Phantasmagoric delicacy marks the best of Enfers et fantômes d’Asie (Ghosts and Hells: The Underworld in Asian Art) at Musée du quai Branly. This sprawling show encompasses a wealth of sepulchral, shrouded spirits meandering Asia’s cultural purview: ranging from shadow puppetry, to ultra gory, Thai horror flick clips, through minimal Yase-otoko Noh masks of emaciated men, and flamboyant Kabuki theatre costumes. Also on view are fuzzy, magical amulets from Bangkok, a range of ghastly comic books, some contemporary Asian painting, the great Katsushika Hokusai’s ukiyo-e, a swath of wraith yūrei-zu, kakemono woodblock prints, and a room of playable video games.
The most beautifully satisfying and emotionally expressive pieces are the fine art offerings, like Maruyama Ōkyo’s great silk painting “Oyuki’s Ghost” (late 18th century) — inspired by a vision of the artist’s deceased wife — as well as his wrenching “Fantôme” (Ghost,1793) painting on silk. Also hauntingly sensitive is Iguchi Kashu’s “Ghost Painting” (early 20th century), and an epic anonymous painting on canvas from Khmer Cambodia called “The Last Ten Incarnations of the Buddha” (17th or 18th century). Remarkable.
The show honors predecessors by focusing attention on mystic Asian ghost stories, delving into the virtual world of phantom ancestors and the terror of hades. As such, it is a pleasing phantasmagorical plunge into the does and don’ts of dying that got me thinking about how Aldous Huxley gently died: tripping on acid. Indeed, his distinguished 1956 psychotropic essay “Heaven and Hell” might very well serve as an addendum to this show’s exhibition catalogue in which curator Julien Rousseau points out that various strands of Buddhism have played a primary role in the formation of Asia’s phantasmagoric imagination by implying that some souls linger in limbo between reincarnations.
Surprisingly, but not unreasonably, the show comes with a trigger warning: “Please note that some of the pieces or images presented in the exhibition may be shocking to some visitors (particularly children).” But messy and mystic phantoms have a lot to say to all of us about real world social situations of murder and injustice — as well as the asinine arbitrariness of chance. Moreover, I find their precept of phantasmagorical obscurity increasingly desirable in a social media landscape that has become overly data-mined, harvested, mapped, and quantified. That haunting quality of phantasmagorical obscurity is what lends this show its sense of relevance to our post-Cambridge Analytica, info-war age, so full of de-materialized bots and codes.
Though often wispy, some of the imagery is striking and memorable, particularly Issen’s “Skeleton (Pipe Support)” (early 20th century) that is delicately carved from a deer’s antler. In Buddhism, being reborn as a cursed hungry ghost is the last and most miserable form of reincarnation — and with “Skeleton” it looks like Yamarāja, the Rigvedic Hindu god of death and the underworld, has condemned some malicious mortal to starve to the bone. The pock-eyed, buck-toothed skeleton balances itself on a slight bamboo reed while standing upon what appears to be an overturned honey pot.
Sithisak Sanprasit’s large 2013 “Masque de Génie Tutélaire” (Mask of the Tutelary Genius) is a very elegant way to stress the ineffable heat of phantasmagoric hell, but one of the most powerful and topical hell images in the show was painted recently by the Thai artist Thanongsak Pakwan. His striking “Phi Mè Nay: L’ogresse de la forêt” (Phi Mè Nay: The Ogress of the Forest, 2015) accentuates a Kali-like attitude abundant in entanglements and detachments. Phi Mè Nay, a three-headed and multi-breasted ogress goddess, carries baskets of men’s heads, some detached and some attached to various animal bodies, while tiger riding in a forest of decapitated men. She haughtily wears a bountiful necklace strung with castrated cocks. Such jarring jewelry pushes us toward de-familiarization, challenging us to imagine forms of revenge justice outside of our normal systems of morality.
As early as the 10th century, Chinese Buddhist art illustrated ghostly souls caught up in hell. Beautifully illustrating that nasty netherworld schematic here is a room of daintily painted Thai manuscripts. One of the most fetching is the anonymous spiritual script “Phra Malai Voyage through Hell” from the late 18th century. Many ghost paintings appeared in this Edo period, when there was a popular craze for fantastic kaidan stories. Paintings of these frightening ghost spirits were sometimes subsequently given to Buddhist temples. For example, the Rinzai Zen Zenshō-an Temple in Tokyo, has the largest collection of yūreis and exhibits them during Obon, their festival of the dead in August, the traditional month for everything spirit and ghost in Japan.
There is also a cove here of playable video games that have been inspired by yūrei and kaidan, such as the Xbox 360 Sleeping Dogs: Nightmare in North Point (2013) that riffs on Hong Kong kung-fu zombie movies from the 1980s. Similarly, the 2009 game Ju-On (The Grudge), produced under the artistic direction of Takashi Shimizu — director of the first of the Ju-On films, tells the story of a vengeful ghost who relentlessly pursues his victims. But more emotionally charged is a majestic loop from Kuei Chih-Hung’s 1980 film Hex (Xie) that lingers on a beautiful, nude woman having ink sigils painted up and down her body by an elderly woman.
Besides being a nourishing feast for the eye of Asian arts and crafts, I found that the show’s phantasmagoric aesthetic largely parallels our presence within our online world. All the ephemeral apparitions and hot hells glowing away reminded me of the bevy of phantom servers stuck in the on position around the world — and their packets of data. In most data facilities, servers are loaded with applications and left to run indefinitely, even after nearly all users have vanished or new versions of the same programs are running elsewhere. At a certain point, no one is responsible for what floats in this heated limbo, because no one — absolutely no one — wants to go in to that server room and pull the plug on a phantom.