bright, colorful and just a bit spooky as it sits on the floor, missing its body. One of the girl’s eyes is open, so we can see quite literally what’s in her head: a dollhouse, complete with knickknacks on the shelves and fake ivy climbing the walls.

Then there are the four earthenware figures by Kenjiro Kitade crouched on the floor nearby. They are “sheep-children,” according to the artist’s description, but seem more pig-like, wearing what look like gas masks. What makes them creepily realistic is how their muscular poses seem to have been caught in mid-movement.  Juxtaposed with those sculptures are the large paintings of Oscar Oiwa, streets scenes devoid of people, filled with tunnels and passageways.

Another provocative work is The Fountain of the Skull by Chiho Aoshima, a large digital print mounted under plexiglass. A skull with stylized vegetation growing out of it and little people peeping through the eye sockets takes up most of the frame. Chilling, perhaps, but not uncharacteristic of Japanese art; several artists from the 19th century made woodblock prints with similar themes. (To check out antecedents of the contemporary art in the gallery, visit Ghost Stories: Selections from Yoshitoshi’s New Forms of 36 Ghosts and Other Works, a concurrent exhibition of striking prints in the nearby Remis Sculpture Court.)

Anime, the stylized Japanese animation, also plays an integral role in Sacred Monsters, with five different directors represented. In a viewing room in the gallery, two screens show Blu-ray films, including the groundbreaking Akira (1988), as well as the more recent The Grudge (2002) and Paprika (2006); headphones are available so that visitors can listen to the soundtracks.

As with other recent shows, the gallery is offering audio commentary for Sacred Monsters. But instead of borrowing or renting a headset, you need only turn on your cell phone. Then dial in, and you’re connected to the tour.

The exhibition was co-curated by gallery director Amy Ingrid Schlegel and Jonathan Barracato, a graduate student in art history. Advising them were Professors Hosea Hirata, Charles Shiro Inouye and Susan J. Napier of the Department of German, Russian and Asian Languages and Literature in the School of Arts and Sciences.

For more information on the exhibition, go to http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gallery/shows/sacredmonsters.html.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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