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Sparks of joy, flashes of resentment

The author strongly identifies with this figure – the 'strange king of the dust heap’ – in Itaya Hiroharu’s Night procession of the hundred demons (Hyakki yagyō) c1860 (detail), Art Gallery New South Wales, Asian Collection Benefactors’ Fund 1995

I have a history of hanging on to things that I am definitely, positively going to fix or use in the immediate future. Probably next week. At least, before 2030.

Maybe it’s a broken mirror that would be excellent in an art piece, a childhood toy that I am eventually going to clean up and display proudly, a huge box of blank greeting cards, or a pair of boots that just need new zippers, re-soling, patching and a good polish. Most of these items experience the rotating purgatory of my avoidance – from bench pile to cupboard to plastic crate to garage stack – as I find myself increasingly unable to look them in their inanimate faces.

Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo has established a now-famous approach to dealing with this kind of accumulation of stuff and its accompanying accrual of guilt: hold the object in your hands and ask yourself, ‘Does this spark joy?’ If the answer is no, tell the item a sincere ‘thank you’ and throw it out, having completed its time in service with you.

The idea that inanimate objects have some sort of mind or life of their own is one that crosses many cultures. Kondo’s philosophy in particular is based in the Shinto belief that all things, living and not, have their own spirit. The objects that have been human-made for a specific purpose – for example, tools, instruments, garments, and books – have spirits that are eager to perform the tasks for which they were explicitly created. As Kondo puts it in her book The life-changing magic of tidying, ‘your possessions want to help you’.

The flipside of this, of course, is how these spirits might feel if they’re not allowed to fulfil their purpose; if they’re carelessly treated, neglected or discarded without thought.
The exhibition Japan supernatural has vivid examples of objects rising up in revolt against such treatment, in illustrations of the centuries-old stories of tsukumogami or object-goblins. In Japanese folklore, household utensils and tools achieve a soul after providing 100 years of service. If they are prevented from following this path due to poor treatment by their owners, however, they may also rise up in rebellious sentient life to join the hyakki yagyō or night procession of 100 demons.

Musical instrument and umbrella tsukumogami bring up the rear of Kentaro Yoshida’s entrance court mural, Night procession of the hundred demons (Hyakki yagyō) 2019 (detail), presented with support from Mandy Shaul 2019 © the artist

Scrolls, prints, paintings and books all detail the many types of tsukumogami, with Toriyama Sekien’s encyclopaedic collection of yōkai from 1784 categorising them as a ‘horde of haunted housewares’. Objects that take starring roles include commonly-discarded items from traditional Japanese homes such as straw sandals, paper lanterns, umbrellas and fans. Musical instruments also make many appearances, with biwa lutes, shamisens and cymbals joining the unruly gang. These newly alive yōkai grow arms, legs and wildly grinning faces, and can then pester, trick and torment their former owners in retaliation for neglect.

Tsukumogami have endured through the ages, finding new popularity in manga, anime, and, most recently at the Gallery, in Kentaro Yoshida’s entrance court murals created in association with Japan supernatural. The idea that our possessions have lives of their own has clearly resonated with audiences throughout different cultures and eras – just look at Norman Lindsay’s cantankerous The magic pudding, the enchanted brooms of Fantasia and the beloved dolls of Toy story. Each of these characters wants to fulfil the purpose for which it was made, and nearly always becomes belligerent, manic or desperate only in response to the actions of its owner.

It’s a powerful deterrent against mistreatment of possessions, and one that’s been haunting me since I first laid eyes on the Night procession of the one hundred demons (Hyakki yagyô) hand scroll by Hiroharu Itaya from the Gallery’s collection. Though it contains a parade of tsukumogami born from objects I don’t own, I can’t help but envision what my clutter-demons would look like: a motley march of someday-clothes that twirl glued-together paintbrushes like tiny swords; or a flapping flock of unread hardcover classics, flying over a resentful toy crocodile that snaps at its own leaky stuffing.

The thought is enough to have me planning nervously for a thank-you-and-goodbye session of my own. Kondo does say ‘from my own experience, I have never encountered any possession that reproached its owner’ but I don’t think she’s ever faced down the strong vibes of vexation coming from inside my storage unit. I may need to placate my accumulated stuff with more than just words of gratitude and a release into freedom.

If only I could find that box of greeting cards.

Monsters and mayhem – but no greeting cards – spilling forth from a box in Utagawa Yoshimori’s The tongue-cut sparrow (Shitakiri suzume) 1864, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Yasuko Myer Bequest Fund

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November 26 2019, 2pm
by Holly Bennett
Creative and content coordinator