I have had this wounderful article on my Hat Design blog for a long time. I'm rearranging the furniture and I have decided to put it on this blog now for its final resting place. Sometimes I just don't know where to put things. Enjoy!
Materials and Meanings
By Janet Koplos
Two significant aspects of ikebana recommend it to the field of contemporary art. One is sensitivity to materials; the other is symbolic meaning. It shares both these factors with sculpture and installation as they are known in the West today. In addition, ikebana and installation are both ephemeral.
An extraordinary feel for materials is one of the famous characteristics of Japanese aesthetics and seems to extend to every aspect of life. This sensibility probably arises from the Shinto belief that the gods (kami) can be present in any remarkable natural object or phenomenon. If a rock or a tree may be the habitation of a god, it carries a spiritual power beyond our Western generality of the sublime. And if a natural substance can have that power, it deserves respect in all its forms and uses.In addition, ikebana has a conceptual structure: the theory of composition consists of “the Leading Principle (Heaven), the Subordinate Principle (Earth) and the Reconciling Principle (Man).”
Although beauty is certainly part of the scheme, ikebana is far from being just a pleasing formal design of posies in pots. It is meant to provoke thought.
This artistic expression originated in Buddhist altar decorations honoring the dead. All the various schools of ikebana in Japan today trace their history to the Ikenobo family of Buddhist priests in Kyoto beginning in the Muromachi period (16th century).Flower arrangements are also part of the aesthetic program of the tea ceremony, another creation of medieval Japan. The tea ceremony began as a humbling, peaceful practice of heightened concentration in a militaristic culture. A social and aesthetic activity, it centers on the visual and tactile qualities of the objects used. A scroll and a flower arrangement carefully placed in the display alcove called the tokonoma are typically the highlights of an essentially empty room in which the ceremony occurs.
In such a reductive setting, subtleties of color, texture and form can be discovered and appreciated.In modern times, the tea ceremony sometimes seems no more than a social grace practiced by young women, and seasonal flower arrangements ornament traditional homes and many public places, from corporate lobbies to hotel rooms. Ikebana is less religious in its associations but still appreciated for its seriousness and visual impact. In its extreme modern forms, this art takes on aspects of performance. Ikebana has been created on stage, using not flowers but trees: the drama of the arrangement is emphasized by use of unexpected materials and complexity as well as large scale. Ikebana may be pictorial, when the arrangement is placed against a wall, but it also may be fully three-dimensional and command the room in which it is set.
Typically, it is site-specific, made for the particular proportions and other details of a given room.Expanding in concept and practice, ikebana, during the late 20th century, shaded easily into contemporary art. My book, Contemporary Japanese Sculpture (Abbeville Press, 1991), included several artists directly linked to ikebana, two of whom, Kosen Ohtsubo and Gaho Taniguchi, are part of the Wave Hill exhibition. Another artist in this show, Chisen Furukawa, has been a resident in the international studio program at New York’s P.S. 1, that incubator for leading-edge contemporary art.Ikebana training certainly has not limited its practitioners to repeating tradition! Hiroshi Teshigahara, director of the celebrated Sogetsu school established by his father, Sofu, created a bamboo tunnel in a New York gallery a few years ago.
The first public work of Jae-Eun Choi, then a student at the Sogetsu school, consisted of filling the school’s stone lobby (designed by Isamu Noguchi) with topsoil and planting grass, which germinated during the run of the exhibition. Ohtsubo once filled a room at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo with lightning-like zigzags made of disposable chopsticks doweled together with toothpicks. A younger ikebana-trained artist, Shogo Kariyazaki, has exhibited blocks of soil seemingly sliced straight out of the earth, and a rowboat filled with clay. Sound was part of Taniguchi’s work when she strewed a gallery floor with straw and dried beans. Flowers per se are not involved in works like these, but other once-growing things or natural substances are central.
The installations are highly tactile, and they often involve earthy odors. These works differ from traditional ikebana in presenting the natural substances in unexpected places or combinations. The viewer slows down and attends to the experience.Such works have affinities with abstract installations by Western artists—for instance, the kind of large-scale yet detail-oriented environments that the American artist Ann Hamilton creates. They can also be compared with the British sculptor David Nash’s sculptural forms extracted from deadfall trees, or his notable growing structures, such as a cluster of trees pruned to grow into a dome. Equally they relate to the arrangements of leaves, berries or other natural materials—in the gallery or in the landscape—by the British artist Andy Goldsworthy or the German Nils-Udo.I
n the Japanese context, ikebana-inspired works have a seamless historic lineage. The emphasis, you may have noted, is on ephemeral materials or malleable forms: not stone but soil, not wood but bamboo, not metal rods but chopsticks. Mainstream contemporary sculpture in Japan embraces disposable materials, for reasons that vary from the conceptual to the practical. Many young artists, lacking studio space to make or store their works and also lacking a likely market, create installations of things that can be discarded at the conclusion of a show.Significantly, one of the most influential Japanese art movements of the late 20th century concentrated on “direct contact with something real” akin to the motivations of ikebana-inspired art. This movement, called Mono-ha, was at its height from 1968 to 1972 but has been widely influential; several of its originators remain true to its principles, which include using materials unaltered and undisguised, and recognizing that the material makes as crucial a contribution to the artwork as the artist does.
Contemporary Japanese sculpture with an ikebana sensibility can be understood and appreciated without knowing its historical or literal roots. The forms make their magic by transforming the familiar. Anyone who has ever relaxed on the grass and made a chain of clover blossoms can recognize the elements, and anyone who has ever looked at a flower or a seed and envisioned a universe can grasp its implications.Footnotes “Both Buddhism and Shintoism teach that the things of nature are not essentially unlike mankind, and even that they are endowed with spirits similar to those of men. Accordingly awe and sublimity are almost unknown in Japanese painting and poetry, but beauty and grace and gentleness are visible in every work of art.”
Masaharu Anesaki, Art, Life and Nature in Japan, Tokyo, Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1973 (orig. pub. 1932), p. 10. Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, New York, Dover Publications, 1964 (orig. pub. 1906), p. 58.