Kome. The Art of Rice

Through 35 design pieces conceived by a number of Japanese artists and people, the new project by Taku Satoh at 21_21 Design Sight restates the relationship between people and rice culture in Japan.

If we dig deeply in our everydayness, we will realize that culture sprouts from the smallest things. Take a single grain of rice for instance, weighting only 30 to 40 mgs and having a size barely big enough to put it between two fingers. In Japan, rice coevolved along with people adapting to the mountainous landscape and extreme weather. At certain point rice became not only the staple food but the main material and spiritual source from which culture emerged.
“Kome: The Art of Rice”, 21_21 Design Sight museum, Tokyo
From this March 2014 until mid June, “KOME: The Art of Rice” is the latest exhibition at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo. This is not the first time that Japanese designer Taku Satoh has collaborated with anthropologist Shinichi Takemura to direct an exhibition. For this occasion both have embarked on a new agenda to restate the relationship between people and rice culture in Japan. The exhibition invites the visitor to take a fresh look to past and present through 35 design pieces conceived by a number of Japanese artists and people who are actively engaged into rice cultivation. Future remains an open question for next generations to redefine which role rice will play under coming environmental, social and economical dynamics in Japan.   
“Kome: The Art of Rice”, 21_21 Design Sight museum, Tokyo
The Chinese character 米 standing for kome and meaning rice reminds us about the four fundamental elements of rice harvest, each having a distinct function in the rice cultivation cycle – rice as food, rice bran, straw and hulls. The magical process that a single grain can multiply thousand times over the growing cycle, is result of many generations of coevolution between a man-made agricultural system and natural ecological cycles. It is no surprise that for the start of the exhibition the visitors are invited to examine three models of unhulled, unmilled and polished rice magnified 360 times.
“Kome: The Art of Rice”, 21_21 Design Sight museum, Tokyo
The open patio of Design Sight always offers an intriguing hint to the exhibition displayed inside. This time, pots with rice grains are arranged by region into the shape of the Japanese archipelago representing the surprising abundance and diversity of rice varieties and their distinct characteristics. Preceding the first gallery, photographer Yusuke Nishibe presents his Kome Mandala as a collection of images related to landscapes and people involved in rice cultivation. Back in the 70s, Japanese artist Tadanori Yokoo also created his ‘Rice Cycle Mandala’, an artwork representing the union of Earth, Man, Universe and eventually rice, which is grown into accordance with the power of nature and work of man. With the aim to create an interactive experience there are other items exhibited such as a reproduction of Edo ukiyo-e artist Hiroshige Utagawa’s Battle of Confectionery and Sake, and a digital globe named Tangible Earth by co-Director Shinichi Takemura (Representative of the Earth Literacy Program).
“Kome: The Art of Rice”, 21_21 Design Sight museum, Tokyo
The first gallery is introduced with a traditional rice cake (Kagami Mochi), which is believed to be dwelled by the spirit of The New Year God bringing new life. In contrast to the lightness of the prior space, this gallery immerses the viewer into the subtle fusion of colours, smells, sounds and images related to the rice. As this labour demands hard work and time, visitors are invited to take a slow pace to savour the exhibition. In synchrony with this rhythm one needs to take time to see the documentary Hakusho by Yu Yamanaka, deploying stories of people and their personal encounters with the rice culture.
“Kome: The Art of Rice”, 21_21 Design Sight museum, Tokyo
The main gallery is organized from a circular empty space in the centre, which Taku Satoh entitled Rice Cloud and designed as a place of light coming through rice from the ceiling. Encircled by an enlarged calendar of agricultural activities, this central space offers not only a curious view from aside to understand the totality of rice harvesting, but also a possibility to stand in the middle of these rites. The concept of open space is a significant feature in Japanese shrines and arrangement of the cities, resounding with the concept of void.  Concentric to this area several mounds of straw covered by transparent glass display artwork in diverse scales and materials, as well as others emphasize the rice production process. The design of Azusa Kawaji for instance, features carefully lined up three thousand rice grains, which is equivalent to the average amount of rice in a bowl. Other works such as design by Yasuichiro Suzuki and Takehiro Ando shows the use of rice straws to form intricate ropes, representing the ties between Gods and humans.
“Kome: The Art of Rice”, 21_21 Design Sight museum, Tokyo

At the end of the exhibition Taku Satoh shows the elaborate graphic design existing in the bottle labels of traditional Japanese rice wine sake, reinserting their relevance into the contemporary design scene. Lastly, the visitor is invited to stand in the centre of an enlarged character of kome to become part of it or to experience writing a message onto a single grain of rice.

Today, relatively a small number of farmers are still growing rice, most of them being older than 60 years and having scattered rice paddies smaller than one hectare. Japanese methods of cultivating rice may defy the current economical common sense of effectiveness and convenience, yet the exhibition puts above all the values and traditions that have shaped Japanese cultural identity. As the exhibition’s directors remarked, to understand Japan it is necessary to understand the art of rice.

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The authors would like to thank Exhibition Directors Taku Satoh and Shinichi Takemura for their generous time and comments, and the kind support of Italian Press Office for Issey Miyake Giorgiana Ravizza, Public Relations of 21_21 Design Sight Shotaro Okada and Miryon Ko, and Mayumi Akiyoshi for her translating assistance

Until 15 June 2014
Kome: The Art of Rice
21_21 Design Sight
9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo


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