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UCI Art Historian’s Book Focuses on Soil in Contemporary Japanese Art

A Q&A with writer Megan Cole and Professor Bert Winther-Tamaki

Soil is fundamental to life on Earth. It grows our food, regenerates our organic matter and underpins our cities and countryside. Soil is everywhere, but can it be art?

For Bert Winther-Tamaki, professor of art history and visual studies at UCI, the answer is a resounding “yes”. In his new book, Tsuchi: earthy materials in contemporary Japanese art (University of Minnesota Press, 2022), Winther-Tamaki explores the pervasiveness of tsuchi—Japanese for “soil”—in contemporary Japanese art, particularly in ceramics, photography, and sculpture. In response to the devastating environmental degradation and soil pollution that Japan has suffered since the 1950s, Winther-Tamaki suggests that the country’s artists have turned to tsuchi in art to illuminate its redemptive, culturally significant and ecologically crucial nature – and to inspire us to save it before it’s too late.

Here, Winther-Tamaki discusses her new book and the role the environmental humanities can play in addressing the pressing ecological issues of our time.

What was the genesis of this project for you?

Ever since my first book, I’ve been captivated by the material qualities inherent in works of visual art – the experience of actually touching art objects or feeling like you’re touching them, even when you’re just watch them. My current book tsuchi, began to take shape by thinking more deeply about the materials prevalent in contemporary Japanese art. At first I thought it would be a book about materials like stone, ink, and wood, but the more I focused on those materials, the more they invited me to go deeper, to the ground that underlies them. and all the rest. It has proven to be a good way to get to the heart of some of the most compelling issues for many contemporary artists in Japan. The floor allows artists to stage a travel fantasy under the veneer of civilization, where they can imagine reaching a romantic ideal of essence. So that’s what led me to tsuchi in contemporary Japanese art.

What is tsuchi? What particular qualities or connotations tsuchi have?

tsuchi is a fairly common and common Japanese word meaning “soil” – but it tends not to connote “dirt” or “dirt” like some of its English counterparts. Instead, it’s associated with qualities like “rejuvenating” or “fertile,” and it’s often used rather romantically to talk about the essence of life. It is often revered as the material that holds the remains of ancestors and provides food and nourishment. Because tsuchi has these connotations, however, it invites fear of contamination, pollution and a whole range of threats to the purity of the soil.

The artists I write about have burned prodigious volumes of earth into ceramics, photographed its multiple properties and forms of desecration, and piled it up for aesthetic delight in museums and parks. Soil has this primordial, almost mystical connection with life. In my book, I extend the term tsuchi to encompass a wide range of soils appearing in contemporary Japanese art, which includes all sorts of things: gravel, cultivated land, clay used for ceramics, even things like pulverized toilet porcelain, as well as irradiated soil generated by the horrific disaster of 2011, when three nuclear reactors in Fukushima melted and leaked toxic radiation into the ground. I followed tsuchi art wherever it has taken me – and it has led to a lot of amazing places!

Which makes tsuchi a particularly Japanese phenomenon? Does it have analogs in other national artistic practices?

Japan provides a particularly rich context for this discourse, in part because there is a long history of deep investment in soil and earth as an aesthetic resource, particularly in ceramic art and literature. Of course, there is also the Japanese history of industrial pollution. It’s a global problem, but in Japan there is a particular history of pollution that emerged with particular force in the public consciousness around 1970, when there were several high-profile cases of industrial pollution. These incidents were catalysts for artists to start thinking, often through tsuchiabout the fate of human relationships and dependencies on earth.

That said, more and more publications and studies are coming out that deal with European and American artists who have a deep interest in the soil and who collaborate with soil scientists and poets and all kinds of other earth interlocutors. I found a lot of common interest between these artists and those from Japan that I studied.

This study focuses particularly on the seven decades between the post-war period and today. What about that time, do you think, made tsuchi so popular?

There are a number of forces involved. At that time, there was rapid urbanization in Tokyo and across Japan. Many people living in these environments walked on concrete and asphalt, while carrying vivid nostalgic memories of the fertile land of their childhood beneath their feet. Their loss of physical contact with the earth was experienced as tragic, and a bit frightening. In response, curators began to organize exhibitions in an effort to regain a sense of connection with the land. People regretted that their children no longer had the experience of walking through the mud of a paddy field, feeling the mud squirt between their toes, which was considered a wonderful nostalgic memory at this stage of rampant urbanization.

The turn towards tsuchi in the arts was also stimulated by a development in the history of art. There was a transnational movement in the 1950s called “Informal” in Europe and “Abstract Expressionism” in the United States, which had a profound impact on the Japanese art world, especially with a group of vanguard called “Gutai”. These movements involved trying to bring materials to the surface, sometimes making paintings that actually looked like mud, or pebbles, or dried puddles, by embedding natural materials onto the surfaces of the paintings. This articulation of earth in art was a striking development that drew people’s attention to materiality. These developments have led to a shaping of the land to become a center of attention in an unprecedented way. tsuchi emerged as artistic material to be studied, thought about and aestheticized with all sorts of poetic ramifications.

How can work like yours, and the environmental humanities in general, help us to address the ecological issues of our time?

We have critical ecological issues on our hands! We need to step back and recognize how important environmental resources are and, in this particular case, soil. Soil is magical: it converts all kinds of filthy decaying dead matter into food, growth, and new life. Without this magic, we would have to give up all hope of life on Earth. Unfortunately, this magic trick is rapidly diminishing every year. It disappears because it is covered with concrete and asphalt; it disappears because the sea level rises and salinizes the soils of the low areas; it’s polluted so you can’t grow anything there. I think this underlying awareness is motivating more and more people to think about flooring in aesthetic terms. The conundrum is this: how are we going to re-evaluate the soil on which we depend? How might we begin to pay more attention to it and develop a deeper appreciation for it? Art, and the humanities in general, are really important places to generate new paradigms and develop a totally different relationship with the soil – and the other environmental resources – on which we depend.

Tsuchi: earthy materials in contemporary Japanese art is available now.

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