At once beautiful and a little bit strange (to my Western eyes, anyway!), this wonderful carving of a cluster of rats is actually a tiny (4 cm in diameter) ivory netsuke. It was made in Japan in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, and is now part of the Japanese Art collection in LACMA.
Netsuke are miniature sculptures invented in 17th century Japan as a toggle to secure a small pouch or container to the sash of a kimono. Although first produced to fulfill a utilitarian function, they evolved into objects of impressive craftsmanship which reflected many aspects of Japanese culture.
As the first animal of the Chinese zodiac (which was adopted in Japan around 600 AD), rats (nezumi) were a popular motif in netsuke carving, which, according to the British Museum, were given as gifts to people born in the Year of the Rat. White rats in particular were seen as lucky in old Japan, believed to be a messenger of Daikoku, one of the seven gods of luck.
What strikes me about this sculpture is how the differences in Western and Eastern perceptions of rats might completely change the feel of this netsuke between viewers: a whimsical carving of a lucky symbol to one person, a gruesome depiction of disease-laden pests to another.
But I think the curiousness of this particular object lays in the fact that it depicts such a thick clump of rats. The rat cluster seems too be far less common than single rat netsuke (although another great example exists in the collection of the Liverpool Museum), and I think that somehow the jumble of many little bodies together makes it feel particularly absurd (see also: a jar of pickled moles).
// Image from the online collections of LACMA.