The digital age meets the stone age in these pictures “painted” with different coloured crops in Japanese rice fields. Making giant pictures on the earth is an ancient art form. The Nazca people in pre-conquest Peru long ago created vast drawings of animals, geometrical shapes and lines, which some have refused to credit them with, and instead attribute to alien visitors. Other archaic designs that turn the earth into a picture surface include chalk figures engraved in British hillsides and the Great Serpent Mound made by native Americans in Ohio. Japan’s lovely new contribution to this ancient art is, however, unimaginable without modern technology.
I don’t mean that the farmers of the village of Inakadate where the rice pictures started in 1993 – they are now spreading through Japan – have somehow cheated. The images are created by laborious handicraft: kodaimai rice, which has purple and yellow leaves, is planted among green-leaved tsugaru roman rice to create the patterns. This takes loving care and it’s a real triumph of folk art, but computer imaging is used to work out how to plant such complex designs.
The reason ancient images engraved in deserts strike some people as being completely beyond the powers of “primitive” artists is not that it’s hard to draw a bird, say, but that it’s hard to survey the ground accurately enough to map your bird on a large scale on the ground. It makes us imagine they had help from above. In reality, the creators of the Nazca lines or Britain’s stone circles were simply brilliant at maths. But no one could ever calculate the precise pictures these Japanese farmers have planted without the aid of technology.
That’s what makes these images so lovely. Ancient and modern, folk and sophisticated, they draw on Japan’s traditions of heroic iconography and iconic landscape art. A reproduction in rice of Hokusai’s famous print The Great Wave is especially dazzling. Just as crop circles have become a modern folk tradition, so will these images blossom.
How does being “brilliant at maths” allow the makers of the Nazca lines to draw animals so large that they could not be seen except from the sky? Why would they do it if they could not see the result?