Winter 2002 Fellow
“I’m from Japan and my work is basically about cultural conflict,” says Miyuki Nishiuchi, a winter 2002 Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America. From the Penland School in North Carolina to Pilchuck Glass School in Washington to her recent degree at Illinois State University, Nishiuchi has lived and studied in the United States since 1994. She’s not talking about simple culture shock but about the pervasive sense of cultural difference that permeates even the most mundane activities.
“Before coming to the United States, I thought I knew American culture because we have McDonalds, Coke, and Baskin-Robbins.” she explains. I thought we (Japanese) were so Americanized but when I came here I learned how Japanese I am. In Japan, I never thought about it.
“I want to share that experience you get in a foreign culture. Culture is not one big thing but the tiny details of everyday life.” Nishiuchi mentions one detail: the size of drinking cups. In America, they are very large compared to those in Japan. “But then I see the size of the people is bigger. If the human scale is bigger, the size of the cup is bigger,” she concludes. Perhaps, though she politely doesn’t say so, there are additional cultural reasons for the grandiosity of American appetites.
Borrowing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism as the fetishization of the exotic, one might describe Nishiuchi’s pseudo-functional approach to glass as “disOriented Americanism.” Because Japan has what Nishiuchi calls a “monoculture” with few immigrants, she was not prepared for the variety of cultures and functional idioms she found here. Among the first culturally disorienting/disoriented objects Nishiuchi made in the US were a series of teapots with spouts which uselessly curved up and back or around. These objects were obliquely about communication, an expression of the confusion or fear associated for her, the foreigner, with novel social situations. She dreaded invitations to dinner or tea. “I was so anxious,” she recalls. “Everybody else was having a good time.” There is a complex irony in Nishiuchi’s choice of a European-style teapot. Its form is derived from a Chinese ceramic form, also influential in Japan. Tea, however, is uniquely important to Japanese culture. She gave one such teapot the jeering title Naaah, naah-na, naaa-naaa.
Similar humor infuses a series of measuring cups made at CGCA. Based on the familiar clear Pyrex model with red markings, some cups have two angled pour beaks and no handle or two handles opposing one another. The attitude in these objects is a little cooler and the calibrations of the measuring cup — different for Japan, which measures in litters, and the US which doesn’t — reflect differences in language.
The crossword puzzle is Nishiuchi’s metaphor for the mystery of language and social communication. She studied the combinations of grids and diagonals in a crossword puzzle, patterns which she transferred to glass. At CGCA, she completed a set of white glass tableware with murrini letters embedded in it. Blowing white teacups patterned with “?” and “!” in clear glass was difficult because the expansion rate of the clear was greater than that of the white. The clear punctuation will appear dark when tea or coffee fills the cup.
Clues will be printed on a tablecloth later. “It’s really a fun process,” she says. The idea came to her through her frequent struggle to find some particular word in English. “I don’t have such a good vocabulary,” Nishiuchi explains. “When I can’t think of a word, people start guessing and it becomes a sort of game.” The elaboration of the game (crossword puzzle) into an interlinked group of objects epitomizes the interlocking social rituals built on basic survival activities like eating.
In a similar vein, after visiting the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Village, Nishiuchi made a group of canning jars inspired by Western prototypes. These lidded jars of clear glass are graceful and seem to have the right parts, all neatly fitted together: the base is a vessel for storage; the lid covers it, and the metal wire clamp holds the lid tightly to the base. But everything in Nishiuchi’s versions is out of whack. Lids, though they fit, weirdly large or small and the wire is so exquisitely fragile that it’s almost dangerous.
American canning jars were used by pioneers to preserve food for travel to the west. Nishiuchi is also a traveler to the West. She made jars which emphasize the difficulty of preserving the sustenance the traveler requires. She explains her motive in these works somewhat differently, though, as an intention to provoke viewers to ask, “Why were these things made this way?”
“Because functional things are ubiquitous, people think, ‘Oh, that’s nothing and they ignore what they have, but those things create your life-identity.”
Meaning is also subverted by a group of toys Nishiuchi made. It includes a pair of trains which repel one another through hidden magnets with opposing poles. A wind up toy dog circles endlessly inside a circular glass track, a tireless and mysterious artifact of an exotic society. “Everyday life is full of wonder because I live in a foreign culture,” Nishiuchi explains. “I still get excited by the small gifts of learning something new.”