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Art of Japanese manholes leaves lasting impressions

JOSH FIELDS/Arizona Daily Wildcat
"Designed Utility: Art of the Service Cover in Tokyo" - Fine arts senior Joshua Wagner's photos of Japanese manhole covers are on display in the Kachina Lounge of the Student Union Memorial Center. There will be a reception at 7 tonight to kick off the exhibit's run through April 7.
By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, March 24, 2005
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It's a stereotype that tourists from other countries love to take photographs of what we'd consider boring when they visit the United States. Josh Wagner took a similarly stereotypical path when he visited Tokyo last December and came back with a digital roll of seemingly silly objects he'd photographed.

In his first solo exhibit at the UA, "Designed Utility: Art of the Service Cover in Tokyo," Wagner found beauty in something most of us never take a single glance at: manhole covers.

But the manhole covers of Japan are nothing like the ones in the United States, featuring beautiful motifs, kanji characters and leaves, one of which appears to contain marijuana leaves.

"I'm sure they're not," Wagner said. "I think it's like a five-pointed maple or an oak or something. I don't think it's hemp or anything like that."

Wagner, a graphic design and visual communications senior, said he's not sure why the manhole covers are decorated so elaborately, but he has a pretty good idea.

"The way it seems to work is that there are lots of different neighborhoods in Tokyo, just like any big city. And, every neighborhood has their own kind of plant or bird. Kind of like what we have for states here," he said. "My understanding is that it's just part of the aesthetic of a neighborhood."

Though an extremely interesting concept, Wagner's exhibit is quite last minute considering he hadn't planned on showing the photos so soon.

Lucinda Del Rincon, illustrations senior and new curator of the Kachina Lounge exhibitions, asked around to see if anyone wanted to exhibit their work when the UA student scheduled to exhibit pulled out at the last minute. Wagner, a teaching assistant in her illustration 366 course, took the bait and the two got together in early March to set things up.

Wagner said the manhole covers in Tucson first fascinated him.

"They aren't as exciting as the Tokyo ones, but they are interesting. You'll see variation and, like, Celtic patterns and radial patterns," he said.

With his digital Minolta 4-megapixel camera in hand, Wagner also shot lots of other things, including architecture and cars.

"I haven't always enjoyed photography. I didn't really consider photography to be a true art, the way, you know, drawing or painting would be," he said.

Though he worked in a photography shop in his native Portland, Ore., Wagner said exposure to cinema indirectly changed his mind once he became fascinated by title-sequences in films such as "Se7en," "Fight Club" and "Napoleon Dynamite."

"I'm really into motion design, like title sequences in movies and commercials would be a good example," Wagner said.

With a background in 3-D animation and an interest in modeling animation while in high school, Wagner said art was always a part of his family.

"My mom went to art school in Portland, and I don't think she graduated, but, yeah, she was a painter," he said. "My dad's a carpenter mostly, but he always drew."

And, no, Wagner didn't travel to Tokyo exclusively in search of manhole covers; he was just kickin' it with a friend over New Year's.

"I didn't have the idea until I got there and saw them," he said.

The reception for Josh Wagner's "Designed Utility: Art of the Service Cover in Tokyo" takes place in the Kachina Lounge on the third floor of the Student Union Memorial Center tonight at 7. The exhibit will run through April 7.

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