A Seed of Wild Rice MOMI-2008, photo TAKAHITO TAKAHASHI
The Global Crop Diversity Trust, with headquarters in the offices of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome, has acquired a sculpture by Mitsuaki Tanabe, A Seed of Wild Rice MOMI-2008. The sculpture will be permanently displayed in the FAO building. The trust has made this purchase to commemorate the establishment of the Svalbard International Seed Vault, managed by the government of Norway and the Nordic Gene Bank, and advertise it to the world. This seed vault will preserve the seeds of 3,000,000 species of crops dug from the permafrost on a steep slope on Spitsbergen Island in the Svalbard Islands within the Arctic region. Its purpose is to safeguard the human food supply, creating a last line of defense against the effects of natural disasters and the manmade calamities of war, pollution, and accidents.
FAO Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Tanabe has created an enlarged unhulled rice seed (MOMI in Japanese) in cast stainless steel, 9 meters in length and weighing 250 kilograms, based on the seed of a wild rice plant that is the ancestor of today's cultivated rice. Wild rice seeds have a hard coating like armor and a spear-like long whisker, extending from their tip. Cultivated rice seeds also have a tough coat, but the whisker has degenerated until very little is left. In some species of wild rice, the length of the whisker is 10 to 20 times longer than the rice grain itself.
In 1994, Tanabe made a MOMI sculpture composed of a three-meter grain and a 30-meter whisker for the Pathum-Theni Rice Research Center in Pathum-Thani, Thailand. He also showed Sprouting MOMI, a large outdoor sculpture with a long whisker, using the same material and technique as in the FAO sculpture, at the Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Maryland, U.S.A. and the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, India and MOMI. A similar outdoor sculpture was presented at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung, Taiwan. Other examples of the MOMI series using the same material and technique were also shown in solo exhibitions in Tokyo in 1989 and 1992. Pieces from this series were acquired by museums and agricultural institutions, including the Zhejian Provincial Museum and the Hemudu Ruins Museum in China and the International Rice Research Institute, Manila, the Philippines.
For over 20 years, Tanabe has been advocating in situ conservation of wild rice in league with Dr. Yoichiro Sato, an agriculturalist with a deep understanding of genetics. He has been an active messenger for this movement with MOMI images in a variety of media, including metal, wood, bamboo, stone, and drawings. The Japanese word MOMI refers to an unhulled rice seed. Polished rice grains, after removing the hull and cleaning, are known as kome or shari, the latter term derived from the word for the relics, or bones, of the Buddha.
Dr. Eizo Maeda, a researcher who has observed the structure of the MOMI coat with a scanning electron microscope, reports that it is a storehouse with a remarkable ability to preserve life by regulating the condition of the air reaching the seed. 7000-year-old MOMI were discovered in the Hemudu Ruins in China and are now preserved in the Zhejian Provincial Museum. They escaped carbonization by remaining soaked in water that was accidentally introduced underground over the years and maintained a beautiful golden color until they came into contact with the air. In a Sino-Japanese research seminar, organized through Tanabe's efforts, it was found that the MOMI excavated in the Hemudu Ruins was mixed with a high proportion of wild rice MOMI. This was an amazing discovery because it shows that MOMI can avoid decomposition after it matures and hardens. It can come back to life after death.
Protected inside this marvelous storehouse, wild rice grown in ancient times has survived through the present. This life force has been joined to the life of humankind, adapting to places with different temperatures and climates from generation to generation and age to age. In order to express the amazing and mysterious qualities of wild rice, Tanabe has chosen to use a super-hard material. As a weapon in his artistic struggle, he adopted the technique known as arc air gouging.
In this technique, metal is melted at a temperature over 3000 degrees with an arc of electrical discharge and selected parts of the liquefied metal are blown away with a high-speed blasts of air. The original meaning of "gouging" is to carve out holes or remove material using a chisel with a curved edge known as a gouge. In metal work, the arc air gouging process is not ordinarily used for shaping the workpiece but to remove burrs or excess left on its surface after casting. It is used in a limited way in the finishing stage of production.
Tanabe, however, uses the arc air process like a chisel, gouging out material all over the surface of the stainless steel body in a way close to the original meaning of the word "gouge". The super-hard stainless steel material and the extremely high temperatures and high-speed air blasts make it tremendously difficult for someone to control the process when working by hand. In the words of a technician, Tanabe's working process is like artificially bringing down lightning over and over on the metal. His workplace is like a battlefield, with flashing lights, intense heat, roaring sound, and sparks flying everywhere.
Technicians would never use Tanabe's "lightning gouging" technique because it would be easy to ruin the workpiece by making only a small error. Therefore, when you look at the finished work, it is hard to tell how it was made. We do not see any emerging artists who are willing to do something this dangerous in order to achieve a new form of creation. The application of this technique is unique to Tanabe. He is the only person who can handle it. Because the present work will be on display for a long time, he washed the surface with acid, made it rust-proof, and polished the innumerable gouging marks with a rotary cutter designed for super-hard stainless steel.
The innumerable traces of glowing light make us think about the hard work of rice farming before mechanization, a long history of pain and suffering, "particle by particle of pain and bitterness." It may be impossible to escape the criticism of being old-fashioned and looking to the past from the perspective of the present age of high-level technology. However, Tanabe will probably take this criticism with the same courage that he has devoted to his "lightning gouging". A particle of life is now before the eyes of the public, enveloped in silver light, demonstrating that Tanabe's efforts were worthwhile.

In recent years, Tanabe's work has moved in new directions in two different places. These are northern Australia, where there is natural wild rice habitat as well as fields of cultivated rice, and the far eastern part of Taiwan, where the local variety of wild rice, known as "devil rice", has been lost and an attempt is being made to restore it. The word "devil" referes to the spirits of dead ancestors who tend to punish their descendents. The MOMI of "devil rice" drop off easily, so when it invades a rice paddy, it is difficult to distinguish it from cultivated rice.
In 2006, Tanabe installed a large sculpture of a lizard made of rolled stainless steel plate, 19 meters long and 11 tons in weight, for the Mareeba Wetland Foundation in Queensland, Australia. The words, "In Situ Conservation of Wild Rice ", are engraved on the tail, so this lizard image is clearly a new way of conveying the same message as the MOMI sculptures. One feels, however, that there is a slightly different nuance in the meaning of the two messages.
In rice-growing regions, wild rice is the "father of rice" that can sometimes become a "devil", but in regions where rice is not grown, it just a weed to most people except for a few experts. It is a plant without a name, the companion of a variety of other organisms that are not well known. The lizard, on the other hand, has a definite identity. It is an animal that has been a symbol of light and resurrection since ancient times. For example, it appeared in European art as an ornament on candlesticks. In both wild rice habitats and cultivated, it is an animal that helps to eliminate enemies of rice plants, but as a reptile it is naturally disliked by humans. Its very existence is resented. Because of its ambiguous position, Tanabe thought that the lizard would be an appropriate messenger to convey a message for a plant without a voice or a name.
His interest in the lizard is also seen in one of the sculptures he has been carving into natural stones during the last five years in an aboriginal sacred place near Darwin in the Northern Territory in an appeal for protection of the diverse existence of many kinds of plants and animals, not just wild rice. One of these figures is a "lizard dancing for joy", even though it "does not known what to do with its hands or feet in a dance", while dreaming of the expansive paradise for migratory birds that will be created in this wetland. In addition to the work in Australia, Tanabe's next idea is to create "a lizard wearing MOMI armor, a MOMI with the eye of a lizard".
In 2007, Tanabe held a MOMI exhibition consisting of steel sculptures and drawings at an art museum in Taiwan. Wild rice never grew in Japan, but Taiwan is a site of wild rice habitat and it is where some of the first genetic studies of wild rice were done and where important Japanese pioneers in this field like Dr. Hikoichi Oka and Dr. Hiroko Morishima did their early work. After the liberation of Taiwan from Japanese rule in 1945, these scientists were given teaching positions at a university there and carried out research related to the region. The "devil rice" unfortunately became extinct in 1970. Dr. Oka and Dr. Morishima, who by that time were attached to the National Institute of Genetics in Japan, developed procedures for transplanting samples of "devil rice". At present, Taiwanese researchers and their pupils inspired by Oka and Morishima are preserving and raising these samples.
Tanabe's exhibition gives homage to these predecessors, since they had an important influence on the formation of his own ideas, carrying on their legacy and supporting the restoration of "devil rice" habitat. The steel sculpture exhibited at this time was acquired by the museum. A drawing over ten meters in length was put on permanent display at the College of Bioresources and Agriculture of National Taiwan University in Taipei.
The piece currently being installed at FAO is a companion to the Taiwan piece, produced with the same casting technology. Because the gouging is done by hand after the casting is completed, each work is one of a kind. It cannot be reproduced. The wild rice that served as the model for the sculpture is Oryza meridionalis of Australia. It is close to Oryza rufipogon, the original breeding stock of cultivated rice in Southeast Asia. In Australia, it is considered a pure strain that has not been contaminated by cultivated rice.
Translated by Stanley N. Anderson