Some masks are for hiding. Some, such as Jim Carrey’s in The Mask, are for putting on other, more efficacious faces. Ryo Mikami’s masks are stand-ins for a whole spectrum of human emotions—just don’t rely on the placards to illuminate which emotions they are.
Mikami’s masks are docile. They are made of pit-fired ceramic with stone inlay, their expressions quietly transfixed amid the low, intimate ceilings and warm but subdued atmosphere of Touching Stone Gallery. The exhibition is titled Mujo (Impermanence), which must have to do more with life’s endless fluttering of emotions than those permanently cast in ceramic. The series begins with “Innocence” (a small, round child’s face that would best be titled “Asleep After Tantrum”) and goes through a strange series of non sequitur emotions in the journey of life, only to end with “Empty,” a singular translucent tea bowl. Bummer.
Each mask was molded from the back while Mikami, who was born and educated in Japan, fixated on a certain emotion, which he later associated with a kanji—Chinese characters used in modern Japanese. Afterward, noses were added, lips split, eyebrows carved—all in the service of that specific emotion. The pieces are all named after their respective kanji characters. But the titles, at least as translated into English, can be baffling.
“Deep” looks “Suspicious,” “Content” might just be “Distrustful,” whereas “Hope” is certainly “High.” In fact, rarely do the faces—piked up by rods or mounted on walls—coincide with the English understandings of their names. Some of the titles don’t even seem like emotions at all: “Transcend” seems to be “Remembering Something,” while “Clear” has clearly been “Lied To,” and “Wish” can only hope to be “Trying to See.”
Recent studies show there are minute differences in how cultures perceive facial expressions, but it seems more likely that the discrepancies arise from the titles’ translations. The titles are only approximations of the kanji characters Mikami considered when creating the pieces, according to an interview with the gallery’s owners by Pasatiempo. Those characters, we’re told, don’t have exact translations in English. Perhaps the strange expressions are just the terms lost in translation.
But why translate the untranslatable in the first place? Moving poetic terms from one language to another brings many pitfalls, as it’s hard enough to find an equivalent word, let alone one that captures historical and cultural associations. Individual words could be further explicated with a few sentences on etymology, but then their singular elegance would be lost. Vladimir Nabokov, in his “Problems of Translation: Onegin in English” essay, said, “I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one eternal line between commentary and eternity.” These kanji could probably get by with just a clip of context.
Let’s say one understands the kanji and these titles make sense. The works themselves become more satisfying to swallow. They bear a spare and ascetic Eastern aesthetic, which causes some of the pieces’ slight variations or adornments to seem massive. The blue twinkle on the forehead and within the eye of “Desire” is an ocean; “Pleased,” with a heart on its forehead, a tear below its eye and a bear claw pattern on the side of its face, is a mystery of epic proportions.
The masks’ emotions are written indelibly across their faces. Just don’t tell them—or us—how to feel.