Shapeshifting: the Spirit of Masako Miki


Shapeshifting: the Spirit of Masako Miki

By Emily Wilson February 20, 2019

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

Walking into the two Bay Area shows by Masako Miki, Shapeshifters at CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions and MATRIX 273 at the Berkeley Art Museum, a viewer encounters large felt-covered soft sculptures in colors like turquoise, fuchsia, and bright yellow. It’s hard not to smile when confronted by these anthropomorphized figures, with their witty combinations of bulbous bodies and furniture-like, spindly legs. Yet there is more to the work than the immediate visual impact: a viewer is drawn toward, and in some cases through, the figures, taking in subtleties of narrative and meaning. Together, the two shows reveal a playful and poetic vision of cross-cultural mythology and human mutability.

Miki, who was born in Osaka, Japan, came to California to get her BFA at Notre Dame De Namur University in Belmont before getting her MFA at San Jose State University. She has lived in California, mainly in Berkeley, for nearly two decades. Shinto traditions and concepts from Japan influence her work, and in these exhibits, she is representing yōkai, supernatural shape-shifters in Japanese folklore, beings that aren’t fixed as one thing or another. The kanji characters for yōkai (妖怪) mean something like "bewitching/attractive/calamity" paired with "apparition/mystery.” With their colors, softness, and originality, as well as their mysterious air of monsters or spirits, the yōkai do bewitch and attract.

Masako Miki. Installation view, MATRIX 273, 2019. Courtesy of BAMPFA. Photo: JKA Photography.

As a Japanese woman making her home in America, the artist relates to yōkai. “They’re signifiers for me,” Miki said in an interview.1 “They’re symbols of fluidity and transitional space. They’re multiple things with multiple identities; sometimes they’re animals, sometimes humans, and they can also be deities.”

Seeing the figures, the viewer becomes aware of blurred boundaries as well. The MATRIX show is in a single gallery, with lots of natural light. There are abstract images painted directly on the wall and the concrete floor: ovals and polka dots and long arms with hands that frame and interact with the sculptural figures that have been produced in vivid, cheerful primary colors. A bright blue, tall, lumpy sculpture (Animated Prayer Beads, 2018) may represent a tool for counting mantra but also has the height and vertical stance of a human. A big, white, upside-down U tipped with dripping green (Animated Ancient Sutra, 2018) may signify a Buddhist scripture yet also looks whimsically like an oversized magnet. These figures, both familiar and not, cause viewers to really look and consider how they can be more than one thing, the same way people can.

Some of Miki’s work recalls the bold, pulsing patterns of the artist Yayoi Kusama, with slightly fewer polka dots. But Miki said the inspiration for this work came partly from the Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who designed public works and gardens. Miki has visited several of them and says that going to his 400-acre Moerenuma Park in Hokkaido, Japan, made a big impression on her. At the park—built on a former waste-treatment plant, with fountains, wading pools, mountains, and rivers—visitors can swim, cross-country ski, or go sledding, depending on the time of year. When she was at the park, Miki felt engaged in the moment, experiencing a sense of joy at being with others outside and feeling connected to them and the place.

“When I was having fun at the park, I was a part of the park; it doesn’t do anything if nobody visits there, so the visitors fulfill the purpose,” she said. Miki thinks of the MATRIX show as a playground where the yōkai are hanging out and waiting for people to visit. Viewers are able to walk around the gallery, weaving around the forms and imagining active engagement, as with a seesaw or jungle gym.

At CULT, the shape-shifters have come home to rest for the night. In the gallery, one wall is painted purple, and the exhibition features a softer color palette of lilac, periwinkle, and pale blue. Along with three soft sculptures, there are ink-and-watercolor drawings from the series Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (2018). “I wanted a nocturnal setting, sort of a poetic in-between, when it’s getting toward the night,” Miki said. “The general narrative is the shape-shifters are in a night procession, trying to get revenge on humans who took their tools and objects and abandoned them. At the end, they realize that’s not a good thing to do.” The illustrative ink-and-watercolor pieces especially contribute to the understanding of a folkloric narrative and offer a more intimate, contemplative experience than the three-dimensional works.

“Every generation needs new mythologies,” said Miki. “What I’m doing is offering my perception of mythologies. This is the most positive response I can have to the crisis mode in the United States: I can share the mythologies relevant to our time and bring a feeling of connectedness and empathy.”

People respond to this empathy in Miki’s work, according to Aimee Friberg, who has been working with the artist for ten years.2 Because of her collaboration with Miki, Friberg has learned a lot about Shintoism, and she thinks its emphasis on having reverence for both animate and inanimate things offers relief for rampant consumerism and cynicism.

Because Miki was born in Japan and grew up there, but spent most of her formative years as an artist in the United States, the question of cultural identity has always been central to her work. Now that she is in her mid-40s, her latest body of work indicates an artist who has become more comfortable with blurred boundaries and not having to be narrowly defined as Japanese or American, as one thing or another.

“I realized I believe in the power of mythology in this folklore, and I’m more able to accept both parts of me,” she said. “If you don’t know who you are, it’s very difficult to find happiness because you don’t know what makes you happy.”

Masako Miki: Shapeshifters is on view at CULT Aimee Friberg Exhibitions in San Francisco through February 23, 2019.

Masako Miki: MATRIX 273 is on view at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through April 28, 2019.


  1. Author’s interview with Makaso Miki, January 31, 2019.
  2. Author’s interview with Aimee Friberg, February 1, 2019.

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