Bert Winther-Tamaki is wearing a gray sweater. Trees are behind him

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 material, and underlies our cities and countryside. Soil is everywhere—but can it be art?

For UCI art history and visual studies professor Bert Winther-Tamaki, 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 omnipresence of tsuchi—Japanese for “soil”—in contemporary Japanese art, especially in ceramics, photography, and sculpture. In response to the devastating environmental degradation and soil pollution Japan has weathered since the 1950s, Winther-Tamaki suggests that the nation’s artists have turned tsuchi into 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 his new book and the role that the environmental humanities can play in confronting the pressing ecological issues of our time.

The cover of What was the genesis of this project for you?

Since my first book, I have been captivated by the material qualities that are unique to works of visual art— the experience of actually touching art objects, or feeling like you’re touching them, even when you’re only looking at them. My current book, Tsuchi, started to take form while thinking more deeply about the materials that are 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 soil that underlies them and everything else. That proved to be a good way to get to the crux of some of the most compelling issues for many contemporary artists in Japan. Soil allows artists to stage a fantasy of traveling beneath the veneer of civilization, where they can imagine accessing some romantic ideal of essence. So that’s what took me to tsuchi in the realm of contemporary Japanese art.

What is tsuchi? What special qualities or connotations does tsuchi have?

Tsuchi is a pretty common, everyday Japanese word meaning “soil”—but it tends not to connote “filth” 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’s often revered as the material that holds the remains of ancestors and provides food and nourishment. Since tsuchi has those connotations, though, it invites fears about contamination, pollution, and a whole range of threats to the purity of soil.

The artists I write about burned prodigious volumes of earth to make ceramics, photographed its manifold properties and forms of desecration, and piled it up for aesthetic delectation in museums and parklands. Soil has this primordial, almost mystical connection with life. In my book, I expand the term tsuchi to encompass a wide range of soils appearing in contemporary Japanese art, which includes all kinds of things: gravel, cropland, clay used for ceramics, even things like pulverized toilet porcelain, as well as irradiated ground soil generated by the horrible disaster of 2011, when three nuclear reactors in Fukushima melted down and leaked toxic radiation into the soil. I followed tsuchi art wherever it led me—and it led to a lot of surprising places!

What makes tsuchi a particularly Japanese phenomenon? Does it have any analogues in other national art practices?

Japan provides a particularly rich context for this discourse, partly because there is a long history of deep investment in the soil and earth as an aesthetic resource, especially in the art and literature of ceramics. Of course, there is also the Japanese history of industrial pollution. It’s a worldwide issue, but in Japan, there is a distinctive history of pollution which emerged with special force in 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 tsuchi, about the fate of human relationships and dependencies on the earth.

That said, more publications and studies are coming out that deal with artists from Europe and the U.S. who are deeply interested in soil, and who collaborate with soil scientists and poets and all kinds of other interlocutors of the earth. I’ve found a lot of shared interest between these artists and the ones from Japan whom I have been studying.

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

There are a number of forces involved. During this era, there was rapid urbanization in Tokyo and across Japan. A lot of people living in these environments were walking on concrete and asphalt, while retaining vivid nostalgic memories of fertile earth under their feet from when they were children. Their loss of physical contact with the earth was experienced as tragic, and a bit frightening. In response, curators began organizing exhibitions with the goal of recovering a sense of connection with the earth. People regretted that their kids no longer had the experience of walking through the mud of a rice paddy, feeling the mud splurt between their toes, which was seen as a wonderful nostalgic memory at this point of rampant urbanization.

The turn toward tsuchi in the arts was also spurred by an art-historical development. There was a transnational movement in the 1950s that in Europe was called “Informel,” and in the U.S. was called “Abstract Expressionism,” which was deeply impactful in the Japanese art world—notably with an avantgarde group called “Gutai.” These movements involved trying to bring materials to the surface, sometimes by making paintings that actually looked like mud, or pebbles, or dried puddles, by encrusting natural materials onto the surfaces of paintings. That articulation of earthiness in art was a striking development that brought materiality to people’s attention. Those developments led to a formatting of the earth to become a center of attention in an unprecedented way. Tsuchi emerged as an artistic material to study and think about and aestheticize with all kinds of poetic ramifications.

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

We have critical ecological problems on our hands! We have to step back and acknowledge how important environmental resources are—and in this particular case, soil. Soil is magic: it converts all kinds of disgusting rotting dead matter into nourishment, growth, and new life. Without that magic, we’d have to abandon hope for life on Earth. Unfortunately, that magical stuff is rapidly decreasing every year. It’s disappearing because it’s being covered up by concrete and asphalt; it’s disappearing because the sea level is rising and salinating soil in low-lying areas; it’s being polluted so you can’t grow anything in it. I think this underlying awareness is motivating more and more people to think about soil in aesthetic terms. The conundrum is, how are we going to revalue the soil that we depend on? How might we start paying closer attention to it, and developing a deeper appreciation for it? Art, and the humanities generally, are really important venues for generating new paradigms and developing a totally different relationship to the soil—and the other environmental resources—we depend on.

Tsuchi: Earthy Materials in Contemporary Japanese Art is available now.

Photo credit: Micherlange Hemsley

Environmental Humanities