In its light-hearted approach of presenting exhibits that include everyday items, contemporary design, artwork and historical objects, “Measuring: This Much, That Much, How Much?” at 21_21 Design Sight has its fair share of crowd pleasers.

It begins with the “Perfektron,” an installation that cleverly brings together humankind’s oldest measuring tool — the hands — with one of our modern equivalents: sensors. If you can accurately judge the size of an apple with your hands, an apple appears on screen. If not, you’ll get something the size of your guess — an egg, a grapefruit or if you’re particularly spatially challenged, a melon or basketball. It’s a simple, fun exercise that highlights the exhibition’s strength: It’s varied visual interpretations of how humans are constantly seeking ways to measure mass, space, time and value.

Other amusing interactive installations include: videos that allow you to experience traveling at different speeds; the “Pixelman,” which will transform your figure into an 8-bit-like pixelated image projected onto a giant screen; and a device that monitors your heartbeat to compare it to that of an elephant and a mouse. Attractive artworks based on physics and geometry are equally entertaining, whether it’s a kinetic sculpture moving at various revolutions per minutes or a cute circular bear design that was discovered from repeated drawings of the golden ratio.

But it’s the displays of contemporary and historical everyday objects that really encourage the viewer to rethink the pervading nature of measuring in terms of design, science, tradition and even emotion.

Familiar items are used to compare mass, such as a 1-kg traffic cone that sits between its weight equivalents of 16 boxes of cotton buds and a block of tofu. Capacity is illustrated by complicated arrangements of laboratory flasks, and time is introduced through a selection of unusual clocks. Elsewhere, some of these measurements also manifest in impressive installations, such as the comprehensive display of a breakdown of all the of containers used for sake consumption and distribution — from a giant 72-liter manufacturer’s barrel through the various bottle sizes to 1,600 tiny sake cups.

Cultural traditions involving the symbolic use of objects to convey emotional milestones in a person’s life give an intimate perspective on the concept of time. A case of wine on display, for example, represents the French custom of parents buying several cases when a child is born and then enjoying a bottle of the aging wine each year to celebrate the child’s birthday. Similar customs take place in China and Okinawa, where, respectively, parents age rice wine and awamori liquor in earthenware jars to consume later at their child’s marriage or coming-of-age ceremony.

Though cursory, even religion is featured. A framed, diagrammatically illustrated and inscribed mathematical problem turns out to be an offering dedicated to a Shinto temple during the Edo Period (1603-1868). And an antique clock that uses the steady rate of burning incense is described as a common time-keeping device of Buddhist places of worship.

The array of commonplace objects — bottles, glasses, reams of different sized paper, books, storage systems, currency, clocks and more — stresses how units of measurement cross borders and cultures, even in the most mundane of ways. The number of stacked sushi plates at some kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi restaurants in Japan, for example, can be quickly counted by comparing the height of the pile to the length of pair of disposable chopsticks. What can seem to be an arbitrary unit can have a very clear function in a certain context.

Everything in the modern world, from the paper or screen you are reading to the urban planning of the city or town you are living in, has been touched by the act of measuring. Units underpin art, architecture, product design, music, games, cooking, medicine, science — the list is endless and “Measuring: This Much, That Much, How Much?” offers immeasurable food for thought.

Perhaps the best way to emphasize the profound significance of measuring is by elaborating on one of the less conspicuous historical exhibits: a copy of the International Prototype Kilogram (IPK).

A simple cylindrical block of platinum alloy, it may not be much to look at, but the original IPK is the defining artifact of the International System (metric) kilogram base unit. Any change in its mass would therefore have a knock-on effect on much of the IS system and all manner of measuring units would alter worldwide. This makes the original IPK so important that it’s hidden away in the basement of the Pavillion de Breteuil in Sevres, France, protected by a set of two bell jars and kept inside a monitored safe that is locked within a guarded vault. It even takes three independently operated keys just to open the vault.

“Measuring: This Much, That Much, How Much?” at 21_21 Design Sight runs till May 31; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (till 12 a.m. on April 25, Roppongi Art night). ¥1,000. Closed Tue. www.2121designsight.jp.

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