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The nourishment of body and spirit

Rice and its influence on Asia are the focus of an exhibit at the Fowler.

October 10, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Man does not live by bread alone. The same goes for rice, if it's thought of in strictly nutritional terms.

An instructive exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History demonstrates that the popular grain has provided a lot more than bodily nourishment for the diverse peoples who have been eating it every day for the last 10,000 years. "The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia" links farming and art to show that the cultivation of this hardy crop has had a remarkably civilizing influence on a large swath of humanity.

For millenniums, growing rice has gone hand-in-hand with the cultivation of an impressive variety of religious myths, social rituals and festive celebrations. Planting, harvesting, storing, cooking and eating rice also have led to the invention of all sorts of useful tools, and to the creation of a wide range of decorative artifacts -- some functional, many symbolic, most both.

More than 200 of these multipurpose objects are displayed in 11 small, interlinked galleries. Interspersed among them are informative wall labels, three documentary videotapes and a dozen National Geographic-style photographs.

The vast inventory of images and implements comes from Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines. The earliest rice-themed pieces are two squat, three-legged vessels from China's Shang dynasty (1776-1122 BC). Made of bronze or ceramic, each is adorned with elaborate abstract patterns. The newest item is this year's model of an electric rice cooker from Japan. Its digital gauges and aerodynamic style make it look as if it's been beamed down from outer space.

All three pots -- and everything in between -- were selected by Roy Hamilton, the Fowler's curator of Asian and Pacific collections. Over the last six years, he has enlisted the assistance of an global team of 27 anthropologists, historians, sociologists, musicians, artisans, painters and curators -- along with a puppet master from Tumpang, East Java, and a librarian from the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands.

The result is a surprisingly coherent exhibition that is as far-reaching and ambitious as it is focused and accessible. Its amazing variety of materials from different times, places and peoples conveys a joyous, something-for-everyone outlook. Its fundamental point -- that rice civilizes -- is so simple and sensible that it brings great clarity to the whole project.

Although "The Art of Rice" includes some rare and precious objects, the majority of its pieces are mundane and humble. Made of inexpensive, readily available materials, they were used daily by ordinary folks. Even the finely crafted offering bowls, ceremonial mortars and religious talismans were functional, in that they helped increase productivity by promoting social unity.

A few examples of concentrated wealth stand out. Just inside the entrance stands a large folding screen that depicts a lush field of rice plants extending to the horizon. Crafted in Japan in the early 19th century, its gold-leafed surfaces and elegant brushwork are so fragile that it will be displayed for only 10 weeks. Ten woodblock prints, from the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735) during China's Qing dynasty, will replace it. They illustrate the various stages of rice farming, capturing the seasonal rhythms of germinating, harrowing, transplanting, irrigating, harvesting, threshing, storing and giving thanks.

In the first four galleries, plain farm tools are juxtaposed with extraordinary ones. A water scoop from Vietnam, a winnowing fan from Thailand and a pair of shoulder baskets from the Philippines, all made of bamboo, bespeak the no-nonsense simplicity of utilitarian design. In contrast, eight hand-held knives, carved from wood, horn and bone, have elaborate handles shaped like wild boars, serpents and dragons -- or purely abstract patterns. Some are designed to cut single stalks of rice, ensuring that not a grain is harvested before its time.

Interspersed among the tools are 2,000-year-old ceramic funerary objects from China's Han dynasty, an embroidered silk cloth from Japan's Edo period (1603-1868) and a Balinese painting from the 1930s. Like fantastic storyboards in which each scene unfolds simultaneously, these works depict the many stages of rice farming with century-spanning consistency.

Among the most playful pieces are three Vietnamese water puppets representing farmers at work in irrigated fields. Six homemade dolls, woven from dried palm leaves in Bali, Indonesia, are about the same size. But they serve far different purposes. Some represent Grandmother Rice. Others are hermaphrodites. All symbolize fertility and are hung in rice fields, outside houses and in granaries to provide protection.

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