Rice grain giant sculpture

Rice sculpture at Singapore Changi by artist Eng Tow. Rice the feeder of millions. Photographs of rice fields in Laos and Bangladesh. Hanging gardens and waterfall. Bringing plants to people.

Grains of Thought (2015) is the name. Huge grains of rice, magnified from reality many times, made from acrylic and carbon fibre by the artist Eng Tow [1]. They were transferred in 2019 to the South Gateway Garden at Changi Airport from an exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore [2].

These massive grains sit and hang among moist tropical vegetation inside the South Gateway precinct. All around, people were eating rice at the food stalls and restaurants.

Rice was domesticated in Asia. The climate suits it. Most rice is still grown in Asia. Over three-quarters of the global production comes from China, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam (Fig. 1). Rice is also grown in smaller quantities more widely, for example in the USA, south America, north Africa and southern Europe. 

Fig. 1 Distribution of global rice production among countries, mainly in Asia: drawn from statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

In typical systems of cultivation in Asia, rice is grown in flat fields or terraces, surrounded by bunds made of heaped and compacted soil. The high rainfall of monsoon or wet seasons is retained within the fields or else lifted or pumped into fields from nearby waterways. The rice needs to be submerged in water but it is also better to retain the water and let it evaporate slowly, rather than have it flow downhill taking soil with it. The water is skilfully channelled between fields, sometime over extensive hillslopes and valley bottoms.

Fig 2 Rice fields in Bangladesh: upper, during soil cultivation before planting, hanging fronds are from coconut palms on a roadside; lower left, one field planted centre; lower right, all fields planted with young rice in lines.

Two examples of this ’paddy’ system are shown on this page, from Bangladesh and Laos. Once the soil has been cultivated, the rice is planted out into fields from ‘nurseries’. The lower parts of the stems are submerged for most of the plant’s life. The water has usually evaporated or else drained before harvest.

Not all rice is grown in this way: some varieties of the crop are cultivated on dry land and others in deep water where the stems extend upwards as seasonal flooding increases the distance from soil to water-surface. 

Fig. 3 Rice fields in Laos: upper, foreground soil still being cultivated, young rice planted behind; lower left, ‘nursery’ from which the plants are moved to their final position in fields, the high bund in middle distance separates fields at different levels; lower right, young rice planted.

Global reach

In Scotland, the main grains since agriculture arrived here have been oats and barley, also wheat and rye. All were domesticated just to the east of the Mediterranean and were moved across Europe to reach Scotland >5000 years ago. Rice has been imported into north-west Europe for many centuries, but it was never a main source of carbohydrate … that is, not until the last 50 years or so [3]. In the 1950s, it was eaten in the home as a sweet milk pudding or added to soups and broths. Imports began to rise in the 1970s and by the 1990s its consumption had increased more than five-fold, making it one of the UK’s major sources of cereal carb [4].

The rice we eat is grown mainly in India, Pakistan, Thailand, USA and Cambodia. Various forms of the grain are now readily available in the UK for home cooking and as meals in carry-outs and restaurants. For example, basmati is the typical rice in Indian cooking while arborio is rounder and softer when cooked, ideal in risottos.

Basmati and arborio grains are shown in the photographs below as most Europeans see them – straight out of the packet. The grains have had their protective coverings removed in processing mills. Two other grains are shown with them: local oats, the protective cover still attached, and emmer wheat for which each grain was taken out of its covering by hand. The emmer and oat were grown in the Living field garden – we tried rice a few years ago. It grew leaves and stems, but did not make it to seeding.

Fig. 4 Grains of arborio rice (top left), oats (upper r), emmer wheat (lower r) and basmati rice (lower l). Grains are 4-5 mm long.

The grains of these four crops differ relatively little in size (although the basmati is thinner than the others). Along with most other cereal grains they are able to survive when dried for long periods in storage. The storability of cereal grains was one of the main factors that encouraged humans to grow seasonal crops and settle in one place. The grains have an optimal geometry for growth on the plant, harvesting, storage, transportation, milling and cooking.

Grains of thought?

Most people who eat a meal of cereals – bread, porridge, pasta, paella, roti, ngaiwa – probably do not see it as once being a collection of individuals on a mother plant. Yet each grain of a cereal originates from a single act of reproduction and lives life encased in its own protective sheath. The yield of a cereal crop is determined by the number of individual grains on a cereal head or spike. The balance between number and size of individuals is influenced by field management and in turn influences the nutritional quality and economic worth of the harvest.

The grains are now unseen in most cereal products. Maybe these giant sculptures can remind us of what most people depend on for life.     

The Grains of Thought sculptures are sited within a major complex at the airport in which thousands of tropical plants are nurtured. The centrepiece is the waterfall or ‘rain vortex’, photographs below [5].

Sources | links

[1] Eng Tow: http://www.engtow-artist.com/

[2] Asian Civilisations Museum – https://www.nhb.gov.sg/acm/. For a previous article featuring ACM on the Living Field – The Tang Shipwreck and Orkney Simmens http://www.livingfield.co.uk/fibres/the-tang-shipwreck-and-orkney-simmens/

[3] Food of the Scots. Volume 5 in A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Author: Alexander Fenton. Publisher: John Donald, in association with The European Ethnological Research Centre.

[4] The Rice Association: Rice in the UK.

[5] Waterfall: wikipedia entry

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk and geoff.squire@outlook.com

[Last update with some changes to text: 3-4 July 2023]

Ancient grains | miss you

For many years the Living Field garden near Dundee grew a range of ancient (and modern) cereals, partly for interest and partly to show people what used to be grown and eaten in the northern croplands.

Collage of ancient grains – a selection of those grown in 2022 (www.livingfield.co.uk)

Now the garden is no longer in operation, the editor misses the wonderful cereal diversity that used to be on show. So a small patch in a vegetable garden, just 2 m by 1 m, was sown with old saved seed at various times in April this year.

Most of the cereal species or varieties emerged quickly and in numbers, but a few took more time and some hardly germinated. For example, only one seed of Shetland bere barley germinated (saved from 2015), but that single plant went on to produce many ears.

Here’s some photographs taken in August 2022.

Spratt barley

A favourite, its distinct two rows on a curvy ear with very long awns. It germinated, grew and formed ears quickly, and was maturing by mid-August.

The Lawsons’ seedsmen [1], writing in the mid-1800s, classed it as a distinct type, different from two-row and four- to six-row barleys. They also named it fan or battledore. You can see the likeness to a fan, less so to a battledore – an oval paddle used to wash and beat clothing or a racket used with a shuttlecock.

Emmer wheat

Emmer Triticum dicoccum was one of the first cereals to be domesticated in the fertile crescent. It is no longer grown commercially in the north but emmer flour is still available from specialist merchants.

It was the slowest of all the seedlings to grow and last to put out its head or spike. By mid August the plants had reached 5 feet in height (1.5 m) each with many grains, still maturing in the hot, sunny days.

Black or bristle oat

Black oat Avena strigosa is a different species from the common oat cultivated today. It was grown widely as a livestock feed and still remains as a feral plant in some areas, gone wild.

It grows very quickly, the first to flower and set seed, most of it mature in less than three months. Where other grain crops might fail, at least black oat would give some straw and grain. The seeds are long, thin and hard, so not a people’s favourite – though it was dubbed “famine food”, eaten when all else ran out.


Rye Secale cereale has not been grown in the north on the same scale as oats and barley. Yet it germinates quickly and grows to heading not far behind black oat. The heads, or ears, are upright at first (lower left in the photographs below). Awns are much shorter than those of spratt or bere barley. As the ears mature, the awns splay out, the grains become visible (lower right) and the whole ear forms a gentle curve (upper right). The naked grains, around 5 mm long (upper left), are easy to extract simply by rubbing the ear between fingers.

Bere landraces

Bere – a landrace of barley – is rare now in Scotland but was grown over most of the country as recently as the 1850s. It was recorded as distinct from barley in the annual agricultural record in the early 20th century, but is now confined to a few fields in Orkney.

The Living Field has grown bere for years, seed saved over each winter and sown the next spring. Some early records show a similar landrace was grown in parts of north west Europe, suggesting the bere landraces were not solely Scottish. Links to previous Living Field articles are given at The bere line – rhymes with hairline and Bere barley at the Living Field.

The grains are pale green during early filling (lower left in the panel), but become darker streaked with red. They are protected by many long bristly awns, which did not quite succeed in keeping small birds from taking the grains.

[more to be added]

Sources | links

[1] Lawson, Peter and Son. MDCCCLII (1852) Synopsis of the Vegetable Products of Scotland. Edinburgh: private press of Peter Lawson and Son.

Real time virtual field – tashibunosho rice

Just over 10 years ago, the Living Field Project began to make a computer-based, virtual farm. A landscape was populated by crops and hedgerows, insects and mammals, tractors and people. The intention was to show how fields worked, how food was produced and how fields could not exist without the living things that make soil, vegetation and food webs. We exhibited the virtual farm at the Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh, 2008 [1] using computers and screens. Attempts to take it to the web ran out of funding a year or two later.

A farmed landscape, constructed by teamLab [2] and displayed at the Singapore ArtScience Museum [3] is a compelling example of learning by immersion in a virtual landscape. A screen on a wall in the first exhibition room depicts rice terraces on Kyushu Island, Japan.

teamLab’s Tashibunosho monitor at Singapore ArtScience Museum [4]

Four Seasons, a 1000 years, Terraced Rice Fields – Tasibunosho

The display is credited – 2016, Digital Work, 6 Channels, 1000 years, Artwork by teamLab. The caption reads:

“This monitor work depicts the harmonious existence between man and nature in the famed terraced rice fields, Tashibunosho in Kyushu Island, Japan. This work is generative, with the virtual world synchronising with the actual environment on Kyushu Island – weather and timings of sun setting and rising – in real time. ‘

The observer enters the room – the detail draws you in. A man leading a bullock along a path, groups of people doing agricultural tasks or eating a communal meal, a large bird (perhaps a crane) winging slowly across the landscape, clouds passing over the scene, dissolving and generating, water flowing between the fields. And humour that should appeal to all – a big frog marching along a path. It appeals to the young – they can touch!

Four clips from a 30 second phone video following a crane flying over the rice terraces (Living Field)

It is not possible to appreciate in one visit of a hour or two the changes on the monitor that must occur as days pass into seasons. teamLab explains:

“The imagery changes throughout the day; it grows brighter as the sun rises and glows with the setting sun before darkness sets in as the night deepens. Mirroring nature in many ways, the appearance of the artwork is constantly changing and no two moments are ever the same.”

There is no formal explanation of farming or food production. Yet the events witnessed are impressed on the mind. Rice crops are sown, irrigated and harvested in fields defined spatially by paths and bunds. The fields are not isolated but connected, most clearly by waterways and by farm workers with their draft animals. Nature flies or walks over or among the fields and into the surrounding low vegetative hills. The landscape is whole and connected – it is more than a set of fields.

The series of four images above left are single frames from a 30 second video taken by a phone. The video follows a large bird that casually flaps its way over the rice, each plant carefully delineated. It passes over scarecrows, overtakes a cloud. It continues past a large tree set in a clearing and around which people are seated. Finally it disappears out of the rice to the left of the monitor.

The display might provoke many points of discussion among groups of young visitors, depending on the time of year and whether rice is growing or not, for example:

  • how did the plants get there and what are they for, assuming most of the visiting children will not know where food comes from (as in the UK)
  • why are the fields set out in that pattern, why are they covered in water, where does the water come from – and what happens if it runs out
  • what do the farm animals do
  • where have the trees gone – we can only see one big one and a few smaller ones
  • where does the rice go when it’s been harvested – who eats it?
  • ….. and more …… (with thanks from some UK visitors for a unique experience)

Sources, links

[1] The Living Field’s Graham Begg and Gladys Wright designed and built Virtual Farm in 2007/08 for exhibition at the Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh in June 2008.

[2] teamLab’s web site gives examples of the Tashibunosho rice fields at https://www.teamlab.art/w/tashibunosho.

[3] More on the ArtScience Museum at Where art meets science: Singapore.

[4] The low-quality images here were taken by phone in the dim light of the exhibition hall and give an impression of the display. teamLab’s high res images can be see via [2].

Contact: geoff.squire@outlook.com or geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk