Sunday, 11 May 2014

Art Right Under Your Feet

This is a blog article that Jules has been ribbing me about for quite a while, but it has to be said that Japan simply has the best manhole covers in the world! Now, I know that might sound a bit ‘nerdy’ to Jules and to others, but as a Visual Arts teacher you come to appreciate all sorts of interesting forms of street art, in whatever form it may take. For such normally drab and utilitarian objects, here in Japan they are always beautifully creative and can be viewed no matter where you find yourself within the country.

Often as we walk the streets, I will take the time to stop and photograph some of the more interesting designs. After all, there are said to be over 6000 different images throughout the country that include a wide range of popular motifs based upon the Japanese love for landscapes, nature, local landmarks and festivals. The designs themselves vary considerably depending upon the prefecture in which they are found, but they are always highly intricate and stylized designs. Quite often the covers are painted in detailed colours, but they are equally impressive as relief images in their raw metallic state.

Apparently all this attention to manhole covers came about in the 1980’s when the national construction ministry decided to hand over responsibility to local municipalities for what was seen as an insignificant form of city infrastructure. This somehow sparked the competitive nature of rival towns, encouraging them to create the most distinctive design to represent their area. What ensued was a series of contests, which encouraged communities to develop more and more creative images. Today these humble metal manhole covers have attracted international attention, particularly from those who are referred to as ‘Drainspotters’, who often trek across the country to seek them out and of course photograph them. Indeed if you search Google you will find an increasing number of sites that pay tribute to the Japanese manhole cover in extensive detail…ie

So if you do happen to step foot in Japan, remember to take look at what is happening on the streets. Great art isn’t always to be found in galleries, but can often be discovered in the most unlikely of places. While exhibitions will come and go, I’m sure that this form of art will be around for a good many years to come. The humble manhole cover, as seen on most local streets, remains yet another one of those quirky artifacts of modern Japan. Although remaining functional, they continue to reflect a certain attention to civic detail, but more importantly an artistic sensitivity to an object that is so often overlooked in most other countries. Sure, it may sound a bit ‘nerdy’, but the manholes here do certainly grab your attention and are quite impressive. I guess it’s like viewing any form of art; it’s all about the search and discovery of something new… even if it is to be found just below your feet!

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