with his large-scale monuments related to the natural environment, Tanabe has
developed a particular interest in the theme of Momi, or wild rice, which
is directly linked to the survival of the human race. The first piece related
to wild rice was Seoul - Unhulled Rice - Thermal Conductivity, shown at
the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Republic of Korea in 1987 and
Momi 3, 1989 shown at Zhejiang Provincial Museum, China. He became acquainted
with a number of agriculture experts in the process of making these works, and
as a result was invited to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at
Los Banos near Manila in the Phillipines to create a work of art there in 1994.|
IRRI, established by the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation in 1960, is a large research institution receiving funds from 30 governments, including Japan. It has successfully developed high-yield varieties of rice such as IR8. It currently employs 1200 researchers and staff, with excellent facilities and a large experimental farm occupying 250 hectares of land next to the University of the Philippines.
IRRI has warned of a rice shortage occurring in Asia in the early 21st century. This warning has been ignored, as demonstrated by the "rice problem" in Japan. In the 34-year history of IRRI, Tanabe was the first artist to be invited to do something for the institute. It is unusual for this sort of purely scientific institution to have any sort of public relationship with an artist. Dr. Klaus Lampe, a German scientist who was the director of IRRI at the time, said, "In inviting an artist for the first time, our purpose is to use art to augment and reinforce the spiritual quality of a scientific message based on research." Science and art occupy opposite positions, and it is rare for them to work together, so Tanabe's IRRI project became a rare example of collaboration between art and science. Tanabe's invitation was necessitated by the current situation in which science is often "science for the sake of science" and does not benefit society. Much of contemporary science has been developed in order to obtain the praise of scientists. As suggested by the phrase "ivory tower," it is separated from the everyday life of ordinary people. The messages conveyed by science have little reality for ordinary people. They are nothing but cold data, going in one ear and out the other. That is why the scientists of the IRRI sought the help of the spiritual power of art.
Tanabe's MOMI - Wild Rice, symbolizing improved varieties of rice, was intended as a monument dedicated to the survival of humankind. The material was lauan wood, which is found in the Philippines. 4 meters high, 6 meters wide, and 1.8 meters thick and painted in five colors, it was installed in the center of the IRRI headquarters visitor center. The conical part is the rice sprout and the upside-down U-shape is the root. The triangular form is the part of the sprouting wild rice grain that extends above the ground. It is a representational work that depicts the moment of sprouting of a grain of wild rice magnified many times.
"Japan-IRRI Day" was held at Nikkei Hall in Otemachi, Tokyo on October 25, 1994. The theme was "The Important Role of Japan in Asian Agriculture and Its Development" and approximately 600 people attended. Speakers declared the necessity of increasing rice production to feed the growing masses of people in 21st century and emphasized the importance Japan's role in this. This international conference was part of the IRRI's public relations activities.
- Wild Rice, 1994, IRRI Vistor Center, Los Banos, The Philippines Made of wood
and painted in five colors. Depicts the sprouting of wild rice. The protruding
conical form on the left is the sprout. The curved part on top is the root. The
triangular form is the part of the rice plant showing above the ground.|
Photo: Naoki Takeda
of work at "Japan-IRRI Day," Nikkei Hall, Otemachi, Tokyo, November 25, 1994.
After Tanabe installed MOMI - Wild Rice at IRRI headquarters in the Philippines, he was asked to show more of his art at the conference. IRRI made this request because it believed that Tanabe's work would express the message of the conference physically rather than verbally, reinforcing and heightening its spiritual quality.
After extensive consultation with IRRI, Tanabe exhibited four items: (1) MOMI, a sculpture on the theme of wild rice made in 1992, (2) a large drawing, 1.3 meters wide and 9 meters long, on the theme of wild rice, made especially for the conference, (3) a plow, a traditional farm implement from the Philippines, and (4) a large photograph of MOMI - Wild Rice, the work installed at IRRI headquarters in the Philippines. The conference took place surrounded by art. The drawing was mounted in the center of the stage behind the speakers, and the sculpture and the plow were placed on either side at the front of the stage. The photograph was displayed at the entrance to the conference room.
The drawing, MOMI - Wild Rice, received the most attention. In this drawing, each sharp spine on the surface of the wild rice ear is delineated clearly, and the long whisker, the nogi, projects from it with the energy of a dragon. This whisker no longer exists in the improved varieties of rice in use today. The artist chose to portray an ear of wild rice ear with unprecedented realism, but this is more than a simple detailed drawing. The dynamic pencil strokes and the large size, 9 meters long, make this a powerful work. It conveys the importance of the existence of wild rice and its natural energy to the viewer's senses. The tip of the whisker is cut off at the edge of the paper as if it has disappeared. The fact that part the ear of rice is not depicted in its entirety leaves something to the imagination of the viewer and causes it to remain longer in memory. If this drawing were shown in an art museum, it would be effective as a pure work of art with strong formal properties, but its display at the conference gave it even greater power. Wild rice was one of the important issues at the conference, so the verbal message of the scientists and the sensory message of the artwork supplemented and reinforced each other.
Exhibitions at art museums and galleries are limited to the exclusive world of art. The art shown at this international conference was related to the content of the conference. Even thought the works were only on display for one day, this special exhibition had great significance. It functioned in the same way as religious art in a church or temple, and the nature of the message was basically different from that of art in ordinary exhibition venues. If public art is a social form of art, then Tanabe's display could be thought of as a solo exhibition of public art.
The MOMI sculpture was presented to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of the Kingdom of Thailand, who was attending the conference. Thailand is the world's greatest exporter of rice, and it still has valuable habitat where wild rice grows. Thus, the donation of this sculpture by Tanabe and the IRRI was very appropriate as a way of giving social value to art. The gift was accompanied by a text signed by Tanabe and five rice researchers asking for the protection of wild rice.
The Thai royal family made in-situ conservation of wild rice a royal project. In March 1995, a two-hectare wild rice habitat in Prachin Buri, about 100 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, was established as the first protected wild rice habitat. This protected area is obviously not a work of art, but it can be described as one of Tanabe's works. It might be given the title, MOMI - Wild Rice Habitat (Prachin Buri).
Tanabe raised funds from corporations in Japan to make another sculpture, MOMI - Wild Rice of 1996, to be used in making a request to the Thai government to develop this project further. This work, an enlarged form of an ear of wild rice, is 33 meters in length. The sculpture is incredibly strong because it is made of cast stainless steel, and the unique surface pattern is inscribed with a process known as arc air gouging. This is a cutting-edge technique in which the metal is melted by electricity passing through a gap between electrodes while a jet of air blows away the molten metal. The gouging is accomplished through a violent process like man-made lightning. The resulting pattern has a primitive strength and seems only slightly artificial.
- Wild Rice, 1997, Pathum Thani Rice Research Institute, Thailand Large work 33
meters long. The long cylindrical extension is the whisker of the rice ear, not
seen on cultivated varieties.|
Photo: Naoki Takeda
- 1996, Pathum Thani, 1996, Pathum Thani Rice Research Institute, Thailand. Made
of bamboo obtained on the site and painted black. The form is impressive.|
Photo: Naoki Takeda
Translated by Stanley N. Anderson