Made in Sumida
Made in Sumida was a site-specific project in the Sumida ward of Tokyo, Japan, located in east end of the city. This area is the old downtown of Tokyo (Shitamachi), known for their traditional hand crafts, and packed of more than 6000 family-run factories (many of them are subcontractors). This neighborhood has many elderly residents and factory workers, and sits in the shadow of central Tokyo, the “new” Tokyo where Japan’s stylish, new culture blossoms...
After the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, the factories in Sumida suffered an economic decline that has worsened every year. The Asahi Beer Corporation* invited me to collaborate with the factories to cheer them up. For my work, I created videos, drawings, and sound and sculptural installations. The entire project was created with materials and products “made in Sumida.”
In the beginning, I visited the factories with my video camera, to meet people directly. They told me about their material problems, processes, financial situation, and anxiety about losing business to much cheaper labor in neighboring countries. As I began to understand this reality better, I became convinced that my original sculptural idea, creating a “functional exaggerated processing machine” was not a collaborative work, even though it would be an attractive sculpture. Even if I decided to order a product which I designed, they would replace their regular injection mold to my desired shape mold, but this also no different from their everyday routine– and cannot be considered as a collaboration, either.
Eventually, I decided to collaborate on the basis of direct communication. We would learn from each other, exchange ideas, and influence each other’s thinking. I videotaped our communications in the manner of a sequenced TV drama, always with the same characters and things happening. But it was not an act – it was the real world.
We discussed how to survive the crisis, how we could work together with different business, how to love the job, and so on. My first video in this project entitled, “Round Table Factory Conference in Sumida” . For the second video, called “Bus Tour to Factories”. I chartered a mini-bus for a tour with all the participants who came from different factories and different positions, including steel fabrication, printing, rubber processing, and toys.
If this was a yearlong project, I would have continued story. For example, we may have had another conference, developing new business together, and promoting it.
In the main space, I installed a sound installation, with- over 30 different products and waste items I collected from Sumida factories. The audience could plug their headsets to the products themselves, which connected audience directly to the factory sounds - real machine sounds to worker’s comments. The products I presented were toys, suction cups, steel, a rice cracker, stickers, shampoo bottles and more.
Within the center of the sound installation, I installed an inflatable balloon sculpture, where 55,000 light-blue plastic bottle caps popping up endlessly inside the transparent body. Imagine someone’s life, making these plastic caps every day for over 20 years?
While the balloon looked like pop sculpture, it suggested the amount of labor and every day routine of the Sumida workers.
On the walls, I included drawings which were enlarged detail maps of Sumida. I colored all of tiny factories with luminous pink ink- I wanted them to look like a shower of falling cherry blossom petals. (Sumida riverside is a famous cherry blossom viewing spot.)
Finally, in another room, there are two large vitrines. One was filled up with over 2000kg of milling waste, the other one was covered with thousands of transparent suction cups on the glass surface. The materials made a strong contrast, and revealed an unappreciated beauty. Usually, these materials are thrown out as soon as they come out of the machines (the milling waste) or are packed in a box and sent away (the suction cups). The people who deal with these materials on a daily basis never had such view of them before.
During the exhibition, a metal processing worker left a note for me, saying that when he saw the installation, he felt proud of his profession, a feeling which he had forgotten a long time ago. (Many workers express losing their professional confidence because of the current crisis.)
*Asahi Beer Corporation is one of the biggest beer companies in Japan, They have their head quarter in Sumida, designed by Philippe Starck.
dimension: 153 x 195 x 558 cm
material: inflatable balloon, plastic parts(bottle caps), ventilatorx2
Three-channel video installation
1) Roundtable factory conference in Sumida (55min)
2) Bus tour to factories (35min)
3) Learning the milling machine (65min)
The sound installation: the interviews and factory noise
milling waste, suction cup, tin toy, pet bottle, gym-ball and more, product sample and waisted from the factory in Sumida
2001, Made in Sumida, Sumida Riverside hall, Tokyo