blackbird spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



From Beppu to Richmond: Shigeo Kawashima’s Journey
Curator's Commentary by Ashley Kistler

Given the tradition-bound nature of bamboo work in Japan, how does an artist turn from a craft orientation to making monumental sculpture? “It’s a long story,” Shigeo Kawashima laughingly responds.1 During his senior year of high school, the 48-year-old sculptor recalls saving a newspaper article about a local craftsman who made bamboo baskets for farmers. When Kawashima later visited him, the basket-maker discouraged the young man from pursuing what he considered was fast becoming an outdated profession that no one would eventually care about or need.

Kawashima briefly considered applying to college but instead was hired as a woodworker at a Tokyo furniture factory. In search of work requiring more skillful craftsmanship, he subsequently traveled through parts of Japan to research regional styles of furniture-making and ended up in Oita Prefecture on Kyushu, the country’s third largest and southernmost island. A region famous for its bamboo groves, Oita had long been a major center of traditional bamboo crafts, as Kawashima quickly discovered upon arriving in the local town of Beppu. There he entered occupational school at age 21, opting for one of several possible routes open to aspiring bamboo artists.2

After a year of intensive training at Beppu Advanced Technology Academy, he had acquired the basic skills necessary to make a basket. Referred to as hanakago (flower basket) or hanaire (flower container), bamboo baskets traditionally have a clear function in Japan. For centuries, they have played an integral and cherished role in the formal tea ceremony, prized for both their aesthetic qualities and their utilitarian functions. The beginnings of a conceptual shift occurred in the 1950s, when some bamboo artists choose to emphasize self-expression over utility. As evidenced by the thirty-six objects making up Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Arts, a 2004 exhibition organized by the VACR and curated by Robert Coffland, certain practitioners today readily embrace experimentation in free-form works that synthesize Eastern traditions with an array of contemporary influences; others continue to reinterpret traditional aspects of bamboo basketry with exquisite results.3

Oita Prefecture was also home to Shono Shounsai (1904–1974), Japan’s first Living National Treasure in the bamboo arts and perhaps the most influential advocate of artistic experimentation within the field during the mid-20th century. A statement from a 1957 exhibition catalogue sums up Shounsai’s iconoclastic approach: “Putting aside the pros and cons of the definition of crafts, namely ‘function and beauty,’ in what might be called a sculptural experiment, I sought the purity of beauty shared with painting and sculpture in the forms and the contents. Through my own sensibilities and the beauty of the material, plus my technical skills, I played the bamboo, creating an emphatic tempestuous wave motif rather than a delicate rhythm.”4 Kawashima reveres and is inspired by this master’s superlative example above all others; without it, he says, a path for making contemporary sculpture in bamboo would now not exist.

Kawashima remained in Beppu for another seven years, running a studio, teaching part-time at the academy, and producing multiple numbers of various types of baskets for the regional wholesale market. He describes his bamboo work during this period as existing well within the confines of tradition, but emphasizes that it was also shaped by a nascent sense of experimentation stemming from his curiosity about what might be possible with the material beyond established forms and techniques.

An only child, Kawashima returned to Tokyo in the mid-1980s to live closer to his parents, eventually settling in the nearby city of Kanagawa where studio space was more affordable. At this point, residing apart from the influence of other basket-makers and intent on exploring the sculptural possibilities of bamboo, he elected to work as an independent artist rather than follow the more typical course of seeking a position in a professional craft-arts organization. Although Kawashima was soon exhibiting one-of-a-kind pieces in group shows at area galleries, he nevertheless maintained his production of functional baskets for its steady income, which he supplemented by teaching traditional basket-making at an art center in Tokyo. He continues to teach there today and periodically provides private lessons in his studio for advanced students. While Kawashima currently focuses almost exclusively on his sculpture, he still accepts an occasional flower-basket commission.

Large-scale sculpture lured Kawashima early on. To gain confidence, initially he tested his ideas in miniature versions. The intricately constructed maquettes that he now assembles with incredibly slender strips of bamboo and a multitude of tiny, lacelike cotton-thread knots make up a significant part of his output and are avidly collected, especially in the U.S. Occasionally, they still serve as models for monumental renditions. In other instances, Kawashima explains, largescale projects will inspire him to make something small. Then there is the role of improvisation and the making of a form that exists independently from any other endeavor. As a complement to his on-site project, this exhibition includes eleven recent examples representative of the artist’s expanding repertoire of sculptural forms.

In 1992, working from a maquette created two years earlier, Kawashima built his first large-scale bamboo sculpture in the outdoor courtyard of Tokyo’s Plaza Gallery. His tightly-plaited twostoried Dream Tower resembled a steep, craggy mountain, though the artist notes that it was inspired by traditional basketry forms, but turned upside down. He has since utilized a range of natural and urban settings in Japan, where his sculptures are anchored to, and sometimes float above, the landscape for their often brief lives. Characterized by curvilinear organic forms and dramatic surfaces, these unprecedented monumental bamboo works have recently led to several site commissions in this country, beginning in 2002 with a 27-foot-wide gracefully curving arch constructed on the grounds of the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California.

With his project at the VACR, Kawashima tackled the challenge of creating his first large-scale sculpture indoors. As he observed, the three-dimensional frame created by the gallery walls, floor, and ceiling presents formal concerns quite different from those encountered when working outdoors, where the finished piece exists as part of the landscape. Consequently, he gave more consideration than usual to the scale of the piece in relation to the surrounding space. What configuration, he asked, would elicit a response sparked by evocative aspects of the work besides physical size, while also achieving his primary goal of engaging the viewer’s curiosity at first glance?

Once on site, Kawashima refined his preliminary drawing, conceived months earlier with the help of a gallery plan and digital photographs. Using bamboo strips split from fresh-cut 20-footlong poles, he established the basic contours of the sculpture in an adjacent workspace. Slight adjustments to the form’s size and shape also facilitated its move into the gallery a few days later, helping to answer a question that had not yet been addressed: Would we be able to relocate the piece at the exhibition’s conclusion, or would we have to disassemble it in order to remove it from the gallery?

In both his small and large-scale sculptures, Kawashima has adapted traditional methods of weaving and interlacing bamboo to materialize forms new to the medium. This process, extending over several days, became increasingly difficult as the sculpture progressed, requiring the strength of three people to push and pull each long strip into place for the more complicated corkscrew curves. According to Kawashima’s original plan, the resulting 18-foot-long form would have rested on its back, with either end arching upwards like a giant seesaw. Instead, he ultimately decided to stand it upright, preferring the more mysterious presence he felt this position imparted to the piece.

The visual effect of the sculpture’s woven skin and curving interior space is enhanced not only by its final placement but also by the addition of countless black knots, an element Kawashima has incorporated in his work since building a conventional Japanese bamboo fence years ago in which the slats were tied together. Determining how much time and material a project will require for completion remains difficult; in gauging these needs, he always reserves ample time to knot yarn or cord around each of the hundreds of intersections created by overlapping bamboo strips. His remarks suggest that in some respects this labor-intensive procedure constitutes for him the most important part of the entire process.

Kawashima obviously relishes material contrasts of texture and tone, sometimes in a playful or humorous way; but he also relates the knots in his work to a ritual activity that finds many different expressions in Japanese culture, where connecting things by tying them together has special significance in daily life as well as in spiritual concerns. Among other allusions, his expanse of knots evokes the clusters of omikuji, or paper fortunes, so often seen tied to trees at Shinto shrines. Kawashima mentions a phrase signifying the final bout of a sumo tournament, musubi no ichiban, in which tying a knot is used as a metaphor for a climatic or crucial moment. Without this act, he comments, nothing is finished.

Robert Coffland, director of the TAI Gallery in Santa Fe and a specialist on bamboo arts who has traveled widely in Japan for over twenty years, first visited Kawashima in his studio in 1997. It was an experience, he has written, that changed his ideas about the limits and future of bamboo as an artistic medium.5 “While working off of deep traditions,” Coffland noted in a recent conversation, “Kawashima has broken through these boundaries into pure sculptural expression.”6 He has put Shono Shounsai’s example to good use. Relying on his imagination and his longtime experience with material and technique, Kawashima believes that at last he is making work that only he can make.

                                                             —Ashley Kistler
                                                                Curator, Visual Arts Center of Richmond  blackbird bug




1 This quotation and all comments attributed to Kawashima derive from two conversations with the author on May 19 and 23, 2006.

2 See Robert T. Coffland’s introductory essay in Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Arts (Chicago: Art Media Resources, 1999), pp. 7–15.

3 Included in this exhibition was Shigeo Kawashima’s 2001 bamboo sculpture, Bridge Over the Future, on loan from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection.

4 As quoted in Moroyama Masanori, “The Characteristics of the Cotsen Collection and Modern Bamboo Crafts,” in Bamboo Masterworks: Japanese Baskets from the Lloyd Cotsen Collection (Tokyo: Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc., 2003), p. 174.

5 Introductory essay in NAN-O-TUBE (Tokyo: Exhibition Space, Tokyo International Forum, 1999), p. 2.

6 Conversation with the author on May 24, 2006.