You can learn a lot about someone by asking them about their heroes. For Yoko Shimizu, that would include Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Elon Musk. A science researcher and artist, Shimizu is the brain behind +1e, a creative lab through which she produces exhibits that merge art, science, and nature.
Born in Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan, Shimizu’s love of art, nature, and science was nurtured by supportive family members since early childhood. When the family relocated to the United States while she was still a schoolchild, that love and support remained.
“I took classes from traditional Japanese artists in Japan when I was really young. And even when my family moved to New Jersey, I kept it up. My grandfather, who is an art enthusiast, was an early inspiration.” In those early years, Shimizu enjoyed watercolors, painting, sculpting, silkscreens, and woodblocks. She also loved frolicking in nature and studying it carefully.
Today, her dazzling installations are celebrated around the world. Shimizu herself is a much-sought-after innovator in the creative industry, giving presentations at domestic and international events and collaborating with a wide range of partners.
Shimizu’s love of art, science, and nature stretches as far back as she can remember; the first word she recalls saying was hana (flower).
“From a young age, I loved plants, insects, and all kinds of life forms found in rivers, forests, and seas. I would collect various specimens and keep them in the drawers and shelves in my room.”
Such was the state of her room that her mother would on occasion walk in to “find bugs crawling all over the place.” That said, her interest in nature extended beyond mere curiosity and admiration; she really “wanted to know how nature works — the shape, form, and function of things.”
“If you take just one body part of one creature — the shape is not just beautiful, it is also alive, functional, and constantly evolving. This really fascinates me.”
Today, Shimizu works closely with scientists, including her professors from her days as a student, and researchers from museums, art institutes, and tech companies. Her creations have been commissioned by organizations in both the private and public sectors.
Multiculturalism has also played a major role in Shimizu’s work. When she relocated to New Jersey with her family, for example, her education in the arts and sciences underwent a massive boost. It seemed that hardly a moment went by when they did not see a musical or visit a museum.
On visits to New York, Shimizu was fascinated by the city’s contemporary art scene: “Even on the street, you could see musicians, dancers, and all sorts of street art,” she remembers.
In addition to enhancing her love of art and culture, living in the United States strengthened her personality and ignited a strong sense of independence and purpose, even while it risked creating a crisis in her identity.
“My parents were really worried that I would be lonely when we moved to the United States for my elementary school years. My Japanese was just starting to make sense, but here we were moving to a country where I would have to learn a new language.”
But her parents need not have worried. “America is more culturally diverse than Japan, so I didn’t have any problems being accepted.”
If anything, the real challenge came when her family moved back to Japan. As there are “certain ways that you have to act,” Shimizu struggled to find her footing in her homeland.
“I was supposedly a Japanese national, but [my] not knowing the rules that locals should know was a bit of a problem for some people.”
That said, Shimizu believes her bicultural upbringing has—on balance—been a benefit rather than a burden.
“If I had entered a big, traditional Japanese company after my graduation, it may have been difficult for me. What I am doing now as a science researcher and designer allows me to be different, and there is value in that.”
Shimizu’s desire to stand out while at the same time having universal appeal is perhaps encapsulated in the name she chose for her lab.
“I wanted a name that was iconic, recognizable, and not bound to a particular language—something like E = MC2. Well, the Japanese characters of my first name, Yoko, can be read as ‘proton.’ And, as you know, +1e is the electric charge of a proton.” Thus +1e lab was born.
SCHOOL OF LIFE
When Shimizu returned to Japan for her high school and college studies, her love of art and science did not abate. Due to the nature of the education system here, however, she was faced with a decision: Which course to follow in college, art-based or science-based?
“When you are in the last year of high school in Japan, you have to choose a path to university, and this is determined by the entrance exam you take. I did wonder which I would like to do, because I liked both science and art.”
Because she already had a long history of doing art as a child, and as she believed the confluence between science and technology would become the next big thing, Shimizu chose science.
“For that kind of subject, I would definitely need a lab, so I chose to go in that direction,” she recalled thinking. Shimizu majored in biology and chemistry at Kobe University.
It would be some years, however, before she could follow her true calling; her first position before graduating was with an advertising company in Osaka, where she worked as an intern.
“It was a small startup, and they were looking for someone with a background in technology and design. The experience I gained there was amazing. I got to do a lot of stuff and to be a decision maker from an early age.”
Following graduation, Shimizu continued in the same company for some three years, in the role of creative director; she was in charge of a team of experienced staff, as well as a number of large clients. While she admits to finding the experience thrilling, there were moments that were extremely challenging.
“The scary part was when something went wrong with a project. Then, the client would ask for the person in charge, and they would expect someone senior to speak to them. When I turned up, they were often even more angry because I was a woman and really inexperienced.”
In hindsight, she is thankful for the experience. “By being in a small company and taking responsibility for decisions, I learned in a few years what would have taken decades for me to learn if I was in a large company or in a junior position.”
An added benefit of working at the startup was that its CEO at the time was a woman. “I always wanted to start something of my own,” Shimizu said, “but I didn’t have any female role models, except the one where I worked.
“She had a feminine leadership style, which was friendly but firm and effective in dealing with clients. I thought that was an interesting management style that I really respected.”
When the time came for Shimizu to go it alone, she did so. At first she worked as a music and arts broadcaster for a Japanese radio station, where she helped establish their arts program, and next in public relations.
During the same period, she began her own research in science and art, doing much of it in her grandfather’s old warehouse in Nagoya. She also began exhibiting; her first public show took place in 2008.
ART MEETS SCIENCE
Among the objects Shimizu most likes to study—and that also have become subjects of her exhibitions—are micro-organisms. They are “microscopic, while also appearing to be galactic,” the scientist-slash-designer says.
“Yeast cells, for example, are very pretty. In one exhibition, I wanted to show how they proliferate, so I created a gallery space that resembled an R&D ‘clean room.’”
In the exhibition, cultures of microorganisms contained in petri dishes are displayed on a wall. The viewer can watch them grow exponentially, form colonies with multiple generations, and, because they are contained in a closed environment, deteriorate and die. The exhibition is meant to induce reflection on life.
“Humans procreate and accumulate into societies. And as we are in a closed environment that we are also destroying, we have to be careful about how we maintain a balanced ecosystem.”
The consequences of failure are dire, unless we become an interstellar species and escape Earth, perhaps moving to a place like Mars, she adds.
This is something that Shimizu is looking into. In her latest work, she uses cellulose, a fiber contained in plants and some micro-organisms, to cultivate what she calls “bio-textiles.”
“I want to see how many of the things around me — like textiles and appliances — I can cultivate using cellulose, in the same way that people have done with silkworms and silk to create cloth.”
In a future project, Shimizu plans to experiment with growing plants artificially because, she says, this kind of knowledge “will be necessary if we decided to create colonies in outer space.”
“If we are to live on a planet like Mars, we will probably have to live in enclosed environments, and we would have to grow things artificially. That’s what I’m thinking about now.”
Today, Shimizu plans to expand her lab so that it can become a permanent public space that harks back to one of her heroes, Thomas Edison, and his research facility at Menlo Park in New Jersey.
“At the park, you can see Edison’s residence and the many inventions that he made. My family visited the center when I was a kid, and I was fascinated not just by his experiments, but also how he created the concept of R&D and collaborative research with creatives from all walks of life, from designers to engineers to artist to scientists.”
For Shimizu, biotechnology — via cross-border, multidisciplinary collaboration — is the perfect vehicle for moving humankind closer to nature.
While the technology of the past may have created gaps between humans and the natural environment, that of the future ought to build bridges. To this end, Shimizu hopes to become the Elon Musk or Thomas Edison of art, science, and nature.
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