In the realms of the spirits

By Monty Dipietro
(THE JAPAN TIMES / April 3, 2002)
"Ghosts, we hope, may be always with us ---- that is, never too far out of the reach of fancy." So wrote British novelist Elizabeth Bowen in the preface to her "Second Ghost Book," published in 1952. When compared to the weird swirl of fantasy ---- and fear ---- that characterizes most Western attitudes toward ghosts, the way the Japanese regards these denizens of the "other side" can appear down right sober. The old, animistic Shinto belief system suggested that there were some eight million spirits floating around and embedded in the very stuff of the archipelago. Buddhism and Taoism added new dimensions to the folklore, and today the elaborate rituals that surround death remain as testimony to the fascination with the spirit world that permeates Japanese society. Although sculptor Kouji Ohno isn't a particularly religious person, he has his own reason for believing in ghosts ---- he sees them regularly. Ohno, 30, says he saw his first ghost when he was in junior high school. It was his deceased grandmother. There was no verbal communication, but he says he felt that, somehow, he was able to help her. Soon after graduating from Tama University, Ohno began to focus his creative effort on the reification of ghost images. The artist is now showing a series of recent large woodcarvings at Gallery ef, in Tokyo's Taito Ward. "Blood Heat" comprises four carved wooden masks, and two life-sized wooden torsos. A tortured tangle of twings hangs from the ceiling in one part of this room-filling installation. Embedded in it are four wire-pierced masks wearing expressions of serenity. In part because one must gaze upward to view the work, it seems to beckon the viewer ---- the faces are waiting to engage. Best in show are the torsos, one male and one female, which are suspended by a series of wires from a couple of rectangular steel frames. The wood has been painstakingly hollowed, and the pieces have a ghost like lightness, possessed of exquisite, haunting beauty. The effect here, as in the mask piece, is enhanced by the soft, warm lighting. Given the subject matter, Ohno's exhibition couldn't be in a better space. Gallery ef, in operation for about five years now, occupies two floors of the only building in Asakusa to have survived both the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the American firebombing which razed most of the area in 1945. Wooden and mysterious, this quiet time capsule of a building was constructed in 1868 by the owner of a lumber business. These days, it is one of the Tokyo contemporary art sceneļ¾•s real jewels, and, as a bonus, features a tidy, airy bistro out front. Ohno is also showing similar recent work in his atelier/ gallery in Yokohama, a newish space he calls Gallery Seizanso. This, too, is a charming space, recently renovated and locate in Chinatown, just down from the long-running Past Rays photography gallery. (If you are planning a visit to Ohno's atelier, you might want to drop by Past Rays as well, as they currently have up a worthwhile exhibition of black-and-white flower studies of Katsuo Amemiya.) I was unfamiliar with Ohno's work before visiting Gallery ef last week, but found the "Blood Heat" to be one of the best show in Tokyo right now ---- the pieces are well-crafted, well-presented and convey a very personal vision. " I am afraid of ghost," says Ohno, who hunches his shoulder in toward his neck and lowers his eyes as he explains. "When ghosts come to me, I can't move, I become very still and by doing this, I think I make myself more approachable to them. I am quite sure that when I die, I'll become a spirit. I don't know if I'll be a ghost that people in the real world will be able to see, but I hope that if I have children, I will be able to see them. Of course I wouldn't want to scare them, so it may be difficult..."