It’s hard to believe it was just three months ago that I visited the exhibit Yokai: Ghosts and Demons of Japan at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. It’s hard not to think of time these days in terms of before and after: before and after coronavirus, before and after quarantine, before and after shutdowns. Everything that came before feels like a very long time ago.
It was an unseasonably warm February day. Good weather and free Sunday admission brought many people out to the museum. Museum employees mounted on horses and zipping about in golf cars guided a line of cars through dirt roads into overflow parking lots. I remember the scene because at the time I was taking mental notes for some sort of review or response in mind. Was there something to be said about the juxtaposition of cowboy and Asian culture, east versus west, outside versus inside space? In this case, turns out, not really.
I don’t always find the experience of being in museums comfortable. So once inside MOIFA, it was refreshing to find the Yokai exhibit set apart within its own space, making it feel more cloistered and intimate. Entry to the exhibit is through either side of a dark-paneled wall. The concealed entry made me think of entering a big circus tent, with all its anticipation and promise of unexpected magic and discoveries. Depending on which side one enters, the trajectory of the exhibit could skew from tragic to comic, or comic to tragic. No matter how it’s entered, the exhibit creates the effect of feeling haunted throughout by these yokai, or “ghosts, demons, monsters, shapeshifters, tricksters, and other kinds of supernatural beings and mysterious phenomena” (MOIFA).
In the exhibit, Yokai are depicted through painted scrolls, carved netsuke, masks, puppets, woodblock prints, playing cards, and more. The impressive collection spans hundreds of years, and exhibition text provides background on how yokai folklore has survived and evolved over the last millennia. One can enter a small Japanese-style room and listen to ghost stories read to them, and then open the shoji screen door to a miniature haunted house.
The feeling of being haunted, for me, came from feeling like a participant, rather than just an observer, within the exhibit. I found the space in which figures hover over you, creep around corners, and seem to follow you with their eyes as you move through the environment to be effective. This haunted feeling felt most real to me in the center of the exhibit, which is lined with depictions of yurei, or the spirits of mostly women who have often been scorned or betrayed by men and seek revenge. Standing in the crowded corner filled with these floating, footless women felt a little like inhabiting a small corner of the guilty male psyche. Narrative on the walls asking me to think about how yokai are depicted, what purpose they serve, and how we can relate to them resonated with me, as I think it will with most who visit.
In these days, the after days, I find myself dreaming of public places. I wake up realizing I miss these places I used to frequent, miss the ease with which I used to enter and move about these shared spaces that are now, at least temporarily, forbidden.
Being in the places in my dreams is not dissimilar to my experience of going to museums in that I usually feel like an outsider looking in, and come out of it with only brief snapshots of information. While my visit to Yokai: Ghosts and Demons of Japan feels dream-like and long ago, it feels like a vivid dream that I want to tell everyone about.
I hope once our physical spaces for education and cultural connection are returned to us we all visit them like long lost relatives and that they are not taken for granted.
Yokai: Ghosts & Demons of Japan can be visited at:
Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM
December 8, 2019 – January 10, 2021