John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
When was the last time your museum experience involved a painting you can climb into or disembodied eyes following you in a room?
Tokyo's already established itself as a paradise for kooky and off-the-beaten-path museums. What other city can brag of having museums devoted to beer, handbags, the wonderful animations of Hayao Miyazaki, leprosy, sewer systems, and the intricate clocks of feudal lords? That's not even mentioning that lovely destination for first-time daters, the Meguro Parasitological Museum.
This summer, a pop-up in the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art is slathering another dollop of weirdness onto the city's cultural canvas. It's a show for infants and pre-schoolers that is named "Ghosts, Underpants, and Stars" after the "three keywords that symbolize children," according to the museum: "ghosts" for imagination, "underpants" for growth, and "stars" for wishes. The exhibit has several outlandish components, like a light show that allows kids to mix up night constellations and a visual story of a girl who dreams about taking her sentient pajamas, "Pants-chan," on a magic journey to the "Land of the Underpants."
In other words, pretty standard stuff for Japan. But there's one part of the exhibit that stands above the others in terms of sheer, occult freakishness. It's a "Haunted Play House" inhabited by portraits with eyes that track you around a room, mirrored paintings that distort human features into grotesqueries, and a black "canvas" that is in fact a yawning tunnel into an unknown room. Overseeing it all while slumping in the corner is a mysterious character slumped in the corner whose hat levitates above his headless body.
The ghostly set-up, designed by Torafu Architects, is meant to give youngsters a chance to flaunt museum rules against running, yelling, and touching the artworks. If it happens to provoke screaming bouts in a few of the more sensitive ones, hey, there's always the little-girl's-underwear gallery down the hall. Here's Torafu describing how it was able to construct the dark funhouse:
At first, the paintings on the walls appear perfectly ordinary, but strange things begin to occur as eyes gaze at you and faces in the picture suddenly change. Hidden behind the walls is in fact a backstage room from where all sorts of antics are unleashed on unsuspecting visitors. Museum-goers previously on the receiving end of such antics can also enter the secret room and reverse the roles by becoming in turn tricksters on the other side of the paintings. We aimed to create a "Haunted Play House" that can not only spook visitors, but also engage them more actively while stimulating their imagination.
The show runs until September 8, if any parents in the country want to have their kids' imaginations stimulated/warped:
A peek behind the scenes:
Getting to the haunted house means crossing this "Bridge with Eyes." They may look static here, but to museum visitors the eyeballs appear to roll and rotate as they walk past: