A walk through the woods can be a very way pleasant to spend the time… or a very, very unpleasant one. A wrong path, a twisted ankle, getting lost in the dark, or perhaps most heart-stopping of all, coming across something scary when it’s least expected. These can all turn an enjoyable stroll into a terrifying ordeal. So here’s hoping that you never come across one of Japanese artist Nagato Iwasaki’s installations among the trees – at least without warning.
The forest itself can play tricks on the senses. Is that a pair of eyes glinting from the shadows? Was it a branch that brushed up against your back or something else? What about that snapping sound? Just a small animal stepping on a twig or the footsteps of someone – or something – stalking you?
Japan has its share of spooky forests, as you might expect from a country with such a rich horror-story tradition. And the best known of these is Aokigahara, or the “Suicide Forest,” a place haunted by the 100 or more suicides that are committed there each year. Not a place to wander too far alone in, then.
Another of the country’s creepy forested areas is Oiran Buchi, where 55 prostitutes were supposedly once killed. Moreover, the faceless ghost of a woman is said to draw people into her continually growing body there. It might be a pretty area with a river and green cliffs, but still not a choice for the faint-hearted.
Of course, you can choose not to believe in ghosts, but that still doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the woods that will creep you out. For example, picture suddenly coming across creatures that seem part human, part tree in a way that will have you looking furtively over your shoulder as you quickly flee back the way you came.
Accidentally running into one of these faceless life-sized sculptures among the trees is likely to be a pretty upsetting experience. It might take a few seconds for the eyes to even register what they’re seeing, but it’s a shock once they do. Unless, of course, you’re already familiar with the work of artist Nagato Iwasaki.
Iwasaki’s “Torso” sculptures are at once beautiful and strange. There’s something about a human figure combined with other forms that can make us feel a little uneasy. This sense of disquiet is amplified in this case by the artist’s use of driftwood, which resembles bones and organs with its natural curves and bumps.
These photographs display Iwasaki’s installations in a forest location, ready to surprise an unsuspecting explorer. Indeed, they seem to be a natural part of the environment. At times they almost appear to be stepping out of the trees themselves like mythological wood sprites. And whether they are benign creatures or the malevolent spirits of a Japanese horror movie depends on how you interpret them.
Iwasaki was already an award-winning artist before he began his Torso series of driftwood sculptures. He has been painting, sculpting and illustrating for over two decades, in fact. It is these evocative figures made from driftwood that have best captured the imagination of people all over the world, though.
The sculptures of Torso have been exhibited in Japan for the past 25 years. They have also traveled internationally, including to the Florence Biennale in 1996 as part of a collaboration with designer Yohji Yamamoto.
“Each piece of driftwood I use seems to have been destined for use as some part of the human form,” Iwasaki told Creative Boom. “Each individual piece comes together to fill the parts of the body naturally. My job is to simply connect those parts together.”
Like the driftwood that he uses, none of Iwasaki’s figures are the same. Some seem to gaze up at the sky while others stand unfinished, leaving the rest to the imagination. And all of them have a fluid quality, as if they might begin moving at any moment. Not something that bears thinking about too much, of course…
Driftwood isn’t the easiest of materials for an artist to work with, however. Unlike clay or plaster, it can’t be bought from the local hobby shop. And there is also no uniformity to the wood. It might be incredibly hard or so soft that it crumbles in the hand. So it can be assumed that as well as talent, Iwasaki possesses a great amount of patience and persistence.
Iwasaki collects the wood from a bay about half an hour from his studio in Yamanashi prefecture. According to the artist, the best time to search for driftwood is just after a typhoon, when the beaches are littered with it.
And there’s no denying that driftwood is a beautiful material to look at. Bleached by the sun and smoothed by sand and water, it has a natural appeal to artists and craftsmen alike. Sculptures and even furniture made from driftwood are nothing new, in fact, although Iwasaki’s art is certainly unique.
When he began working with driftwood, Iwasaki did not immediately start with figures. He made desks, chairs and even bicycles before it occurred to him to mimic the human form. As an artist he had made sculptures before, but never with this material.
Iwasaki preserves the natural qualities of the wood in his Torso sculptures by not processing it in any way. They are put in place pretty much as they were when he picked them up off the beach and are held there by wooden rather than iron nails. Glues or other artificial adhesives are not used, either.
Although there is nothing quite like Torso, Iwasaki is not the only Japanese sculptor to create creepy human figures from wood. Yoshitoshi Kanemaki also makes life-sized sculptures that you wouldn’t want to run into in the dark. The artist carves unsettling artworks such as “Memento Mori,” which is part man and part horrifying skeleton.
As for other sculptors who work with driftwood, artist James Doran-Webb also puts pieces together to create figures, but of animals not humans. While these creations are stunning when viewed from afar, moving closer to them reveals almost the same kind of knotted details that make Iwasaki’s humanoids so unnerving.
Still, there is something especially haunting about Iwasaki’s sculptures. And not only in their appearance, but also in their impermanence. “Much like our own bodies will all one day rot away and return to the earth, so too will my pieces likely suffer a similar fate,” the artist explained. But for fans of the eerie sculptures, that hopefully won’t be for a long time yet.