Tomoya Watanabe: Cup Of Life Noodles

Tomoya Watanabe is an artist that works in various realms of media art. This includes performance, video, installations, the internet, and sculpture. He is a member of the online art collective IDPW and has participated in a number of exhibitions throughout Japan. Presently he works at the Yamaguchi Center for the Arts. Recent exhibitions of his work include "transmediale 2014" (Berlin, 2014), "Illuminating Graphics" (Tokyo, 2014), "Affekte" (Erlangen, 2014), "Materializing Exhibition 2" (Tokyo, 2014), "Materializing Exhibition 3" (Kyoto, 2015), "Dialogue with Something Invisible" (Fukuoka, 2015) and “Science and Study” (Tokyo, 2016). I came to know of Watanabe’s work through planning the first Internet Yami-Ichi in the United States. I find it compelling as he often takes everyday objects and creates works that are both simple and profound, they have a deep commentary about life and the things that surround us while maintaining a dry sense of humor. 

During my residencies in Tokyo, his work was featured in the exhibition フィットネス / [Fitness] curated by Taniguchi Akihiko at Akibatamabi 21 a gallery in 3331 Arts Chiyoda. The gallery, managed by Tama Art University, is focused on presenting emerging artists (primarily graduates from the university. The mission statement of Akibatamabi 21 receives an interesting translation via Google (albeit with obvious grammatical flaws). 

Here, I will translate it’s message: 

It is described as a place for cooperation, harmony, friendly competition, and the molting of the ego through interaction, possibilities, and potential.

The action of molting, in which birds shed their feathers to make room for new ones, is a compelling idea in relation to showing the work of new and emerging artists. By placing an emphasis on younger artists the gallery gives them a space to work, grow, and experiment in how their works are shown. Accompanying the exhibitions are frequent artist talks and other events. The previous exhibition at the gallery also had some interesting content entitled Rituals. 

Moving back to Fitness, the exhibition features three works by Watanabe. I will be focusing on the series, “Let’s repair a dissipated dining table as much as possible,” though I will also include brief notes on his “Work(ars)” and “Self Portrait”. 

Foremost, considering the word Fitness, my first thought was that the exhibition would be about athleticism in some capacity. I was wrong and came to find that the exhibition holds a more profound meaning. Fitness, as a word, can refer to how things fit into one another, or their ability to fulfill a certain role or task. Or, with more conceptuality, how things fit in the world and the universe. At the same time, it can be about the smallest materials interacting with one another. Then, if everything is connected (all matter fits together and no matter can be erased), what does that mean for autonomy? What does it mean for the autonomy of objects? Are we the ones that set the borders for autonomy by casting off objects we have no need for? 

In “Let’s repair a dissipated dining table as much as possible” the contrast between a piece and wholeness is present. Making fun of the mundane possibilities of 3D printing technologies and being whole, the series features empty cup ramen and other food containers alongside other forms of trash such as plastic bags and plastic wrappers. Each set of leftover containers is accompanied by a pair of chopsticks - the kind that you must break apart to use. One half made of wood, and the complementary other-half made of plastic, reproduced through CAD design and 3D printing. The gallery features one work from this series resting on the floor inside a plastic bag and on top of a wood plank as if left behind by human waste. The idea here is that one half of the chopsticks has gone astray or was discarded, yet, because of the way these cheap wooden chopsticks are designed there is sufficient data to reproduce the missing half that was separated by some unknown fate.

In the exhibition Yosuke Kurita was briefly explaining Watanabe’s piece. It began with the artist noticing a missing bolts from guardrails in the countryside, of course, the bolts must still exist somewhere, but they have lost their original place to fit in the world. Watanabe decided to replace the bolt with a 3D printed version, as illustrated here. The action of replacing the bolt becomes a way to compensate for the losses around us as we try to recover or create the perfect universe. 

So, if a bolt is missing, do we replace it with a 3D printed clone? Is it worth it if the guardrail still functions? There is a conflict between the purpose and necessity of the replacement if the guardrail is still serving its purpose. The concept then, behind Watanabe’s cup ramen series, is a consideration for the smaller details and objects that make up life itself - whether it be in buildings, doors, dining tables, and so forth. Reuniting a pair of chopsticks that has one half missing is both meaningless and meaningful. 

When I consider these aspects, and the word fitness I also think of the word snug or flush - when a bolt or screen matches perfectly to the surface it is meant to be a part of. The concept reminds me of when I was younger working with my dad on building or fixing some construct (a shed, a door, a roof). A screw would need to be snug or flush to a surface to ensure the contraption was built properly, or the whole thing would fall apart. Generally things fell apart anyway though. 

Watanabe’s work comments on the idea of “whole-ness” in a humorous way. The decision to repair this type of object not only brings the chopsticks back together, but the image of the cup of ramen as a whole. It would appear incomplete to us to see an image of cup ramen with only one half of the chopsticks. This is Watanabe’s silly way of commenting on 3D printing for impractical uses. The technology is primarily reserved for repairing public property or aiding in health issues. Thus, the act of repairing the chopsticks is meaningless, the chopsticks once they are separated become autonomous to one another, and in some ways they are forced back together. 

3D printing and CAD design allows us to map out a sculptural object and make repairs or add prosthetics, but at which point do we deem something worthwhile to fix or clone? Industries involved in construction, manufacturing culture, and mass production might call for every missing bolt to be reproduced both from pragmatic and economical perspectives. 

Then, if we continue to make artificial versions of things, what does it mean for objects made by hand and things that are printed. Where do 3D printed objects fit in the realm of craftsmanship? Watanabe has somehow amassed all of these considerations (whether intentionally or not) through an empty cup of ramen with a mismatched half-wood and half-plastic pair of chopsticks. The conversation can also be more poetically tied to the idea that a single pebble can hold back river or secure a lake.


There is also some weight in the types of materials and objects Watanabe is using. As the chopsticks are half wood and half plastic, they contain a mixture of earth and synthetic material. As I describe the symbols of the artwork, the importance in Watanabe’s choice of chopsticks and cup ramen is revealed, as opposed to say, creating 3D printed bottle caps to attach to a water bottle. 

The symbol or contemporary mythology of plastic, is at times overlooked. Plastic is meant to be impermeable - it is hard to destroy and will last on the earth for thousands of years. It is a symbol of manufacturing. If the world were hit by a meteor or nuclear weapon, plastic would remain, and wood would be set ablaze. Wood (plants) needs the sun, plastic doesn’t care. It is a material used in 3D printing, it is molecular and scientific. The process of producing plastic is quite different from wood. Wood is carved, and forgives us as we break it in half, whereas plastic bends and gets misshapen to our will. 

Wood as an element is closer to Impermanence, a word coming from buddhism, wood is transient, imperfect, it grows and changes. It is a symbol of nature. changes and is a symbol of nature. When I visit the local Lawson convenience store, I buy a cup of ramen, and I am given a cheap pair of wooden chopsticks to break apart. Breaking the chopsticks in half is a ritual, they make a sound, they are held a specific way, and upon consuming the ramen I place the chopsticks in the cup or rest them on top, a showing sign of completion. Japan has a very unique system for accumulating and sorting waste. Wood can be burned, but plastic has complex categorizations and sorting processes entirely of its own. 

The birth of plastic versus wood also shows contrast. If psychometry (the psychic ability to know the history of objects by touch) were real, we would see visions wood born outside in sunlight and plastic born indoors through machinery. 

Cup Ramen is also a modern-age symbol. In the videogame Earthbound there is a profound item known as The Cup of Lifenoodles. The item revives one of your friends should they perish after a fighting a taxi or surrealist painting that has come to life. As I don’t have much money in Tokyo, cup ramen has taken on its own symbolism as an item for self preservation and survival through practical and cost-effective sustenance. If you’ve had cup ramen before, you know the feeling. So, when witnessing the series or the specific artwork at Akibatamabi 21, we get the humor behind the artwork immediately. Ramen is life. 

The chopsticks then allow us to live. You could of course eat cup ramen with your barehands, but the chopsticks bring a sense of comfort, and as mentioned, ritual or purpose. They allow us to recieve life. Of course, now that chopsticks are mass produced, it might also affect our lives in some negative forms. Convenience begets a lack of awareness for the simple and minor things in life that make everything work together. We don’t appreciate or value chopsticks because of how abundant they are. This brings us back to the small bolt or screw lying on the ground that we overlook, even though it may have at one time held everything (a dining room table or a building) together.

::Chopsticks Are Romantic::

Notes and 1/2 thoughts: 

>> I remember separating a pair of cheap wood chopsticks once in college. Somehow the wood splintered and cut my hand. I ended up bleeding and staining the wood with my blood. 

>>When we buy a cup of ramen, we are also buying the receipt, a plastic wrapper, a plastic bag, and a pair of chopsticks. 

>> Chopsticks come in a pair. It’s as useful as having one shoe, or one sock. Nobody has a house with only ½ chopsticks. The utensil is quite useless at only half capacity. So, living with the utensil at only half capacity is kind of a joke. That’s why, when someone completes a meal, the chopsticks are almost always discarded together, or rest on the table or bowl side by side. Compared to what people use in areas of the romance-languages (knife, fork, or spoon) it is actually quite romantic to consider chopsticks in this way. 

>> In some ways the artwork reminds me of dadaism. The artwork is ½ a found object. The process of repairing the chopsticks and then placing them back in the empty or discarded container brings it to a unique place. In some ways it becomes a “readymade-aided-aided” or a “readymade-repaired”. 

>> 3D printing has so much potential in the medical world, but at the same time it can do completely useless things. 

>> If objects have a symbolism or mythology attached to them, then they can also have an aura or spirituality. It would be interesting to think about the aura and magnetism of 3D printed materials. 

>>Watanabe’s other series, such as "Science and Study" (featured above), "Tuna and Mayonnaise", and "Strong Arm", also can be connected this essay. In Science and Study, a series of drawings both by hand and machine are presented alongside each other. In Tuna and Mayonnaise, crumbled and folded receipts found in his pockets are displayed next to handmade replicas of the receipts. Lastly, Strong Arm refers to a collection of rocks found in parks that are scanned with 3D photography and given a digital life. 

>> On display at Akibatamabi 21 are the works “Work(ars)” and “Self Portrait” which use pieces of wood found in hardware stores. Watanabe digitally scans the wood grain to find either matches to the word Ars or for similarities to his facial features, such as his eye.