TV shows, ancient paintings, literature, and verbal stories introduced Masako Miki to Japanese mythology. These stories offered explanations on natural phenomena, like rain and the creation of certain landscapes, or delved into the stories of shapeshifters roaming in the same dimension as us.
“I felt like it gave me so much imagination and made me wonder about the things around us,” the Berkeley-based artist said.
She remembers some of these ancestral narratives — specifically the concept of yōkai — to create a vibrant set of more than a dozen larger-than-life-size, felt-covered sculptures at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. Her solo exhibit, Masako Miki / MATRIX 273, opens Wednesday, Jan. 9. Next week, Shapeshifters, an exhibit featuring more of Miki’s yōkai-inspired work, will open at CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions in San Francisco. Ultimateloy, her work aims to foster connections.
Each colorful, soft-to-touch figure is based on a shapeshifter otherwise known as yōkai, characters in transition to becoming their pre-eternal nature. Instead of spirits losing their physical form, these beings disguise themselves as animals or strange things, such as a one-eyed child or faceless ghost. This notion looks back at traditional Shinto views on animism or the idea that things have a spirit.
Tsukomogani, which literally translates to 99 deities, is a type of yōkai that turns into mundane items, like a cast-iron pan or a ceramic bowl. (The number 99 is symbolic, because it represents one year before 100 years old, which is the age that inanimate objects either turn into spirits or hunt you down for misusing them, according to Japanese myths.)
“Karakasa-obake,” a 74-inch-tall depiction of a tsukomogani, the umbrella ghost, was Miki’s favorite piece to make. Usually, these closed umbrella-shaped characters are illustrated wearing wooden clogs and having only one eye, but her version comes baby pink with neon raindrops and skinny legs. (“It looks like giant candy cones,” she joked.) Although lighthearted and humorous, the pieces create space for meaningful messages. One interpretation is to not be wasteful and take care of your belongings.
Generally, shapeshifters are portrayed with darker hues of muted reds or browns, but hers lean on rich evergreens, dandelions, and fluorescent pinks. “Kinoko,” a bright highlighter yellow piece flaunting the same wool-covered foam look, is Miki’s variation of a mushroom as a shapeshifter.
“I wanted to use these vivid colors to imbue a sense of life, so that they are alive and present,” she clarified. “I am envisioning these shapeshifters in a playground, having fun, and hanging out with other shapeshifters.”
Miki was born and raised in Osaka, Japan, and eventually migrated to the United States when she was 18 years old. Since 1992, she’s been a Bay Area resident. She originally focused on painting but has since extended her expertise to drawing (ink and watercolor), sculpting (needle felting), and putting together installations.
Her BAMPFA exhibition aims to relate to the world without judgment. It emphasizes a universal experience — a state of mindfulness and relatability with one another. The fluidity of shapeshifters — how they can be many things at the same time — echoes how different dimensions of a person can coexist. It cancels out the idea of absoluteness in labels, whether it be about gender, race, or class.
Miki’s Japanese-American identity and her work parallel this notion of being multi-dimensional. “You’re not either or neither,” she said. “These objects are a portal for us to connect. Like I’m there and you’re here. It’s a recognition.”
To an extent, her work is about empathy. Not everyone who sees her sculptures will know the entire story behind the cute characters, but the immersive experience will allow viewers to be on the same wavelength in an unexpected way.
“It’s like when somebody says my favorite food is chocolate — and my favorite food is not chocolate — but I know what it is to have a favorite food. It’s not necessarily chocolate, but I can relate to the feeling of having something that I like,” she said.
In a society rife with division, Miki’s artistic point of view aims to dissolve boundaries.
“You’re a part of the community. You’re a part of the family. And when you become part of a family, you treat other people with the respect and you don’t want anything bad to happen to them.”