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workshop: Days of Soil

Onshitsu (Tokyo, 2004)

If you didn’t sow any seeds but simply watered the soil, would plants begin to grow? This was the question behind a little workshop experiment at Onshitsu, a gallery opened by a friend.

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Tsukada-san decided to start a gallery by the name of “Onshitsu” in the greenhouse (onshitsu) on the roof of the Daikanyama Hillside Terrace complex in Tokyo. It seemed the perfect place to have a go at designing a workshop families could take part in together (postcard photo: Mikio Hasui)

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Day 1:
April 29 2004. Four parents each with a child plan to assemble at the greenhouse in the early afternoon. Each pair has promised to collect a piece of soil about 30cm square and 10cm deep each from two locations along the way. LW will also collect soil. We start by popping into a corner of the Meiji Jingu shrine to borrow a little of their lovely soft, fluffy leaf mulch…

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Then on to a vacant lot in Daikanyama. Here we collect some stony dirt that in contrast to the soil from the woods at Meiji Jingu has nothing growing in it, looks like nothing would ever grow in it, and has probably been doused thoroughly with herbicide, and proceed to the greenhouse.

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Having collected their soil from somewhere in the city, the parents and children arrive in quick succession. The usual pleasantries are exchanged.

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Stones are placed in the bottom of the pots provided, to improve drainage. The soil collected from two separate locations is used to fill two separate pots. One person has generously brought along a whole suitcase of dirt.

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We then write the origin of the soil on markers for each pot.

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Once the pots are done, we place them on a wire rack and water them. Everyone wants to water their own…but patience now, let’s wait our turn.

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The Takahashis have collected dirt from a sportsground by the Edo River, and an empty lot in their neighborhood.

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The LW pots. The soil from the shrine is bursting with nutrients, and resembles a fruitcake made with acorns, almost good enough to eat. The soil from the vacant lot meanwhile contains things like pine needles and pebbles.

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Right then. Rika from the gallery is now charged with watering the pots of soil daily. What will they be like when we meet again ten days from now? The kids are all convinced that nothing will happen, and there’s no way anything is going to grow. We shall see.

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The junior participants in the workshop then promptly forget about the pots of soil, and devote themselves to mucking around on an empty lot in the neighborhood. Rumor has it they are building a secret base. Now fast forward ten days.

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Day 10:
May 9. The greenhouse on the tenth day. Shoots have appeared.

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This one has even started to grow moss.

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In some of the pots, tiny shoots are only just beginning to peek out. All the soil has changed slightly in some way. Soil apparently contains a large store of seeds near the surface (known as a seed bank), and just needs the right growth conditions for shoots to start appearing.

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Photos are taken to mark the occasion, then everyone takes their soil home to continue growing and investigating its contents.

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On the tenth day the Living World soil from Meiji Jingu still has nothing to say, while that dug from the vacant lot is starting to sprout tiny shoots. Five months later, this is what they look like. The soil from the shrine is starting to grow a sparse covering of Mallotus japonicus, a known pioneer plant.

Days of Soil is an experience for parents and children to share and be amazed by over a long period. At least that’s what the workshop was trying to achieve. So did it? What do you think?


Held 2004/4/29-5/9
Planned and organized by Living World
Venue: Onshitsu (Yuiichi and Rika Tsukada)
Participants: Tom & Issaku Vincent, Hitoshi & Haruya Takahashi, Shinobu, Yoko & Ren Nakanishi, Yuichi, Rika & Shinichi Tsukada

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