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Back to square one

Site-specific installation
Variable size
(KAIR 2023)


How did people begin to have writing?
Or, why did people need writing?

Writing came to Japan around the transition from the Jomon period to the Yayoi period, from around the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. There are no signs of any large battles occurring during the Jomon period, and it was a very peaceful and stable period that continued for over 15,000 years. Signs of battles begin to appear around the Yayoi period, when a ruling system to create a country began and tribes began to fight one another.

The appearance of writing seems to have facilitated the appearance and forming of nations (cities and empires), the uniting of people by ranking them into classes, and the exploitation of humans. What was the background to this dramatic change? In order to confront this simple question, I use place names and ruins that remain in various locations, walk the area myself, look with my own eyes, observe, and think. Then I use my hands to create some kind of shape. That shape is something you could call a hypothesis, or you could call it an artwork.

Kamiyama is surrounded by mountains, and about 83% of the area is mountainous. The small amount of flat land is mainly lowlands with the Akui River in the east and its tributaries, with gently sloping land due to river terraces and landslides. Looking at a map of Kamiyama, the steep mountains have been uniformly eroded by the Akui River and its tributaries, but in two places there is a different characteristic terrain than the surrounding area. One is a hill in the area around where a tributary joins the Akui River, created when a meander was cut off due to erosion and formed a shortcut. Another is north of Asahimaru where a gently sloping area opens up suddenly on a steep mountainside. The former is the location of Kamiichinomiya Oawa Shrine on Mt. Oawa, and the latter is the location of Higanji Temple.

I thought there must be something here, and this year in June I came to Kamiyama for a preliminary visit. I learned that Kamiichinomiya Oawa Shrine enshrines the goddess Oogetsuhime, who brought the abundance of five grains, and Higanji Temple has a legend that it is the site of the ancient ruins of Himiko’s castle. I felt without a doubt that those two places have some connection, without any concrete evidence other than my intuition, and began a journey of tracing the activities of the ancient people and their vestiges.

In Tokushima prefecture, there are many remains of ancient rituals and worship in the form of giant boulders or piles of countless smaller blue rocks. It’s possible to trace the change in the architectural form of shrines as they merged with Buddhism when it was introduced from the continent. Many of these shrines are listed in the Engishiki Shinmyocho which was compiled in the Heian period and are connected to the gods that appear in the Kiki legends. I was surprised to discover that there are shrines said to be the original sites of such famous shrines as Suwa Taisha and Izumo Taisha.

Conflict, negotiation, and cooperation between the people who lived on the steep slopes of Mt. Tsurugi where spring water is abundant, and the people who lived along the Yoshino, Akui, and Naka rivers and their tributaries which brought the blessings of the mountains. That shape gradually built up, mixed, blended, and gradually, and sometimes violently shaken, continuing to the present day. I suppose in the background of this is the rice plant. I arrived at that one drifting point during this journey.

The rice plant, compared to other types of grain, has high yield and high nutritional value. Rice can be stored, and in turn, wealth can be stored. Rice cultivation brought technology for making bronze and ironware. In order to harvest rice, the topography and waterways must be manipulated and managed. A lot of manpower must be harnessed. The civil engineering and ironwork technology used in rice farming becomes military power in times of war. People come together and reliably harvest rice and build wealth. In other words, building a nation means growing rice, and I believe that growing rice necessarily creates conflict, negotiation, and cooperation.

The title of my exhibition, Back to Square One, comes from the old children’s board game, Snakes and Ladders, that is mainly played in Europe and North America. Snakes eat creatures that destroy rice crops such as frogs and mice, so they are sanctified. The shimenawa decorative ropes seen in shrines are said to be a representation of a snake. In Snakes and Ladders, snakes and ladders are positioned on a grid, and if the player’s piece lands at the bottom of a ladder, it can climb to the top of the ladder, but if it lands on the head of a snake, it must go back down the course to the location of the snake’s tail. Players can make progress by rolling a dice and moving forward the number of spaces indicated on the dice, make leaps forward with a ladder, or go backward after being caught by a snake. My journey at KAIR had many instances like this act of going forward and back, moving towards the goal, and going back to square one.

I used the unique characteristics of Yoriiza, a former theatre that was used as a place for entertainment in the town, making my work with an interweaving of video, structures and sculptures, drawings and collected objects. It’s a sort of hypothesis where local legends and folklore are recalled, overlapped, and reconstructed, or it could also be a stage set that allows people to experience traces of my walking, looking, observing, learning, and making.

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