March of the phantoms - demons and spirits in Japanese art

An exhibition at ArtisTree parades the Japanese fascination with the supernatural. Catherine Shaw tells a ghost story

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 December, 2012, 3:41pm

Ghosts, demons and spirits have long been part of Japanese folklore, passed down from generation to generation through stories and legends, picture scrolls and the performing arts. The way Japanese culture has given a visual form to this realm of the supernatural is the theme of a new exhibition, "Parade: Invisibles in Japanese Media Arts - From Night Parade of One Hundred Demons to IS Parade", at ArtisTree in Taikoo Place.

Deeply held beliefs in the spirit or "invisible world" are still reflected in day-to-day life in Japan, from its many festivals and rituals to modern art, according to the exhibition's Tokyo-based curator, Mami Kataoka. "We wanted to explore how this has influenced artists, especially in the context of new modern media," she says. "The origins of manga, anime and character culture that enjoy tremendous popularity in contemporary Japan can also be seen within the context of this Japanese view of nature."

The exhibition offers an enticing glimpse of works from award-winning artists selected in large part from the prestigious annual Japan Media Arts Festival, renowned for recognising outstanding works from a diverse range of media from animation to games.

Kataoka - the chief curator of Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, which was appointed by Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs to curate and manage the Hong Kong event - has paired 28 signature artworks with several public programmes. They include 17 film screenings, a symposium with guests such as Japanese yokai (supernatural monster) researcher Koichi Yumoto who will be showing works from his unique collection.

To set the scene, Kataoka turned to a 16th-century scroll, the Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons (attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu) featuring a procession of colourful demons and creatures marching from right to left (it was believed that demons march at dusk, disappearing at dawn).

In addition to illustrating the malevolent and playful nature of demons, the scroll also shows natural or man-made objects such as furniture and clothing with special powers (items that have existed for a long time are believed to take on a spiritual dimension), and illustrating that animals such as the fox, badger or snake have the power to change into spirits or demons.

The original scroll is reproduced for the exhibition in the form of a 20-metre-long version.

"The concept of a 'parade' also symbolises the shifts in media and technology from the past to the present, the fusion and continuity of different spaces and times that underlie these changes, as well as a journey of discovery that seeks to attain an awareness of these invisible entities," says Kataoka.

Happily, the exhibition's modern-day appreciation of the invisible world stands up well, with 24 artists' works from the diverse fields of Japanese contemporary art ranging from manga, animation and video games, to a software application by Tomohiko Hayashi, Kensuke Sembo and Tomohiko Koyama entitled "IS Parade".

The app creates a procession of people and characters out of your own Twitter stream. Since its launch in April 2010, more than 13.5 million parades have been "held" using the creative concept. The work won the trio the grand prize in the entertainment division at the 14th Japan Media Arts Festival.

Meanwhile, Tama Art University graduate Shiriagari Kotobuki's Manga After That Day - referring to the earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of Tohoku on March 11, 2011, offers an imaginatively ghostly story comprising several beautifully executed manga frames.

The work was produced soon after the disaster based on the artist's personal experience as a volunteer working in the affected areas. The manga has no text but the story is easily appreciated.

Daijio Morohoshi's Shiori and Shimiko (2007) is another manga artwork and highlight. The series won the award for excellence in the manga division at the 12th Japan Media Arts Festival, and tells the story of two high school girls, Shiori and Shimiko, who meet a ghost librarian who collects yokai that have transformed themselves into old books, and travel back in time to the Edo era to battle ghosts and monsters in a town called Inogashira-cho. The strange cast of characters and mysterious otherworld and exceptional detail give this work its special appeal.

Another thought-provoking work playing with the concept of time is Away, by Osaka-born Yukihiro Taguchi, who painstakingly pieces together thousands of single-frame images to create fascinating videos.

For this exhibition, Taguchi, who is based in Berlin but has built his exhibition piece on-site in person, reconfigured several video pieces he made in Hong Kong in 2009 using everyday objects such as road signs, umbrellas, bamboo and traffic cones he found in the city.

The installations are presented within storage spaces found in the exhibition, drawing attention to the temporary nature of such events.

"The works recall the anima [soul] that lies at the origin of animation. It is a very primitive and time-consuming way of making animation, but the result is truly wonderful," says Kataoka.

London-based Sawa Hiraki's creative use of antique furniture to present animation also offers another perspective on the Japanese notion of inanimate objects taking on another dimension. Here his films Record and Between are incorporated into small wooden cabinets "giving viewers the sensation of another strange realm that lies beyond their doors", explains the artist.

The works are part of Sawa's Figment series that explores notions of memory and slumber through moving images that shuttle between waking consciousness and the realm of the unconscious. The artist, who holds a master's degree in sculpture from the Slade School of Fine Art, won critical acclaim for his poetic film Dwelling in 2002, in which a group of planes fly around a room.

Kyoto-born Kaneuji Teppei's newly commissioned sculptural collage, installation and video Teenage Fan Club #40 puts materials such as driftwood, plaster, everyday plastic objects and magazine cuttings to creative use. For this exhibition the artist - who holds a master's degree in sculpture from Kyoto City University of Arts - also created a new work involving a film projected onto a heap of plastic containers, combined with an installation.

In addition to this rich feast of art are screenings of nine leading Japanese animation works, including Legend of the Millennium Dragon and A Letter to Momo created by Hirotsugu Kawasaki and Hiroyuki Okiura.

Three special screening programmes featuring award-winning works from past editions of the Japan Media Arts Festival include Hayao Miyazaki's magical Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Spirited Away (2001) won the Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival and the Oscar for best animated feature film at the 2002 US Academy Awards.

Kataoka believes that people in Hong Kong will identify with the exhibition's spiritual theme. "There are skyscrapers and technology in the city, but people are still aware of spiritual ideas such as fung shui and the overwhelming power of nature, so I think the concept of a spiritual sensibility behind the show will resonate with them."

ArtisTree, 1/F Cornwall House, Taikoo Place, Island East, Quarry Bay, 11am-8pm, free. Inquiries: 2811 3036. Ends Jan 6