“Insects: Models for Design”

An exhibition at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo draws attention to the ingenuity of insects at a time when insect populations around the world are collapsing.

“People now assume that an urban landscape devoid of insects is natural, and if they come across a little life-form their immediate reaction is to expel it, without any consideration of what it is that insects offer. So let us pause for a moment. How rudely we behave toward these great biological forebears!” — Satoh Taku, Exhibition Director, and the artist behind “Weevil Leg” — a weevil’s leg at 700-times magnification. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

In April, the journal Biological Conservation published an article that sent shockwaves around the world after it was reviewed by the UK’s Guardian newspaper under the headline, “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature.’” 

In the article, the first ever global scientific review of insect numbers, the authors report that insect populations are declining by a precipitous 2.5% every year suggesting, if trends continue, in ten years insect numbers will be a quarter less and in 100 years there will be no insects left at all. 

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” the authors write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

Insects are a source of food for many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. They pollinate most plant species including two thirds of all food plants. They prey on pests. They break down waste and enrich the soil by releasing nutrients. In other words, they are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the authors say. 

The exhibition “Insects: Models for Design” at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo is not ostensibly motivated by such ecological concerns. However, it does seem timely in a year when, for example, Brazil’s relaxation of pesticide restrictions is reported to have led to the loss of 500 million honeybees in just three months. Let’s show our insect friends a little respect! the exhibition seems to say.

The evolution of insects into the unknown millions of species that exist today (only 925,000 have so far been identified) has taken an unimaginably long time — an estimated 480 million years. Homo sapiens by comparison only appeared some 200,000 years ago. Almost as unimaginable is insects’ sheer numbers — perhaps 200 million for every one human being at any given time — and their many various ecologies. “Insects: Models for Design” helps to demystify the vast and mostly invisible world of tiny insects by presenting insects and their ingenuity as “models for design.” In so doing, the exhibition offers visitors an opportunity to learn from insects and reconsider their relationships with them.

Getting the exhibition off to a suitably beetling start is “Weevil Legs” by the exhibition’s director, designer Satoh Taku. The sculpture is a 700-times magnification of the 5-mm middle leg of a shiro-mon kumo-zoumushi weevil, a work made possible by the “micropresence” photography of Kohiyama Kenji (https://stulab.jp/micropresence/). Visitors are encouraged to speculate how we would feel about insects — or anything else for that matter — if we were 700-times as small.

Another Japanese weevil, Curculio camelliae, is the focus of a work by Murayama Macoto. This weevil has a long, thin proboscis which it uses to make holes in the hard shell of camellia fruit and in which it lays its eggs. Murayama reconstitutes the insect using three dimensional computer graphics and data from entomological research papers and actual dissection, again with the cooperation of insect photographer Kohiyama Kenji. Not so long ago the anatomy of insects was recorded by hand by skilled illustrators. Murayama’s work represents a striking new way to illustrate and understand insects. 

The anatomy of a camellia weevil by Murayama Macoto THE JAPAN JOURNAL


Advances in 3-D printing allow for another way to see insects afresh. A transparent model of a kabutomushi rhinoceros beetle produced using the technology reveals the insect’s internal anatomy, inviting second thoughts perhaps about what an insect is — or what happens when you step on one. 

A transparent model of a kabutomushi beetle revealing the insect’s internal anatomy THE JAPAN JOURNAL


The caddisfly is one of the stars of the “Insects” exhibition. Kohiyama Kenji is again to the fore with eighteen of his photographs of caddisfly nests placed side by side on a large panel. Caddisflies make their nests underwater using leaves, small branches, sand and pebbles, or whatever else is to hand, giving rise to unique, species-based structures.

“The stream besides us teemed with life,” writes Kohiyama. “We found works of art made by caddisflies as we walked along. It was like treasure hunting. We discovered a new world quite different from the one we knew.”

The “Caddisfly Nest” photographs by Kohiyama Kenji reveal works of art made by caddisfly larvae. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

Architect Kuma Kengo, known for projects that seek to integrate with or “frame” nature, contributed to the “Insects” exhibition on the theme of caddisfly nests in collaboration with three structural engineers with whom he often works. 

“I wanted to approach a caddisfly nest not in terms of its form, but of its structure,” he writes. “It was a norm in twentieth-century architecture to start the design from overall form, and then look for structures to realize this. But I know that caddisflies do not think in the Form to Structure order. They collect whatever soft and delicate materials are available, and connect these, one by one, with the only requirement being that the outcome must not crush their bodies. This is a structural approach. … Observing the way in which insects labor to construct protective nests gave us a lot of hints. Now in the face of great natural disasters and drastic climate change, insects are subjects we can learn from.”

In response to Kuma’s challenge, Jun Sato made a nest from ultra-thin washi paper stretched over thin, supple cypress and zelkova frames, a structure designed to gently envelop the caddisflies.

Alan Burden created a new material for the nest by combining two items of everyday organic waste — human hair and nut shells.

Norihiro Ejiri and Ejiri Structural Engineers produced a flexible structure of Styrofoam spheres held together by magnets, making a clothes-like shelter, rather than a piece of architecture. 

In the documentary “Mao Moth Laos,” the Laos-based moth researcher Kobayashi Mao is filmed going about his work collecting and examining moths, hundreds of which swarm about the lighting fixtures in his room. Between times, Kobayashi practices his break dancing moves, as though the moths were not there, or as if he were one of them. It’s a reminder that human responses to insects while evolutionary are largely a matter of cultural influence and, in urban environments, a consequence of the rarity of positive encounters with them.

Still from the “Mao Moth Laos” documentary by Oka Tokuro and Kobayashi Mao. Kobayashi is a field researcher of Asian moths who is also a break dancer. He is based in the Laotian village of Phu Khun. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


One of the last exhibits on the route is titled “Affordances of Beetle Rolling Over,” which is a collection of short videos of a beetle rolling on its back like a break dancer before being offered everyday objects ranging from a sheet of paper to a toothpick to help right itself. The beetle shows incredible strength, skill and endurance to get back on its feet, which are qualities that all insects — and their designer friends — will need as the sixth mass extinction rolls on. 

Still from one of the short movies showing how a beetle on its back rights itself using a variety of everyday objects, in this case a toothpick THE JAPAN JOURNAL


“Insects: Models for Design” runs until November 4.

Alex Hendy, The Japan Journal

A scene from “The Shape of Insects” by Abe Yosuke. Photographs of insects are projected onto the walls and floor one after another accompanied by an environmental soundtrack. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


“Amenbo Dome” by Yoshiizumi Satoshi of Takt Project. The dome floats on water in the manner of an amenbo water boatman. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


“Ant Colony Optimization” videos by Wakita Akira reveal the extraordinary skill and speed with which ants navigate their environment without bumping into one another. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


A young visitor peers into one of the “Beautiful and Creepy Peep Hole” kaleidoscopes. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


“Ladybird Sneakers” in the “Specimen Case of Tools” exhibit by Suzuki Keita. The soles of ladybird’s feet are covered with hairs which they use to cling on to and catch objects. THE JAPAN JOURNAL


Still from one of the “Inside the Cocoon” animations by Mirai Mizue capturing the metamorphosis of an insect from larva to pupa to adult THE JAPAN JOURNAL


Exhibition visitors design their own insects. THE JAPAN JOURNAL

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