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3 October 2009
Japan's Jomon sculptures are still a mystery

Dogu are the most remarkable products of Japan's Jomon Period, a Neolithic era before the advent of rice cultivation, when the Japanese archipelago supported higher population densities than any other pre-agricultural society in the world. The dogu are humanoid forms shaped in clay, large and small, richly decorated or homely and unadorned. Some 18,000 of them have been unearthed to date, in Jomon-period settlements stretching from Kyushu, north through Tohoku to Hokkaido. The oldest are nearly 10,000 years old, the youngest a mere 2,300. Yet despite their advanced age, they're on the move. Sixty-seven dogu, loaned from collections across Japan, have taken up temporary residence in the British Museum, London, for a new exhibition: "The Power of Dogu." In December, they return home for three months' display at Tokyo National Museum.
     The dogu are oddly hypnotic, a parade of the beautiful, brutal and uncanny: it seems hard to believe they could all represent a common phenomenon, one to which Meiji Era archaeologists in 1882 first gave the name 'dogu.' "The rich diversity of the dogu tradition is one of the themes we wanted to present in the exhibition," explains curator Dr. Simon Kaner, an archaeologist of the Sainsbury Institute who specializes in the prehistory of Japan. "The Japanese archipelago during the Jomon period was occupied by a large number of different groups of people, or different societies. They probably spoke a number of different dialects and expressed themselves through a huge range of pottery styles - over 400 local styles have been recognized to date."
     Indeed, the dogu are both an intensely local form of expression, and also manifest a shared urge by Neolithic peoples around the world to represent the human form in clay. The British Museum exhibition is part of an ongoing debate in the field of Neolithic studies as to the nature and purpose of early sculptural representation of the human form. The 1960s saw a proliferation of theories around so-called 'mother goddess' figures, often nicknamed 'Venus.' The 'Venus' theory has declined in popularity in recent years, while scientists working on a hoard of 2,000 figures found at Catalhoyuk in Turkey announced earlier this month a new hypothesis that the artifacts were not ritual objects, but simply toys.
     The function of dogu remains mysterious. Many were, like the Catalhoyuk figurines, 'everyday' objects - the majority have been found broken, some in heaps. If they were toys, what does that imply about the status of children, or the very idea of childhood, in Jomon cultures? Some dogu were, certainly, given special treatment - placed alongside burials or 'enshrined' in pits.
     Whatever their ritual or workaday function, the dogu are also, irresistibly, art. Their whimsical forms enchant, and their craftsmanship - some dogu are large and hollow, many are perfectly balanced and freestanding - is undoubted. An essay in the handsome catalog makes a case for the dogu as art, and for the current exhibition as a 'turning point' in the wider recognition of that artistry.
     "The Power of Dogu: Ceramic Figures from Ancient Japan" is running at the British Museum, London, Room 91, till Nov. 22; admission is free. The show moves to the Tokyo National Museum, Room T5 Honkanon, from Dec. 15 to Feb. 21, 2010.

Source: The Japan Times (2 October 2009)

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