Visions of Japanese culture danced in my head as I set out to visit the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach to see a new show by artist-in-residence Mariko Kusumoto: haiku poetry, raku pottery, bonsai trees, Noh theater, sumi-e calligraphy and drawings. I pondered the holy trinity of Japanese cinema: Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa.
As it turns out, none of it quite prepared me for Kusumoto's output, even though her work bears traces of all things Japanese (as does the entire Morikami complex, by the way — a genuine South Florida treasure). Maybe nothing could have prepared me, except perhaps origami. There's a sense in which her startling creations may be seen as the opposite of origami, with its intricate paper folds, its inward orientation. Origami starts with a flat, open sheet of paper that is transformed into something else by a series of increasingly complex folds.
Kusumoto's mixed-media work, by contrast, begins with intricate, tightly constructed units that are then opened to spill out their contents. In its own way, each work is a modified box that unfolds, layer by layer, to reveal its myriad components.
The show's title, "Unfolding Stories," really says it all and then some. On a metaphorical level, it refers to the multiple narratives that are embedded in each piece and that come into focus as you scrutinize the work. On a more literal, physical level, every piece is a sort of multistoried structure that unfolds outward, its furnishings arrayed around it as if for a yard sale. To mix metaphors, more than once, I thought of a flower blossoming in slow motion.
Take Bloomingdales, for example, a work inspired by an 1886 illustrated catalog. In Kusumoto's interpretation, the famous New York department store is a seven-story miniature building that opens up so we can examine its tiny merchandise in greater detail.
One of Kusumoto's most elaborate constructions is Self-Entertainment Kit, a big box whose imagery-blanketed doors fold back to expose nine shallow compartments, each of which yields a smaller, boxlike form containing various diversions — little toys, games, puzzles. Think of another department store: FAO Schwarz.
There are precedents for Kusumoto's box-based art, most notably the highly theatrical boxes of great American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1973). One significant difference between the two is that the contents of Cornell's boxes tend toward the metaphorical, the oblique, and the surreal, whereas Kusumoto's boxes usually contain more literal representations of objects from the larger world. Another telling detail is that Cornell's boxes are sealed; Kusumoto's emphasize their very openness. Indeed, the Japanese artist's work implies a level of interactivity that would be impossible with Cornell's.
The key word here, unfortunately, is implies. You can't actually play with the toys and puzzles so prominently featured in Self-Entertainment Kit any more than you can move the game pieces positioned on the board for Chess Set. Or dress and undress the male and female Kisekae Dolls, metal variations on the paper dolls popular in 19th- and 20-century America. And though you can see that the little servings of sushi in Kaiten Zushi are actually boxes containing other objects, you have to depend on the artist to open them up so you can see what's inside, just as you have to take on faith that the first floor of the miniature sushi bar rotates.
In other words, your interactivity with a Kusumoto work must remain on a mental level. Each of the dozen or so assemblages in the exhibition remains protected by an impenetrable display case. You may look but not touch. This is a sad but necessary restriction. As much as the bits and pieces of each work of art cry out to be handled, it would be impractical to allow every museumgoer to have his or her way with them.
Perhaps this emphasis on imaginary interactivity is just another manifestation of an artistic tradition that encourages contemplation. It's worth noting that one of the signature works of modern conceptual art is Grapefruit, a 1964 book of poetry by another Japanese artist, Yoko Ono, that also operates as a set of instructions for actions that are to be carried out only in your head. (Sample: City Piece, which exhorts you to "Step in all the puddles in the city.")
In this context, it's worth pointing out too that Kusumoto, who was born in 1967, grew up in a 400-year-old Buddhist temple where her father was a priest. If such an environment doesn't foster contemplation in a budding artist, I don't know what does. She also acknowledges the temple's brass ornamentation as an influence on her work, which often makes use of a technique called electroforming, in which nonmetal objects are cast in metal, the way people preserve baby shoes by bronzing them.
There's something simultaneously intimate and epic about Kusumoto's art, which no doubt helps account for how enormously potent this small exhibition is. It's a show unlike anything I have ever seen and a perfect excuse to go to the Morikami — as if you need one to visit a place that includes, along with the museum, a café, a bonsai display, and gorgeous gardens.