Rice Paddy Art

The snowdrops are over, but white hyacinths are in bloom on my windowsill and the early daffodils are budding in the garden despite the frost. Transience is Nature’s constant.

Mono no aware – the pathos or poignancy of things, the underlying idea that transience is an essential component of beauty – is a key concept of Japanese art and culture. The falling cherry blossom, so often used in anime and manga as visual shorthand, is one of its classic expressions. But in recent years the homely rice paddy has been used to enshrine the concept. Farmers devote time, backbreaking effort and a variety of different rice plants to create versions of classic and popular art which reach perfection for only a short time and, for best effect, must be viewed from a precisely calculated point.

Images of this rice paddy art are proliferating on the net, giving it a kind of permanence previously accorded only to memory. From the dynamic energy of Hokusai’s famous print showing Mount Fuji in the hollow of the deep sea wave to the turbulent lines of samurai portraits, from the Mona Lisa to the heroes of local TV, rice fields are being turned into fertile canvas, with plants as living paint.

The village of Inakadate, in Aomori, 600 km north of Tokyo, is where this exercise in transient beauty began in 1993. According to an interview in the Japan Times, locals meeting in the village committee decided to devote some of their own time to planning the project to help revitalise the local economy. Now their work is a tourist attraction, like the wall paintings of Italian churches.

Just like a Renaissance fresco, each work is conceived and created to be viewed from a specific point – a specially built platform guarantees the ideal perspective. But unlike the frescoes of Florence or Siena, created on damp plaster to preserve and protect them for future generations, the living art of Inakadate changes as the rice grows, finally vanishing in the tide of life – mono no aware in action.

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