There’s an Interesting edition of Contemporary Art & Investment out this month with, amongst other things, a feature on “Plants as a Kind of Art Relationshipology” (sic) for which I was asked to write a new piece about Emi Uemura and her work. This piece sits after a rather fine piece by Michael Eddy which gives a broader view of her practice.
Social Food: Emi Uemura
Through a number of discussions with Emi Uemura, alongside the more obvious subject matter, I’ve come to understand her work as dealing with a boundary between art and life that is forever friable and purposely undefined. I see her taking this position to prevent barriers either to the works’ appreciation or to the applicability of the work. Her subject matter highlights the raw materials of life—our food—and the processes of its production and delivery, but also the significance of our every-day decisions about it. Indeed “the every-day” may be seen as a consistent theme running through her work, an awareness of the unconscious, unremarked actions influenced by our environments and which are part of the bedrock of society. Although her works deal with “big” issues, the environment, organic food, etc. they deliberately try to stay small in scale and demonstrate a lightness of touch, keeping the effects on a personal level.
Between 2005–2007 Emi lived with friends attending the Städelschule, in Frankfurt, Germany, and herself informally took part in the school’s program, remembering this time as when she was first “influenced by the relations between space and food.” The school had a chef and a communal cafeteria where the students and teachers sat together to eat: “I found that quality interesting, in front of food people are very open and have discussions.”
When Emi returned to Japan she began to consciously work with food as part of DUET♪ (a collaboration with artist Fuyuka Shindo), involving catering and organizing food events and projects. At the time, she was also working with the Sapporo Artist in Residence programme, where she says she “learned the importance of long-term processes for producing work and engaging with people.”
On moving to Beijing in 2009, she began working with local individuals and organizations, including the HomeShop (a store-front project space created by Elaine W. Ho), and Vitamin Creative Space’s the shop. With HomeShop Emi described her work as “spontaneously happening activities where I had less consideration of them as a formal or informal project of the HomeShop.” These included the Seed Bombing project where she and her friends would surreptitiously drop seed “bombs”—seeds carried in a ball of earth—as a way to re-green the city.
With Vitamin Creative Space, Emi developed a series of projects taking food and distribution as their starting points. Bento Delivery came out of discussions with Vitamin, working with their location in Jianwai SOHO, a large commercial/office district in Beijing’s CBD, where many workers would order food in at lunchtimes. Emi recognised this time as “a possibility for intervention in space and time, to go into the offices with our Bento – instead of people coming into the gallery.” This was not just about the food, but the act of bringing it to people. Included inside the Bento boxes were also small ‘zines contributed by artists or other people about food, with some poetry, pictures or drawings.
After the shop moved to Beijing’s Caochangdi art village in 2010, Emi developed Mobile Container Garden & Calendar Restaurant as a way to deal with the somewhat sterile spaces around the gallery.
“The building complex is spatially isolated from the local village. When I saw the space, I found it difficult to do a project there, because of the lack of liveliness. However, when I saw the courtyard area, the idea of a garden and growing vegetables came about to decorate the space. And the idea developed wheels so that the garden could move around to make a new path (or at least a new standpoint), to take a route for the regular visitors and also as a friendly welcome for the passersby (if any) and local Caochangdi people.”
From that developed the Calendar Restaurant, inspired by a long-term wish of the artist to open a café where once an order had been placed, she would travel to a coffee-growing country and begin growing the plants for the beans, so after 5 years or so the customer would receive their cup of coffee. The Restaurant relied exclusively on produce grown in the Mobile Container Garden, so was entirely dependent on the growing seasons and the vagaries of growth patterns, the weather and local conditions.
For Emi both these projects are related in how they deal with current food and social issues: “Mobile Container Garden uses container gardens on wheels to move around. Calendar Restaurant is a restaurant that only opens when the products grow in Mobile Container Garden.” Most importantly for Emi these activities presented the idea that growing vegetables takes an amount of time that people normally don’t appreciate when they make purchases from a grocery store: “it becomes just an exchange of money and products. Here, I simply show that it takes time.” The Calendar Restaurant represented for her the opposite of a regular restaurant in which you are served immediately.
And, as with Bento Delivery, these works forced the audience/customer to think hard about what they were getting. The customer gets more involved in the process of production and delivery, realising the consequences of their choices and decisions on a very real level as affecting how and when the goods they choose actually appear.
As demonstrations of processes of production, Mobile Garden and Calendar Restaurant are connected to Emi’s current farming practice, around which Country Fair took shape. Country Fair includes many farmers practicing CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which works with networking and delivery systems. Emi recognises that “there are big gaps between farmers on a technical level, and many consumers do not know how to receive natural food products.” Country Fair is a place where people can come together to share opinions about local organic produce and discover ways to support local farmers. This is where Emi’s arts background has its benefits, where she is working in an environment that is less defined by disciplinary borders than most:
“I have found there are not many places to discuss the issues around food with customers, there is no direct communication happening in Beijing, as far as I know. It would be interesting if artists could talk with farmers about creative approaches.”
Ultimately all Emi’s projects draw from her own personal investment in materials like plants and what they can teach her, and extend to produce a platform where she can explore the relations of individuals, different social groups, and networks, with the intention of mixing them together. There is a very real sense of working across boundaries, to reach as broad an audience as possible: “I’m trying to be active in between art and other social situations. Farming and growing vegetables is about relating to people in the community, this quality is really important for me.”