In Harsh Environments: Embracing 'As Is' | Hanna Saito (Contemporary Artist)

Slime mold artist Hona Saito captures a comfortable position between herself and her materials, and between herself and her natural environment.
  • Photograph:Takeshi Abe

The snow that fell a few days ago has dyed the surroundings white. In the town of Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, where the peaks of the Yatsugatake Mountains can be seen nearby, the thermometer indicated below freezing temperatures when I visited a certain old farmhouse. Welcoming me was Hanna Saito, who is active in the field of bio art. This is her second home, which she started building as an art lab from last year, separate from her home in Tokyo. She has made minimal alterations to the quaint architecture, preserving traces of various eras. Such an approach seems to reflect Hana's personality.

Questioning Authorship

"I have always loved plants and organisms, and I came to know the genre of bioart through university classes. As a molecular biologist, I learned about organisms like fungi and bacteria that generate network patterns from posters in the laboratory of Hideo Iwasaki, a researcher and artist. When I became curious about the beauty of these patterns and asked Iwasaki about them, it was my first introduction to slime molds."

The "slime mold" that Hanna focuses on as the subject of her art and research is not a fungus including mushrooms or molds but rather a type of protist. It inhabits moist environments like soil and decaying matter, forming amoeba-like, sticky motile forms and spore-dispersing structures. In 2008, research on slime molds solving mazes won an Ig Nobel Prize, bringing sudden attention to them. This research suggested the possibility of "intelligence in slime molds" as they can choose efficient movement patterns to find food sources

"After that research gained worldwide fame, I heard that not many new expressions were emerging. So, I started participating in collection events held by the Japan Mycological Society, collecting and cultivating wild slime molds. It became fascinating once I started nurturing various species. For bioartists, it's important to find a suitable organism. Cultivating slime molds fits my lifestyle rhythm, and the fact that the material moves on its own was also crucial."

Unlike plants, slime molds show movement of several centimeters per hour, even in rooms below freezing. Slime molds left in containers in such conditions for months continued to live, motivating Hana.

"They stimulate me and ignite my motivation. My works aren't solely determined by me; they are a collaboration with the material, which ties into the concept of 'questioning authorship.'"

Living in Rigorous Environments

Hanna doesn't enter the mountains solely to search for slime molds. Rather, she seeks special environments through activities like mountaineering and climbing, separate from her artistic endeavors.

"This dual-base lifestyle is a result of my search for a state where I can be 'as I am.' Living in Tokyo, I often have to make decisions and choices, which I'm not very good at. So, I thought that placing myself in a constrained, rigorous environment might allow me to be more free. Climbing does the same. Going to the mountains in winter may seem like a lot of trouble, but..."

Psychiatrist and climber Viktor Frankl wrote in his book that contact with nature and climbing contribute to mental stability. He argued that urban life, with its multitude of choices, often causes anxiety, while harsh conditions like those in the mountains help humans find clear goals and meanings for living.

"I feel more comfortable when I put myself in somewhat harsh environments. Too many possibilities make me anxious, but in the mountains, actions to move forward become clear, and fear disappears. Living in an old farmhouse is similar to camping in the mountains. Urban life is convenient and full of possibilities, but it also brings about doubts and anxieties. To draw creativity from possibilities, I think it's important to periodically place oneself in inconvenient situations, which is one of the reasons I started the dual-base lifestyle."

Fostering Future in the Old Farmhouse of Hokuto

Hanna has prepared a lab in the old farmhouse in Hokuto, a decision influenced by various factors. This house, which is over 100 years old, contains remnants from different eras, such as pre-Meiji era sliding doors and early Showa era electrical systems. Despite affection for its inconvenience, the gaps in the roof and eaves allow animals to enter, making the rooms cold in this season. Therefore, she wore HERENESS's Smooth Wool T-Shirt Long Sleeve for a few days, hoping for its warmth and functionality.

"I work quite bundled up even inside the house, but the Smooth Wool T-Shirt Long Sleeve is very warm and comfortable. Initially, I felt its breathability, but it gradually became warm as I moved, which surprised me. I tried it for running, and its comfort made me inadvertently run nearly 10km instead of the usual 5km. Its relaxed design makes it suitable as pajamas too. It's a versatile piece that I can wear all the time."

The quality and design of HERENESS's wool fit well with Hanna's daily life.

Feeling the history of the building and facilitating access to the mountains, balancing urban life, and increasing the time of being 'as I am.' Therefore, Hana's future activities are likely to become even more fulfilling.

"Now that I have the lab I've always wanted, I expect my research to progress. I am currently conducting experiments measuring potential differences with mycologists, intending to collaborate on research about communication between slime molds and fungi. In the limited time available, I hope to establish a cycle where experiments in art become hypotheses for research."

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