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This much or that much?
21_21 Design Sight’s new exhibition celebrates everyday design and invites visitors to answer questions on the measurement system by confronting them with contemporary design and lifestyle.
Measuring is a necessary but paradoxical human activity. Just as language is needed to communicate, conventional units have been established to systemise the world around us. The paradox resides in how each individual experience these conventions. It has been only some 250 years since a convention for a “universal measure” was established in the Western World.
One metre was then defined as “one ten-millionth of the length from the North Pole to the Equator” and only 32 years ago it was redefined into something even more complex as “the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second”.
Before the adoption of the metric system, the traditional Japanese measurement was the Shakkan-ho, rooted in the tangible way to use artisanal and human measures into daily life, and a combination of units of length and mass which still prevails embedded in many of present-day practices.
Shedding light on such a complex topic as measurements doesn’t necessarily means to fabricate a complicate argument. Hence 21_21 Design Sight has just opened their first exhibition of 2015 with “Measuring: This Much, That Much, How Much?”, which as prior occasions celebrates everyday design and invites visitors to answer such questions by confronting them with contemporary design and lifestyle.
The exhibition space supervised by Koichi Suzuno from Torafu Architects is assembled in ludic fashion comprising 36 main works, many of them authored by guest creators and the rest curated by an Exhibition Planning Team (EPT) lead by Tatsuya Maemura. He finds an intriguing but valuable contradiction between the coexistence of Western ideas and Japanese traditional measuring methods still applied in some fields of knowledge as construction and agriculture, even if many people are not aware of them as he mentions. Pointing out that there is no head director for this exhibition, Maemura teamed with a group of artists, designers, architects, writers and planners.
Receiving visitors at the entrance floor level, the exhibition starts with a Measuring Concept Shop where people can buy diverse materials and products of same price by weight in order to sensitize the audience with the measuring practice in the day-to-dayness.
Preceding the galleries, the hall on the underground floor contains five main works which introduce a diversity of formats and measuring expressions which are present throughout all the exhibition. Giraffe’s Eye, a collaboration between LENS, studio shikumi and Liukobo created an interactive video where visitors can navigate and experience a map of the exhibition in different scales. Also How big is an apple? by Perfektron invites people to use their hands as a communication tool of size, which is translated into an image of the fruit that approximates the depicted size in a screen. A replica of the International prototype of the meter is displayed as symbol of standardization but also of the need to materialize such conventionalisms.
Before entering the first gallery, Grandfather Clock by Dutch designer Maarten Baas presents a film with a man drawing and changing each minute the hands of a clock, reminding us that even time is a unit of measurement created by humankind to decode our finite existence. The first gallery dares people to reconsider a central question of the exhibition, “How much is…?” by showing eight main works all in charge by the EPT. Some of the works in this section are displayed with more didactical gesture, grounding knowledge about how we measure universal concepts such as mass, capacity, speed, time and money currency. It also points out that by contrast we also learn all them by personal experience in everyday practice, a simple though strong metaphor of our need to classify and define every aspect of our life.
The second and main gallery echoes the market atmosphere presented on the first floor, alternating long and small tables with 18 main works of diverse scale and media, emphasizing that perception of measurement is one of the keys to understand our reality. How big is 21_21 Design Sight? of Naoki Terada (Terada Mokei) offers a glimpse of such variety of perceptions by inserting different sport fields into a model of the Museum helping to perceive the size of the exhibition galleries. The interactive work Weight of Words by Yusuke Oono + Ken Okamoto shows, as its name describes, how to metaphorically weight the subjective values we attach to words while giving a mathematical outcome of every single letter or possible ideogram. Design and Unit along with Sake Scale curatedbythe EPT in collaboration with other designers, display on large tables some peculiar and personal measuring units like lumber remnants and sake, contained in as many different containers as the process of its lifecycle, from the producer to the consumer.
Set on the longest wall of the gallery, Comparison of Length – Rules from 1 to 100 also planned by the EPT in cooperation with students from the Tama Art University, is a collection of everyday-use objects arranged from the smallest to the largest. In the core of the space lies Unit of Muji, a collaboration between Muji Company and Fumihiko Sano, a domestic unit pavilion constructed only by using modular elements coming from the scaffolds of a Muji Store.
Some smaller interventions have been collected in two sections, Everyone’s Measurement and My Measurement, presenting multiple points of view on the main topic. Among them, Scale from Klein and Dytham describes the way architects express units to measure a space to people who are not trained as architects, such as their clients using different scales of representation related to different moments of the day or the different purpose of the space, i.e. adopting scales related to tatami, staff desks, etc. Pixelman by Kenichi Okada (LENS) uses the instrument of human figure decomposition and recomposition through pixels on a screen to define how human scale can be redefined in a totally different way.
While not attempting to describe all the works in this exhibition, two final works serve as paradigm to pay homage to historic Japanese measurement system: Sangaku, Japanese Temple Geometry by Ken Okamoto and Carpenter and His square by AXIS and the EPT. While the first offers the possibility to admire the traditional mathematical methods to create religious wooden plaques, the second is a clear and powerful reminder on how the wooden square known as regular shaku (the primary dimensional unit of Japanese construction) was at the centre of traditional artisanal measurement system.
It seems that Japanese culture was (and still is) able to create revolutionary design through the use of simple yet refined tools without the conviction for an abstract research method able to validate a universal system of measurement such as the Western Meter. Japanese dimensional perception was born within the bare hands of its artisans and still in their very hands is probably kept the secret of Japanese design proportions.