Report on the joint talk “The Art of Rice”

Contemporary rice-inspired art, as well as the need for stewardship of rice paddies and their culture, formed the basis for this visually and conceptually rich pair of talks by Dr. Christine Guth, author and distinguished historian of Japanese art and design, and artist Isao Miura, originally from Akita prefecture in northern Japan and now based in London.  Chris Beckett, poet and translator, and Dr Veronica Sekules, director of GroundWork Gallery in Kings Lynn, West Norfolk, where Miura’s paintings currently feature in an exhibition entitled “Japan Water”, also spoke in connection with Miura’s presentation.

Professor Guth spoke about “The Art of Rice in Inakadate, Japan”. Inakadate is a village of 8000 people in Aomori prefecture in northern Japan which, since 2002, has been using rice paddies as templates for creating enormous compositions, with a colour palate formed from different strains of growing rice.  Images of this rice-based landscape art went viral in 2007 and the annual composition now attracts 300,000 visitors per year to Inakadate, with millions more following online.  The images rendered in originally four, and recently seven, strains of rice have ranged from Hokusai’s “Great Wave” to characters from TV and film (including an unexpected image of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck from “Roman Holiday”).

Guth began her talk by giving an overview of the significance of rice in Japan, where it is not simply a food staple but is invested with great visual, socio-cultural, economic and even scientific meaning.  She explained that concern about the younger generation’s scant connection with the land and its lack of knowledge about rice culture led the town of Inakadate to set aside rice paddies for elementary school children to plant, weed and harvest. This very local project was the catalyst for the rice paddy art that is now imitated in one hundred other Japanese towns and villages. (Comparisons of rice paddy art to landscape, environmental or crop art by Robert Smithson, Andrew Galsworthy and Stan Herd provided one of many fascinating sub-themes in Guth’s talk.)

As outlined by Guth, the process of creating each annual composition is laborious, starting with the selection of a design and color palate one year in advance by a committee overseen by the mayor’s office. Surveying equipment, CAD software, markers for coordinates and outlines, labels for each color of rice – these preparatory steps are followed by the June planting of rice seedlings by 1000 volunteers. The seedlings must be hand-weeded all summer, transplanted as needed to maintain the color palate, and finally harvested, again by hand. After the rice is threshed, dried and milled, each volunteer is given a small portion of the harvest, providing a literal as well as visual consumption of the rice from the rice paddy art project.

Guth pointed out that while Inakadate has avoided overt commercialism in its rice paddy art, there is indeed a commercial side to the annual project:  the rice paddy art has made Inakadate into a modern meishō (famous place), and has increased tourism to this rural region as well as increasing the consumption of the local Inakadate Tsugaru Roman rice. The rice paddy art as practiced in Inakadate helps bridge the urban-rural gap by emphasising the beauty of the agricultural countryside; it also creates a tangible connection between the community and the environment, and reinforces the role of rice paddies as archives of local memories and culture.  Members of the Inakadate community are actively remembering and reliving the past through working in the rice fields.  However, as Guth pointed out, rather than reiterating an imagined and frozen past, as in government-sponsored festivals and cultural preservation practices, they are reshaping the past through their own contemporary practice.

Giving another perspective on rice-related art and connection to the rice paddies themselves, artist Isao Miura explained that the exhibition “Japan Water” at the GroundWork Gallery in Kings Lynn was a catalyst for him to explore changes in the landscape on his family’s 300-year-old farm in Akita prefecture, also in  northern Japan. Chief among these changes were the near-disappearance of fireflies and dragonflies in the rice paddies of the area due to the increased use of herbicides and machines in farming.

6 paintings on canvas with stalks, seeds, oil and gold leaf, each 44x44cms © Isao Miura

Miura feels a connection to the land through having worked in his family’s rice paddies as a child. The significance of rice in his art manifests itself in various ways: in some of his paintings Miura applies rice that he has grown in his London garden directly to the canvas, while in others he uses a checkerboard pattern that harks back to the grid pattern of rice planting. The series of his paintings that are being shown in the “Japan Water” exhibition uses green to symbolise young, strong rice plants, with vivid blues representing the warm rain they need to grow, deep browns representing the soil, and gold representing sun, heat, festivals or prosperity.

Miura’s compositions reflect the tension between the tranquil background of the paddies and the profusion and energy of the rice stalks and seeds themselves. On a larger scale this is a tension between abstract simplicity and drama, between innovation and history. His serene images distill a lifetime’s experience on the land in order to emphasise the fragility of the rice paddy landscape and the need to cherish and preserve it for future generations.

Watch the lecture recording

Nancy Broadbent Casserley
Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow 2012-2013

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