Bamboo groves are synonymous with the Japanese landscape, and crafting items from bamboo is one of the oldest technical skills developed in Japan. The lightness, strength, flexibility and cylindrical structure of bamboo is suited to functionality as well as artistic applications, and the material has been used to create houses, furniture, artisan’s tools, kitchen utensils, fencing, fishing and animal traps, children’s toys, musical instruments and implements for Buddhist rituals, tea ceremonies, flower arranging and, in recent times, contemporary works of art and design. Bamboo: Tradition as Contemporary Form celebrates the creativity of Japanese bamboo artists through a collection of traditional baskets and contemporary sculptural bamboo art donated by Mr S. Baillieu Myer AC and Sarah Myer that is complemented by a selection of historical paintings, lacquer ware, musical instruments, woodblock prints, historical photographs and hand-printed books from the NGV Collection and private collection loans.
The earliest evidence of bamboo craft in Japan is Jōmon pottery excavated with woven-bamboo outer basketry dated to 6000 BCE. Today, bamboo artists still use techniques that can be traced to the Nara (710–794) and Heian (794–1185) periods, when baskets were produced to hold flowers for scattering during Buddhist ceremonies. Finely woven baskets produced during the Kamakura period (1186–1333) known as Karamono, imported from China or produced locally in the Chinese style, became greatly appreciated by the aristocracy as vessels for interior decoration and formal tea ceremony flower arrangements. In contrast to this imported aesthetic, sixteenth-century tea masters such as Murata Jukō, Takeno Jōō and Sen no Rikyū developed a uniquely Japanese style of tea practice and aesthetic known as Wabi cha (rustic tea), and found the natural tactile qualities of bamboo ideal for producing a new style of tea utensils and baskets that complemented the ambience of their thatched teahouses.
Throughout the Edo period (1600–15–1868) symmetrically formed Karamono baskets and rustic, asymmetrical wabi-style baskets gained wide popularity across Japan. This art form culminated during the closing decades of the Edo period, when Hayakawa Shōkosai and Tanabe Shinjō became the first bamboo basket makers to sign their work and be recognised as creative artists in the field. From 1868 onwards, when Japan entered its modern era, Hayakawa, Tanabe and other prominent practitioners established generational (master–apprentice) lineages that produced skilfully crafted bamboo baskets and other functional bamboo items, such as hats, bags and small pieces of furniture that were collected and admired for their skilful use of techniques and natural beauty of the material. Examples from the prominent Tanabe lineage are Basket handbag, 1912–45, by the second-generation Tanabe artist Chikuhosai, and the contemporary work Ensō, 2014, by the fifth-generation emerging artist Tanabe Shōchiku. From the Hayakawa lineage a beautifully balanced flower basket by the fifth-generation artist Hayakawa Shōkosai V displays his family’s trademark bamboo plaiting as a visual feature of the basket’s structure.
Starting in the mid twentieth century, established bamboo lineages and individual artists began to experiment with new shapes, forms and concepts that blurred the distinction between functional object and contemporary sculptural form, establishing a vibrant creative movement that has gained local and international admiration. The NGV’s recently established collection of bamboo works features pieces by leading bamboo artists that have reinterpreted the traditions of Japanese bamboo craft to create imaginative and highly contemporary sculptural works of art. A creative hub for this practice is the traditional bamboo cultivation and basket-producing town of Beppu and surrounding region of Oita in south-west Japan, on the island of Kyushu. Produced in this region, Yufu Shohaku’s monumental baskets combine a wide variety of parts from the bamboo plant, including giant stems, sturdy straps, thinly sliced strips and gnarly roots. His powerful creation Flower basket Niō, 2015, features a flower basket with the authoritative presence of a fierce Buddhist temple guardian (Niō), and can be interpreted as a preserver of the rustic qualities of Beppu’s bamboo-crafting past.
Yonezawa Jiro and Morigami Jin are two other Oita natives who familiarised themselves with the region’s bamboo traditions before becoming leading creative innovators in the contemporary bamboo art movement. Both artists’ studio practices are strongly connected to organic shapes and the rhythms of nature. Yonezawa’s studio is set at the foot of bamboo-covered hills south of Beppu, and the region’s natural aspects provide inspiration for his work. Fossil, 2015, is randomly woven from wide straps of bamboo and takes the form of a distorted spherical shape that appears to be more organic than handcrafted. Similarly, Morigami’s studio is located at the end of a path beside a small river in Beppu town. The sound of flowing water, audible from the artist’s working place, seems to be instilled in his irregular combinations of twined and twill plaiting, creating an infinite rhythm of lines also found in his large work Big wave, 2014.
Practising in Oita and other regions of Japan are bamboo artists who have had more unconventional paths of self-discovery. Sugiura Noriyoshi was born in northern Japan and studied engineering in Osaka, after which his desire to create three-dimensional forms with natural materials led him to study bamboo-weaving techniques in Beppu. Sugiura’s engineering background distinguish his creations through a complex geometric formation of zigzagging struts that create an atmosphere of structural strength from lightweight material. The curving lines of Void, 2014, give it a unique appearance when viewed from different positions, while the large spherical work Heaven’s nest, 2014, displays perfect form and symmetry from all angles.
Ueno Masao from central Japan was a graduate in architecture before studying bamboo weaving in rural areas near his hometown of Nagano. To conceive the mesmerising formation of infinite geometric spiralling lines found in his work Wave, 2011, Ueno employed computer design software and then, in contrast to this digital process, constructed the work’s delicate structure by subtly bending thin bamboo strips into spirals and applying lacquer and gold powder to them.
Possibly the most independent of Japanese bamboo artists is Nagakura Ken’ichi. Born and mostly self-taught in Shizuoka prefecture, Nagakura has chosen not to join any professional bamboo art organisations and maintains an independent identity as a bamboo artist. Nagakura discovered bamboo weaving best suited his creative practice after first experimenting with painting and textiles. His passion for beach combing and fossicking in nature, combined with an appreciation for the work of twentieth-century modern sculptors such as Alberto Giacometti, Henry Moore and Okamoto Tarō, has resulted in natural amorphic shapes that suggest human forms. The simple construction of Nagakura’s beautifully balanced work Woman, 2014, is magnificent. One long piece of bamboo is split into many fine strips along its entire length, except for the last few centimetres, and then interlaced densely to create the finished form. Finally, a mix of lacquer and powered clay is rubbed into the weave to give it an organic finish and the appearance of a natural rather than manmade object.
Bamboo arts have been traditionally practised by men; however, in recent times several women have become highly accomplished in the medium and established great respect in Japan and internationally for their work. Oki Toshie graduated from Waseda University, Tokyo, with a degree in literature, and in search of self-expression became a dedicated student of the late bamboo master Iizuka Shōkansai. Capitalisating on the illusionary possibilities of bamboo weaving, Oki’s sculptural basket Outburst, 2008, creates a mysterious interplay between the interior and exterior of the vessel. Isohi Setsuko, who originally studied Sogetsu-style flower arrangement and the sencha tea ceremony, started producing bamboo work to create baskets for her own flower arrangements. Her Tray with handle, 2008, which features hexagonal plaiting (mutsume-ami), is a traditional-style basket produced for this purpose. Isohi’s background in flower arranging is also evident in the more recent Layered lotus petals, 2014, a small sculptural work with six juxtaposed lotus petal shapes.
The major collection of bamboo art donated to the NGV by Mr Baillieu Myer AC and Sarah Myer displayed in Bamboo: Tradition in Contemporary Form also includes exquisitely crafted functional baskets for flowers and tea utensils by Yamashita Kouchikusai, Watanabe Chikusei and Uematsu Chikuyu, and contemporary sculptural works by Yamaguchi Ryuun, Baba Shodo, Honda Shōryū, Sato Haruo, Hiroi Yasushi, Hatsuka Toru and Mimura Chikuhō.