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Kouji Ohno at Gallery ef

by Monty DiPietro

"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 the preface to her "Second Ghost Book," published in 1952. When compared to the weird swirl of fantasy -- fear that characterizes most Western attitudes toward ghosts, the way the Japanese regard these denizens of the "other side" can appear downright sober.

The old animistic Shinto belief system suggested that there were some eight million spirits floating around and imbedded in the very stuff of this 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 reasons 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 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 abandoned most other subjects and focused his creative efforts on the reification of ghost images.

The artist is now showing a series of recent large wood carvings at Gallery ef, in Tokyo's Taito Ward. "Blood Heat" comprises four carved wooden masks, and two "life"-sized carved wooden torsos.

The four wire-pierced masks wear expressions of serinity at the extremities of a tortured tangle of twigs which hangs from the ceiling as part of this room-filling installation. In part because one must gaze upwards to view the work, it seems to beckon the viewer -- the masks are watching, waiting to engage.

Best in show are the very well done 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 speak to a ghostlike lightness of being with exquisite, haunting beauty, this enhanced by the soft, warm lighting scheme that is also used in the mask piece described above.

Given the subject matter, Ohno's exhibition couldn't be in a better space. The Gallery ef, in operation for about five years now, is housed on two floors of one of the only buildings 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 scene's real jewels, and, as a bonus, features a tidy and 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 is also a charming space, recently renovated and located 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 a worthwhile exhibitions of black and white flower studies in by Katsuo Amemiya.

Back to the exhibition at hand. I must say that I was unfamiliar with Ohno's work before I visited the Gallery ef last week, but found "Blood Heat" to be one of the best shows up in Tokyo right now -- the pieces are well-crafted, well-presented, and convey a very personal vision.

"I am afraid of ghosts," says Ohno, who hunches his shoulders 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 difficult..."


Kouji Ohno's "Blood Heat" is showing to April 14 2002 at Gallery ef (2-19-18 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku; 03-3841-0114). Ohno's Gallery Seizanso is open weekends and by appointment (246-2 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama; 045-640-3218). The Kazuo Amemiya photography show "Eclipse" is up to April 30 at Past Rays (246-5 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku; 045-661-1060)
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