A chronicle of Japanese tears

A chronicle of Japanese tears

In the wonderful Berlin bookstore Do You Read Me? I found an intriguing little oblong book with a blue and silver cover and a Japanse character on it. Under the character was written the word, or the name, ‘namida’ and the names of the Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jörg Lenzlinger. The publisher is Edizioni Periferia. A Japanse-Swiss-Italian co-production, apparently – but what is namida? I had to know.

The book consists solely of abstract images that evoke all sorts of associations: snowflakes, ice crystals, city maps, pressed ferns, fossils, dried-up riverways. Each image is different and yet they have something in common. Looking through a second time, I realized that they were probably all slides prepared for viewing under a micrscope. But I still didn’t know what I was looking at.

Not until the very back of the book is the story revealed. The slides are of one hundred tears – namida means ‘tears’ – that the artists collected for their installation ‘Tear Reader’ in the Art Tower in the city of Mito. Mito suffered greatly during the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 – followed a month later by the dramatic earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima – and the Art Tower had to close for repairs. Steiner and Lenzlinger had already been preparing an exhibition and changed their plan to relate to this disaster. ‘Tear Reader’ consists of two microscopes, glass slides and lightboxes. Viewers could examine the dried tears of others and could collect their own tears, at home if they wished, and come back for free to observe them.

‘The crystalline landscape of a tear can be explored under a microscope once it’s dried,’ writes curator Sayako Kadowaki. ‘No two tears are the same; all are as unique as the lives of the people that cry them.’ The crystals can only be seen for a couple months; after that they erode and disappear. Fortunately we have the book, namida.

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