large drawing (9 x 1.3 meters) of a Wild Rice Sprout
Verkehr Shimizu Port Terminal Museum (JAPAN)

The artist Mitsuaki Tanabe brought a large drawing (9 x 1.3 meters) of a wild rice sprout and 41 photographs related to wild rice to the International Conference of Wild Rice held in Katmandu, capital of Nepal, in October 2002. This conference was organized by the Green Energy Mission, a Nepalese NGO, with the moral support of the International Rice Research Institute, headquartered in Manila, and the Ministry of Agriculture of Nepal. Most of the participants were scientists and agricultural experts, including agronomists, biologists, and geneticists, so it was somewhat usual for a person like Tanabe to participate.
Since Tanabe began making sculpture on the theme of wild rice ten years ago, he has been devoted to the study of this plant, visiting places where it originated and current habitats in tropical areas of Asia. In 1922, together with the agronomist Yoichi Sato, he advocated "in situ conservation of wild rice habitats." Since then, he has shown works of art (mainly sculpture) that support this policy. Wild rice is being preserved through ex situ conservation and gene banks, but Tanabe is promoting the conservation of wild rice in its natural habitat rather than cultivating it in a place removed from nature.
Institutions outside of Japan that own works of art related to wild rice by Tanabe include: The National Museum of Contemporary Art, Republic of Korea, Seoul; Zhe Jiang Provincial Museum and He Mu Du Ruins Museum, China; International Rice Research Institute headquarters; the royal house of Thailand; Pathum Thani Rice Research Center, Department of Agriculture, Thailand; Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Maryland, U.S.A; and the Central Rice Research Institute, India. In preparation for making these works, he has visited Yunan province in China, the Mekong River, and Banaue in the Philippines, a world heritage site famous for its terraced rice fields.
The photographs he brought together with the drawing are pictures of the wild rice habitats he has visited and inspected during these travels, the scholars and scientists he has met, and conditions of wild rice sites and rice-related customs and rituals he has observed in these areas. Tanabe's display of art and photographs at the conference hall was designed to support the civil organizations in Nepal who sponsored the first international conference on wild rice. They will provide visual encouragement for the proceedings of the conference and offer a beneficial message from a higher perspective that transcends the narrow areas of interest of the specialists.
One of the photographs, for example, is a microphotograph of grains of wild rice excavated from the ruins of He Mu Du, one of many ruins along the Chang Jiang (Yang-tze) river basin, known as the oldest rice-growing area in the world. These grains of wild rice found among grains of cultivated rice are 7000 years old, the oldest authenticated rice grains ever. They were identified in a joint study by a member of the staff of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in China and Dr. Sato after they were brought together by Tanabe. Among the 86 grains of rice examined, five were grains of wild rice.
Judging from the high proportion of wild rice in this sample, it is thought that wild rice and cultivated rice were grown together in the early Neolithic period 7000 years ago. If this is the case, there must be an earlier period in which wild rice was the main source of sustenance. The history and culture of the people who use rice as their main food source have their beginnings in wild rice. There are peoples who respect wild rice by calling it "the father of rice," eating it in special rituals, and painting pictures of rice and other crops with rice flour on the earthen walls of their houses in the manner of the cave mural artists of Altamira. Photographs of these are included in Tanabe's display.
There is a strong life force emitted by the rice grains from He Mu Du ruins that is truly amazing. The ruins are found in a low lying area, so the old strata under the ground water level are airtight and well suited to the preservation of buried artifacts. Even so, it was remarkable that the 7000-year-old rice grains had kept a golden color until they were excavated. There is something awe-inspiring about the appearance of the wild rice grains photographed under a microscope. They had carbonized after excavation but were gold plated by a special process for the photograph. Traces of the pointed beard are clearly visible, and there is a sense of vitality in the bristles and rigid bumps and hollows on the surface. The fibrous material covering the surface is seen under the microscope to be intricately intertwined, presenting a grotesque appearance that is as much like an animal as a plant.
Tanabe's drawing effectively expresses this mysterious life force of the rice grain. He intended this drawing as an accurate representation to be presented to scientists, placing the model rice grain under a microscope and drawing it from close and careful observation. However, the result is not an ordinary realistic illustration of the kind that appears in botany textbooks but a bold form extending across the large sheet of paper like an animal ready to attack, hair on end, teeth bared, and sharpening its claws. There is more to it than super-realism. The artist has tried to give visual form to the invisible power contained within a single grain of rice that cannot be seen with a camera or under a microscope.
The wild rice of the Chang Jiang river basin eventually disappeared because of changes in climate, but the cultivated rice that inherited its indomitable vitality showed great adaptability. Through the patient labor of many people, it spread and conquered the warm regions of the world.
Tanabe's drawing is a large image, blown up to a size that reflects the artist's deep love and respect for this grain of wild rice, a source of sustenance and a concentrated form of life. The image expresses the generosity and depth of his thinking, observing and understanding the significance of preserving the habitat of wild rice and passing it on to later generations.
The value of Tanabe's thought and art were recognized by Dr. Klaus Lampe, former director of the International Rice Research Institute. Tanabe was invited to the institute to create a large sculpture, Momi 1994, Sprouting Wild Rice, for the new Learning and Vistors Center, using 8 tons of red lauan wood. On the occasion of a research conference, Japan IRRI Day, in Tokyo that same year, Tanabe was asked by Dr. Lampe to create a display of his own design in Nikkei Hall, the site of the conference. Tanabe made a new drawing of a wild rice grain of the same size as the current work and displayed two forged stainless steel sculptures portraying wild rice seeds to create an appropriate atmosphere for the meeting. Then, after a proposal by Tanabe and the agreement of everyone present, these works were presented to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand, the sponsor of the conference.
Immediately after the conference, in situ conservation of wild rice was adopted as a special project of the royal house of Thailand, and Tanabe participated in this project by creating two wild rice sculptures for the Pathum Thani Rice Research Center in Thailand. One of these sculptures, created in 1997, was a large outdoor monument to wild rice. It was made of forged stainless steel and measured 33 meters in length.
The mission of in situ conservation of wild rice is specifically to preserve the natural habitat of wild rice, which is gradually being destroyed in recent years because of excessive economic development. From a wider perspective, however, it is also a proposal for overall preservation of the natural environment and the diversity of life. The natural habitat of rice, a water plant, is mainly found in wetlands, around lakes, rivers, and marshes, so this movement is inevitably involved with the many environmental issues related to water. These habitats are also watering places and foraging areas for animals, including elephants, rhinoceroses, and water buffalo. Many different kinds of animals are born in or come to these places. In situ conservation is important for maintaining the diversity of the animal population as well as preserving wild rice. Unfortunately, there are as yet no scientists specifically studying the varied animal life of wild rice habitats.
In order to comment on this situation, Tanabe has been using symbolic animals - birds, insects, centipedes, and spiders -- as the subjects of his recent work. Examples include the great snake of Mekong River (installed on the grounds of Yokohama Municipal Shimoda Elementary School) and the figure of the large lizard with the word "Crisis" engraved on its legs. These reptiles are symbolic because they signal the danger of extinction. There are a number of interesting snapshots connected with these recent works displayed in the conference center in Katmandu.
One photograph shows the habitat in Bhubaneshwar, East India. A thin man is seen wandering through the parched wetlands in the dry season, parting dry stalks of wild rice with a stick. Wearing a white turban and a white robe, he has the appearance of someone like Moses or Aaron from the Old Testament. He has the serene air of someone who lives in harmony with nature, a grace that almost seems religious.
However, this man is not a prophet or anything of the sort. He is a farmer looking for tortoises, poking the ground with his stick as he walks along. And this seemingly innocuous (or pleasurable) action could very well lead to a crisis, the extinction of the animals.
Tanabe wishes to dedicate the drawing, signed by all the participants in the conference to indicate their support for in situ wild rice conservation, to the abundant natural environment of Nepal, calling it Himalayan Project No. 1.

Translated by Stanley N. Anderson