By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
One striking piece from the Modern Twist exhibit at the Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM) is “Hope,” an intricately woven bamboo sculpture that looks as if it’s made of soft and shiny billowing ribbons. Tucked into the side of the sculpture is a piece of textured and natural bamboo root. The root’s rough texture contrasts against its sleek surroundings.
When asked why she thought the piece by Mimura Chikuho was titled “Hope,” BAM curator Nora Atkinson said, “It’s never-ending, just bound together without an end.”
While there has always been a strong bamboo basketry tradition in Japan, bamboo as an art form, rather than a craft, took hold in the 20th century, after World War II. Post-war, the Japanese government created the Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties, or, informally, the Living Natural Treasure program. The program designates living individuals or groups who have a high level of mastery in an art form in order to make sure the art form continues to proliferate.
In 1967, Shono Shounsai became the first bamboo artist to be designated a Living Natural Treasure, setting off the bamboo art movement. Due to the art form’s relative youth, most of the pieces from Modern Twist were made in the 2000s.
There have been only a few shows in the United States, the first taking place at the end of the 1980s. This exhibit is the very first of its kind shown in the Greater Seattle Area.
“We have really wanted to show Japanese bamboo for a very long time,” said Atkinson. “It’s such an innovative art form.”
Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that comes in a variety of forms. The species most often used for bamboo basketry and art is madake, noted for its flexibility.
Since the 8th century, Japanese bamboo baskets have been used in Buddhist tea ceremonies to hold materials. Japanese baskets began as replications of Chinese baskets. Eventually, the Japanese came to use their baskets in ikebana, the art of flower arranging. Thus, many works in the Modern Twist are vessel-like, with places to hold vases.
For centuries in Japan, young would-be basket-makers apprenticed under masters for six to 10 years before they were even able to touch bamboo.
“Once the apprentices learned it, they started from the very, very beginning,” said Atkinson. “Most Japanese masters grew their own bamboo, so the apprentice would learn the whole process, from the seed to the stalk, to harvesting, to tearing it. You need perfect stems. Then there’s the drying, taking the skin off, and getting rid of the separations.”
Currently, a significant number of the more renowned artists have deviated from that tradition. Many artists have established careers in different fields before undertaking bamboo work and many don’t study under a master.
What hasn’t changed is that the work continues to be labor-intensive. Today, most bamboo work is still done by hand.
Innovation in form
Undoubtedly, the artist with the most unusual and provocative works featured in Modern Twist is Nagakura Ken’ichi, known for being a recluse.
“Most bamboo artists are involved in groups or are in a master-apprentice relationship,” said Atkinson. “He has stayed alone, very hermit-like, pretty much for his whole career. He was taught by his grandfather and has been on his own ever since.”
Nagakura’s work breaks away from tradition more so than other artists featured. His work is abstract in form and often bears little resemblance to the vessel-like construction of traditional basketry.
“Fire” is an impressively large piece made of raw-looking rope — made painstakingly from bamboo — intertwined spontaneously and nearly haphazardly. A stain of red bleeds into the twines of the rope and a sense of danger permeates the piece. It’s difficult to remember that the piece ultimately comes from straight stalks of green bamboo.
Geography and gender
Modern Twist is broken up into three sections: Works from the south, east, and west. While the work in the south and east somewhat blend together and are more experimental, there is a distinct style in the west.
Works displayed in the west are more function-oriented and look more basket-like. Atkinson said this is due to the strong tradition passed through centuries in that area.
“Most of the artists in the west room come together from the same lineage,” said Atkinson.
Notably, Tanioka Aiko, the only female artist in the exhibit, comes from the tradition. Her work is displayed alongside the works of her husband, Tanioka Shigeo, and the creations of husband and wife bear many similarities. It is easy to jump from piece to piece and see the common thread linking them all together.
Aiko is the only female artist shown because bamboo work was not a traditional craft for women. Few bamboo masters ever taught women. As the artistic movement is taking off, however, more female artists are coming onto the scene. But, as the movement is still relatively young, very few women have yet to be recognized for their work. (end)
The Modern Twist exhibit is well-labeled and is informative without the benefit of a guide. However, the BAM does hold daily docent tours that museum-goers can take advantage of. The exhibit will be available for viewing through Feb. 3, 2013.
For more information, visit www.bellevuearts.org.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.