Intricate worlds only seem small

Metalsmith’s boxes offer glimpses of Japanese culture

Mariko Kusumoto’s “Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival)’’ was inspired by an old set of dolls the artist found at her family’s temple. Hinamatsuri is an annual festival marked by doll displays. Mariko Kusumoto’s “Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival)’’ was inspired by an old set of dolls the artist found at her family’s temple. Hinamatsuri is an annual festival marked by doll displays.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / May 28, 2010

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BROCKTON — The single, keen disappointment about “Mariko Kusumoto: Unfolding Stories,’’ a beguiling exhibit of the Boston-area metalsmith’s boxes at the Fuller Craft Museum, is that viewers can’t touch them. It’s a practical matter, of course. Hundreds of hands opening and closing the boxes and sorting through the small treasures inside them over the course of the exhibition would surely lead to damage, and so the works are safely protected.

Still, they cry out to be played with. Each box has moving pieces inside. Many have boxes within boxes, and if you could open one lid, then another, and then perhaps another, you would have the delight of finding an odd tableau or a shiny bauble. Kusumoto crafts her pieces with a staggering attention to detail.

Like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, each of Kusumoto’s is a world unto itself, an object of reverie. Unlike Cornell, interactivity is crucial to Kusumoto. Many of her pieces are toys or games. “Ryounkaku (Department Store)’’ is a 27-inch-tall nine-story tower and shopping mall game, based on a Tokyo building constructed in 1890 and destroyed in a 1923 earthquake. Kusumoto has provided a die and four small game pieces: a man, a woman, a boy, and a girl, all meticulously fashioned in metal. The aim is to ascend the tower, shop by shop.

Each shop — on most levels, there are three — is its own feast of delights. There’s an art gallery with, among other masterpieces, the Mona Lisa and Marcel Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel.’’ Bright blue waves borrowed from the legendary Japanese printmaker Hokusai lap at the tile walls of a restroom or bath. There’s a wig shop and an aviary. Every item, some smaller than the tip of my finger, has its own delicate and certain details. And that’s just on the inside of the box. The outside shows windows and balconies, all filled with people gazing out, each person different.

Kusumoto grew up in a temple in Japan, the daughter of a Buddhist priest, and the brass she favors is reminiscent of the metal ornaments she polished there as a child. “Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival),’’ was directly inspired by an old set of dolls the artist found at her family’s temple. Hinamatsuri is an annual celebration in Japan, marked with doll displays on platforms. Kusumoto has made a storage chest with five steps, topped with depictions of the Japanese emperor and empress. On the other steps, she has placed offerings — trays of food, flowers, a seahorse — and, of course, tiny chests that open to reveal more small finds.

Many of this artist’s pieces celebrate Japanese history and culture. “Shizuoka Ekiben (Boxed Lunch),’’ a teapot-shaped box, contains metal edamame, sushi rolls, and a clamshell to hold dipping sauces. Each interior piece is a box with something else inside. Pull the soy beans out of the edamame pods, and you find they are beads, each with a tiny face, strung on a bracelet.

The teapot box itself is a marvel. Kusumoto made it to celebrate the boxed meals available at the Shizuoka railway station, where the specialty is green tea. Open it up, and a geisha in the lid smilingly offers you a cup, which you can detach and use. Other metal pieces show a flowering tree and more Hokusai waves. Apparently, if you lift the box to “pour tea,’’ one of those waves spills out of the spout.

Hokusai’s prints and dozens of other images come from little decals Kusumoto affixes to her surfaces, and these add lively elements of color and design; many faces are made from decals. She also etches designs, texts, and textures into her metal. Then, she introduces found objects, additions that add to the phantasmagoria of each piece.

“Kisekae Dolls,’’ a pair of dress-up dolls, comes in an old Japanese wooden sewing box with a lid and two drawers. It looks like a treasure chest, with a metal handle and a rusty-looking lock. Inside, you find a metal boy and girl, with internal organs visible (and interchangeable!), Western and Japanese costumes, and toys.

There’s something downright theatrical about Kusumoto’s art. She provides the stage, the players, and plenty of props, and invites the viewer to be playwright and director. The ambitious “Side Show’’ comprises two boxes and five performers, with an additional entertainer, a man who circles a cake-like center stage on a ball, for the entr’acte.

Many of these pieces are imbued with nostalgia for a previous era, when children played with paper dolls and puppet shows rather than Nintendo, and many pieces have a dusky patina that suggests they come from that bygone time. Recently I played a digital shopping game with my young nieces on their hand-held game console; it was a dim, narrow experience compared to “Ryounkaku (Department Store),’’ which lights fires of imagination with all its gorgeous, tangible moving parts.

Viewers may not be able to touch Kusumoto’s boxes, but she will be at the museum on June 27 at 2 p.m. to give a gallery talk and open them herself.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

MARIKO KUSUMOTO: Unfolding Stories

At: Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, through Aug. 8. 508-588-6000,