Unearthed exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

University of East Anglia, Norwich, 22 June to 29 August 2010

Review by Susan Meehan

The ‘unearthed’ exhibition, held at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich during the summer of 2010, elicited far more questions than it answered, making for an extraordinarily thought-provoking and rewarding experience. At its heart was a collection of over 100 prehistoric miniature clay figurines hailing from Japan as well as Albania, Macedonia and Romania permitting the visitor to uncover their similarities and ponder. The Japanese figurines dating from the Jōmon (縄文時代) era (about14,000 to 300BC) are called ‘dogū’ (土偶) or clay spirits.

The deftly curated exhibition provided a rare encounter with these forms, most of which were broken and some of which are 5,000 years old, from Japan and the Balkans, whose people were making some of the earliest and most beguiling clay figures in the world.

What urge prompted people in these two unconnected regions to begin making human forms from clay thousands of years ago – between 16,000 and 2,000 years ago in the case of the Japanese Jōmon figurines and between 8,500 and 4,500 years ago in the case of the Balkan figurines? What was the function of these tiny figures, averaging 4-5cm in height? Were they meant as toys, portraits, objects to guarantee fertility or successful harvests? The truth is, as the exhibition shows, no one can be sure.

The faces of these figurines come in a variety of shapes: heart-shaped, round, long and flint-shaped to name a few and some are more rustic than others. Some of the figurines are voluptuous, while others are ornate, featureless, goggle-eyed, open-mouthed or apelike. They are reminiscent of Anthony Gormley’s terracotta figures which formed part of his ‘Field for the British Isles’ exhibition in 1993 in which 40,000 8-26cm high terracotta figures were specially made.

As Dr Simon Kaner, Deputy Director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Studies of Japanese Arts and Cultures (SISJAC) and co-curator of the exhibition explained to a group of Japanese archaeologists visiting the exhibition on the same day as I did, the idea is to encourage further research and debate.  The exhibition’s extensive text explanations and quotes from individuals as diverse as a philosopher, author and anthropologist, were an excellent complement and a pleasure to read.

Dr Kaner wondered why the figurines in both the Balkan and Japanese cultures are not all exactly human but still have eyes and mouths to suggest a human form and why such an abundance of feet fragments (these are all displayed in one case)?

Why do they have such big eyes, predating contemporary ‘manga’ eyes  and why do some of the Jōmon figurines look like the Japanese mythical ‘kappa’ (河童) or water sprites of Japanese folklore (which hold water in a bowl-like dent on their head)? Could they be representations of these ancient myths?

Hosted in a university gallery, Kaner pointed out that the profusion of debate and interpretation is in keeping with the academic ethos of encouraging new theories, interpretations and continuing research.

The similarities between the Balkan and Japanese figurines are striking. Why were so many of the figurines commonly broken? (Visitors to the exhibition were given a small dogū-like figurine and encouraged to smash it at an allocated box in the gallery to gauge how this feels.) Perhaps they were broken as part of a game or to exorcise bad luck transferred to the figurine. Why are some of the Japanese and Eastern European figurines goggle-eyed and why do some wear masks. Could it be that the goggles represent a form of eyewear used to protect one’s eyes from the glare of the snow as has been suggested? At one point the visitor was exhorted not to view the figures as male or female but to regard them as devoid of gender, in order that our understanding be in no way limited.

Theories abound and it is to the exhibition’s credit that visitors are encouraged to reflect on prehistoric human behaviour.

The exhibition even included the Grimes Graves Goddess, on loan from the British Museum, making a return to Norfolk for the first time since its discovery in the 1930s. This remarkable rotund figure was unearthed in Norfolk in 1939 by A L Armstrong and regarded as Neolithic until the late 20th century, when an investigation carried out in 1991 by Gillian Varndell from the British Museum, highlighted problems with its authenticity.

The exhibition also featured contemporary responses to the figurines, including images, photographs and film. ‘Playing in Time’ by Sarah Beare is a playful animation film commissioned especially for the exhibition. A photograph of Frida Kahlo with an Olmeca figurine made me think of the fact that Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) kept a dogū on his desk. All of these were a welcome addition, showing our continuing fascination with these pint-sized characters.

The unearthed exhibition ran from 22 June to 29 August 2010 at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia. A different version of this review appeared on the Japan Society Website during summer 2010

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