Aerthship x Mimi Zhu | Artists and Ecology In Symbiosis On Japan's Takigahara Farm

In Conversation With Pioneering Minds

Written by

Shei Marcelline

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Symbiosis rooted in subliminal bliss and natural surrender ushers us all towards a mutual understanding—one where we express gratitude for the ground that supports us and the cycles that harmonize with our humanity. Aerthship, a multidisciplinary eco-collective, understands this power. Rather than merely fostering creativity, author Mimi Zhu and Aerthship founder Tin Mai, are guiding artists to nurture it among the Earth’s greenscapes. 

In November, Aerthship held its first international pop-up artist residency program, the Passenger Program, at Takigahara Farm, an agricultural haven nestled within the Ishikawa Prefecture of Japan. The immersive experience encouraged a transformative exploration of artistic disciplines as 15 QTPOC artists from around the world were chosen for the 5-day residency. 

Cultivating community through cooking, writing workshops, stillness, and meditation, Zhu helped each artist reroot themselves into the environment and find self-nourishment in their present surroundings, instead of a finished product.“When we nourish ourselves, we nourish each other,” says Zhu. 

As Aerthship continues to generate an earth-centric subculture, planning more artist residencies for the new year, their commitment to sustainability and environmental consciousness inspires artists across the globe. All while their dedication to nature and harmony bridges the gap between ecology and culture, guiding artists back to Mother Earth. 

FLAUNT spoke with Zhu and Mai about their experience on Takigahara Farm and Aerthship’s plans for the new year.  

Could you walk me through a day on the farm?

Mimi Zhu: We would have a 10 A.M. wake up, have breakfast, which was cooked by the Takigahara chef on the farm—hand picked vegetables, pickles, fruit, tofu, hummus—local, fresh delights. After that we’d do a silent mindfulness walk around the farm, just to get to know our surroundings and have some kind of familiarity with the space. Then it would be lunchtime. After that, we’d do an activity. One day we asked a dear friend, Akko, who works on the farm, to teach us how to make washi paper out of washi bark, which is an ancient crafts making skill in Japan. Then we’d do a journaling or writing session each day. After, we’d have a home-cooked dinner, by Edmund, our chef, who created these really lavish meals from local farmers around the area. Every dinner, there would be facilitated conversations. We sometimes had movie nights. The days were long, but they also went by really fast.

Food played such an integral role in this experience. How was it part of the symbiosis?

Tin Mai: There was a big effort to understand what the food system was. For example, we met this woman who noticed park rangers just killing aggressive wild boar and collecting government money for it. She thought it was better to kill them in a different way that preserved the meat so that it could feed people as well. We also met an eighth generation Koji maker in a nearby town and were told that we're not allowed to see the Koji making basement because it's got the ancestral bacteria of their family that goes back a couple centuries or more. On the last day a portion of our crew volunteered in the community center kitchen where once a month, all the farmers and their families come to this huge cafeteria. Our crew and the artists were able to cook for them.

Zhu: [Our team] spent three days before the residency, getting to know all the local farmers meeting like boar hunters and fishermen and knife makers just to get a really local feel of how food works and how food nourishes our bodies. We were extremely spoiled every dinner time. It was important for us to contribute as foreign visitors to this land as well and engage with it in a deeper way. Food is such a powerful way that we get to do that and that privilege. We wanted to remember that we were guests on this land. For future residencies, which I hope will happen internationally, we want to understand that people who have known this land for a long time are the ones who hold the wisdom and we're here to listen. 

Why a farm? Why a farm in Japan?

Zhu: So much of my work is in relation to the Earth. But living in New York City, it isn't the easiest thing to get access to natural spaces. Aerthship approached me years ago, and when we started working together they gave me access to land in upstate New York, which had access to nature, quiet, serenity. It helped a lot with my practice and to set intention for what I wanted to do moving forward. I had a friend reach out to me about doing potential programming in Takigahara, Japan. I felt like it was something I couldn't really say no to. The farm really encourages you to hear the sounds of the leaves crunching beneath your feet or look at the dragonflies around you or feel the sunbeam on your body. And I don't think people realize this, but that's a really intimate practice. We're engaging in a personal relationship with Earth and each other by not speaking, but just by appreciating things.

What was the importance of integrating simple things like cooking, walking, and music into this residency?

Zhu: With every workshop that I do, every lesson that I try to teach, it's not about coming up with a final product or an art piece to show at the end. Sometimes, it's not even about working on a particular skill. It's more to give people an extremely embodied experience where they feel close to themselves at the end of it. Cooking is such a spiritual practice, right? Eating is such a spiritual and communal practice. Dancing is such a community practice. Walking or going outside is an extremely present way to be. So integrating all of those things was really important for our schedule and our itinerary.

Artistry can be such a solo journey. How did you guys incorporate community while allowing people to grow creatively as individuals? 

Zhu: Personally, I’m constantly battling with that. I think growing up in the West most of my life, but also growing up in Asia and spending time in Asia now, I grapple with balancing a really individualist kind of society and also collectivist culture. I think what happened in Japan was the perfect melding of both. It taught me a lot about what it means to do things all together, to wait for each other, to be patient with each other, to feel things as a group, to be open as a group, but to also allow those things to nurture yourself. When we nourish ourselves, we nourish each other. Growing up in either and both, it feels like you have to pick one or the other, but I'm really learning that they feed into each other really harmoniously. Like, the growth of a tree on its own enhances the growth of an entire ecosystem, and that needs to be echoed out into us.

Mai: One thing that I say a lot is that it's amazing what’s achieved collectively when people are just able to be fed and have time outside. There's really no extra calculus or mystery or creative sauce to Aerthships’ projects. We believe in the power of intimate time with the earth. We just felt like from the very first hour and for the rest of the days, that there was this collective yearning for everyone to be there.

Zhu: We didn't ask anyone to show any of their works or even talk about their art, but they just came forward and showed us anyway, because they felt safe. One of our artists showed their amazing short film about their grandmother on their own terms, and we all cried watching it. It was just like a sweet, trusting, bonding experience. No one there had the intention to judge or compare work.

It sounds like the chosen group of artists was just as important as the experience itself. How did you select the 15 artists for this residency? 

Zhu: We knew we wanted to include people who are local to Tokyo and Japan. We made sure that at least half of the attendees were Japanese because we were on Japanese land. There were also people from Vietnam and Hong Kong and Malaysia who came and then Australia and also the U.S., which was amazing. We wanted to make sure that everybody learned from each other and that there wasn’t any dominance of Western or Eastern philosophy. 

What are some ideas you have for Aerthship and the next pop-up residency? 

Zhu: The dream is to do big international stuff, collaborate with international artists who speak the native tongues. We had a lot of Japanese speakers who were working at the Takigahara Farm, who were speaking in Japanese and interpreting, and it was really amazing.

Mai: The dream would be to see how many more that we could serve in this way internationally, and continue to make it accessible not just economically in a language barrier way. The Passenger Program will run again this year, likely in another remote place with Mimi at the helm…Music releases are also on the way.

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Aerthship, Mimi Zhu, Tin Mai, Takigahara Farm, Japan, Art, Shei Marcelline