Published  15/03/2013

A maturing craft becomes art: Japan Society's Joe Earle discusses the new shape of bamboo

A maturing craft becomes art: Japan Society's Joe Earle discusses the new shape of bamboo

New Bamboo: Contemporary Japanese Masters
4 October 2008-11 January 2009
Japan Society, New York City

The first bamboo basket maker known to have signed his work, Hayakawa Shôkosai, was born in 1815. From his staking claim to an identity as a bamboo artisan, the tradition of working with bamboo followed a steady path to the present day. At this point in its relatively short history, bamboo art is at a pivotal juncture, where contemporary artists are combining traditions and techniques honed by past masters with their own visions. Some adhere more strongly to custom, venturing tentatively into the realm of sculpture, while others are using additional materials, developing new methods and/or completely breaking with certain time-honored codes; for example, omitting the 'mouth' of a piece or the precise finishing of a work.

This fall, the gallery at Japan Society in New York City opened an exhibit of 90 works that predicts an even more exciting future for bamboo arts in Japan and beyond its borders.1 True to its mission, Japan Society and its vice-president and gallery director, Joe Earle, have created, through an astonishingly beautiful display, a dialogue between East and West. As visitors move through the lobby and four gallery rooms, they will discover many opposing forces: tradition and innovation, fragility and strength, rough surfaces and smooth, untreated and adorned materials, bamboo like paper and bamboo like rock. Rather than resolving these tensions, the gallery texts highlight subtle facets of bamboo and the artists who work with it to demonstrate the vibrancy of the form.

All but one of the 23 participating artists, aged 32 to 78 years, are Japanese. New York-based Stephen Talasnik's inclusion seems key and is evident from the start; his sculptures appear in the lobby, seen immediately as one enters the building. Talasnik studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, and at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where he was born, exploring through drawing his interest in architecture and engineering. In 1987, he moved to Tokyo to teach drawing and design at the Temple University Japan. After three years of studying contemporary Japanese architecture and design, Talasnik moved to New York City and began to sculpt, using a process of intuitive invention to draw with wood. For the works in 'New Bamboo', Talasnik combined bamboo with basswood, which comes from a large, quick-growing tree native to eastern and central North America. Basswood is soft, light and used for many wood products. Like bamboo, it is functional and beautiful, comfortably bridging craft and art. Talasnik's sculptures dialogue with Kawana Tetsunori's specially commissioned split-bamboo kakoi (enclosure). Evoking the protective space of the Japanese tea ceremony, the kakoi provides roots in ceremony, while Talasnik's sculptures span East to West and connect past to present.

Bamboo products have become so common in Asia and abroad that it is difficult to believe that the history of Japanese bamboo arts extends, approximately, a mere 150 years. Once readily available throughout Asia, including Japan, bamboo has been used for thatched roofs, insulation, fences, cups, brooms and brushes, musical instruments, religious objects and, of course, baskets. In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Earle notes that some of the lacquer, ceramics and metalwork craft dynasties date to the medieval period.2 Like many art forms with lengthier lineages, though, early bamboo baskets were strongly influenced by Chinese examples. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japanese basket makers modelled their practice and production on Chinese or medieval Japanese baskets made for practitioners of particular customs, such as the sencha (steeped green tea) and matcha (powdered green tea) ceremonies. Techniques passed from generation to generation, from master to live-in apprentice, who learned by observation. Styles of basketry evolved in three key geographic regions, rather than urban centres: Western Japan, centred in Osaka and Kyoto; Eastern Japan, centred in Tochigi, Niigata and Tokyo prefectures; and in the Ôita prefecture of Kyushu. The period of apprenticeship did and still can, commonly, extend for a decade, with students spending many subsequent years perfecting time-consuming techniques that, even today, defy division of labour and mass production. Most of a professional basket maker's life is spent crafting baskets for flowers, tea ceremonies and daily life (furniture, lampshades, mats and shades, storage and carrying vessels); he or she does not reach maturity as an artist until middle age.

During the 1950s, the flagging post-war bamboo industry received a boost from the establishment of the Nihon Kôgei Kai (Japan Craft Association) and the opening in 1955 of the Nihon Dentô Kôgei Ten (Japan Craft Arts Exhibition).3 Championing beauty in functional form and advanced technical skill, the directors have worked with Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs to designate certain craftspeople as 'Living National Treasures'. Such figures are touchstones for future generations of artisans. A number of revered bamboo masters have been given this designation (Iizuka Rôkansai and Shôno Shôunsai, for example), and some of the artists in 'New Bamboo' have either trained with them or take them as inspiration.

Another exhibiting organisation, the Nitten (Japan Fine Arts Exhibition), has accepted bamboo artists who, the society judges, make works of craft art rather than functional objects. The evidence provided by 'New Bamboo' proves that such clear distinctions between art and craft cannot be drawn; yet affiliation with one of these two exhibiting societies has helped many bamboo artists to continue their practice. But some artists have chosen to work independently, and a few have garnered an audience of admirers and collectors, as well as commissions, outside Japan.

While today there are fewer than a hundred working bamboo artisans in Japan, changes and trends in the field during the past decade indicate a flourishing celebrated in a few notable exhibitions prior to 'New Bamboo'.4 In August 2006, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opened 'Beyond Basketry: Japanese Bamboo Art', curated by Earle. The next year, the traveling exhibition 'Masters of Bamboo: Japanese Baskets and Sculpture' in the Cotsen Collection displayed approximately 900 pieces donated in 2001 to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco by Lloyd L. Cotsen. A former CEO and chairman of Neutrogena Corp., Cotsen spent 40 years acquiring baskets dating from the Edo period (1615-1868) to 2000. 'New Bamboo' is, perhaps, both the culmination of a rapidly rising tide and the beginning of an exciting renaissance in bamboo art.

Studio International spoke with Earle about bamboo arts in Japan, participating artists in 'New Bamboo', foundational practices and contemporary trends, and the gallery he now directs. Earle joined Japan Society in September 2007 just as the society marked the hundredth anniversary of its founding with a year-long celebration featuring films, music, dance, educational programmes and other events. Following this auspicious start, Earle took on 'New Bamboo' as curator and catalogue author.5 An expert on Asian art, Earle graduated from Oxford University. In 1974, he joined the Far Eastern Department of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum; a decade later, he was appointed Keeper of the Far Eastern Department and, in 1987, was named the V&A's first head of public affairs. His many credits include consultant to the 1991 Japan Festival in the UK; curator of exhibits in the UK, Japan, USA and Europe; first chair of the Department of Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and numerous publications as writer or editor.

Cindi Di Marzo: Thank you for speaking with Studio International about 'New Bamboo', Mr. Earle. Congratulations to you and Japan Society on an elegant and truly surprising show. Certainly, the artists you chose to represent are pushing the limits of bamboo arts, moving from 'container to sculpture', as you put it in your press materials. Can you identity a few foundational qualities that link such varied practices?

Joe Earle: I think, first of all, we need to remember the craft training and discipline that backs up all this new creativity. In his recent book, The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes of the 10,000 hours or so of practice needed to get a solid grounding in any craft.6 Sennett is writing mainly in Western terms, of course, and I wonder how those approximately five years of grunt work would look to a Japanese master or disciple. Not enough, I suspect! As you have said yourself, bamboo artists - and this is equally true of lacquerers, potters, etc - aren't generally regarded as mature until middle age. Maybe that's more like 60,000 hours in! There is this enduring belief among practitioners of traditional crafts that full maturity is virtually a lifelong task. Again, in terms of practice, another link between all of the artists is the huge importance attached to preparation of materials, so much so that in the case of bamboo, getting the strips ready for weaving (or whatever other technique is to be employed) is said to take 80 per cent of the time needed. Especially in the case of bamboo, because it grows so easily and quickly, many artists not only cultivate their own - choosing the best sites in terms of aspect, rainfall, etc - but harvest, season and treat the bamboo themselves. Those are some foundational qualities: deep training, intimacy with the material and, I think, until recently, a reluctance to move on to sculptural forms before traditional, or even non-traditional, vessel forms have been fully assimilated. At all events, you see very few techniques in the sculptures that you don't see in the containers. Nakatomi Hajime's non-woven geometric constructions are perhaps the most striking exception to this generalisation.

CDM: The town of Beppu on Kyushu, Japan's southern most main island, attracts visitors to its hot springs, but it is also known for the fine-quality bamboo objects fashioned there. The government-sponsored Beppu Occupational School attracts students, young and older, from across the country to learn the techniques of the masters. A number of artists in 'New Bamboo' have attended the school, but some also pursue the traditional master-apprentice relationship? Can you describe this relationship and its role in contemporary makers' lives?

JE: Although the master-pupil relationship is something of a private matter, I think we can detect a few developing trends. Let's look at a few specific examples. Bamboo artist Shôno Tokuzô mentioned that his living national treasure father, Shôno Shôunsai, never really taught him anything directly, except maybe what he called the iroha (ABC) of bamboo. Aside from watching his father work, Tokuzô mainly benefitted from being encouraged to think about creativity rather than just technique; in addition, he was encouraged to attend art school and get exposure to global trends in art. You can see the difference if you compare his work with that of Yamaguchi Ryûun, who was not a relative of Shôunsai but was his uchi-deshi (inside pupil) and was thus exposed to the master's work for much longer and more thoroughly. Some of Yamaguchi's pieces actually look like Shôunsai's pioneering sculptures of the 1950s, something one couldn't say of Tokuzô's work. The case of Tanabe Chikuunsai III and his son, the soon-to-be Tanabe Chikuunsai IV, is a little bit different. Shôchiku III, as he is known for the time being, started very young; he can recall cutting his finger on a bamboo knife at the age of three, I think it was. But like Tokuzô, he was encouraged to attend art school. In his case, this means that he works in two modes: a modified form of the very intricately woven flower baskets that made the Tanabe family name in the city of Sakai about a century ago, and a completely different sculptural basketry that shares some characteristics with the work of other weavers, not just in bamboo but other tree products, around the world today. Actually, it looks as though at an official level he is more prized for his craft skills, since he just told me that the Imperial Household Agency recently asked him to revive the art of weaving in kudzu so that he can make the necessary utensils for the next renewal of the Ise Grand Shrine.7 Honda Shôryû, a Beppu artist I greatly admire for his utterly original approach to making sculpture out of bamboo, has a quite different approach to teaching, as we can see from his two disciples in the show, Nakatomi Hajime and Mimura Chikuhô. That word 'disciple' doesn't sit well with Honda. I think 'student' has less of a traditional feel to it. You can't really see any visual link between teacher and student, you can just sense that, like post-war ceramic genius Yagi Kazuo, Honda has taught the two younger men to think creatively and originally about their material. To give just one more example, Ôki Toshie was surprised to find herself accepted as disciple - in this case, the word is apt - by no less a master than Iizuka Shôkansai, doyen of the east-Japan basketry world, and perhaps even more surprised at the activist stance he adopted in passing on his skills, probably because he was so conscious of his own mortality. After Shôkansai's death, Ôki spent a few years creating absolutely beautiful, minutely worked flower containers and trays in the Iizuka tradition, so there's no doubt that she absorbed the craft skills and style, but in a sense it took this exhibition to persuade her to try something completely new. I like the way she calls the resulting piece 'Outburst', because it really does look like a vessel turning itself into a container.

CDM: For more than 50 years, admittance to one of the art or craft exhibitions has been critical to the success of bamboo artists. Can you explain the distinctions between these societies? What are the advantages of association, and how do artists who are not associated with one of them advance their careers?

JE: It's probably unwise to generalise too much about the two associations you introduced so succinctly above. The craft group has always been a bit undecided about 'tradition'. I was interested to be reminded the other day that the word was omitted from their exhibition title in 1958, due to a factional struggle, only to be reinstated the next year. And it's remained there ever since! Also, there is some fuzziness about what constitutes 'functionality', which is a supposed requirement for inclusion in their shows. On the other hand, no one can deny that the Nitten isn't exactly the hottest ticket in town when it opens every year, so even if you get included there it may not constitute much of a breakthrough, and the context, in terms of other media like painting, sculpture and so on, isn't exactly inspiring. Since most of the work in the show is of a kind that is hardly collected in Japan at all and is mainly acquired by Americans, for this particular group of artists, at least when they work in sculptural mode, the official exhibitions are likely more valuable symbolically than economically.

CDM: Bamboo cultivation has become rare in Japan. Since land for development is in short supply, it is sought and valued for residential and commercial use, and less costly bamboo objects can be imported from China. Has this situation provided a greater impetus for bamboo artists to explore sculpture?

JE: Probably not. There is still a market in Japan for high-quality basketry for the tea ceremony and other decorative uses, and nothing from China is going to fill that niche. Many of our sculptors also produce container forms, so sculpture is an additional opportunity, not a replacement. By the way, I was pleased to see a TV program last Monday, just as I was leaving Japan, that such commercial pressures as the cost of imports and fuel, in the long term, are forcing a reconsideration of the way Japan's vast forested areas are used. They're using GPS [Global Positioning System] to figure out who owns what, which is a big problem with an aging population moving away from the land, being more systematic about thinning, and so on. Anything that benefits regular forests is likely to benefit bamboo as well.

CDM: While bamboo artists do not, typically, cultivate and harvest bamboo, some of those in the show are doing so for various reasons, as an ecological statement, perhaps, or to better understand their materials. What motivations and insights have they shared with you?

JE: In the case of the Shôno family - father and now son - it has everything to do with understanding the materials, selecting the very best, deploying their very own de-oiling method, keeping things completely under their control. The resulting quality of colour and finish, particularly the contrast in tone between the inside and outside of the strips once they're split and smoothed, plays a big part in the way they plan and execute their sculptures. In the case of Ueno Masao, tucked away high up in the Bôsô peninsula, quality considerations play a part but I think the 'green' component is very much there, too, and reflects lessons he learned while touring rural south-east Asia about the benefits of 'kankyô ni yasashii', a term that translates as 'being easy on the environment'. Although that phrase is now almost no more than a marketing slogan used by big corporations, it does speak to a concern shared by many Japanese and not just bamboo artists.

CDM: Matsumoto Hafû's 'Outsize Flower Basket' (2006), made with madake, the most commonly used variety of bamboo, opens the show, displayed with and without flowers to, at various times, emphasise its roles as basket and sculpture. Inspired by a seminal work made in the 1950s by Iizuka Rôkansai, Matsumoto's basket celebrates a pivotal moment in his lineage. Rôkansai is considered to be the most influential 20th-century bamboo artist and one of the first to experiment with bamboo's sculptural possibilities. Why was Rôkansai's work groundbreaking? How has his legacy affected future generations?

JE: A friend in Japan compared Rôkansai to J.S. Bach, in contrast to other artists who were more like Mozart or Beethoven. His early work is just so perfect, understated perhaps, balanced, atmospheric in the same way as a Japanese Nanga, or Chinese 'literati' style, ink painting. For such an artist to move on to bamboo that was pounded flat instead of being carefully split and then use that new material to make such a bold, quasi-sculptural form was a big step, maybe like a jump from Bach to Stravinsky! Most likely Rôkansai, like Shôunsai in Ôita, who also pioneered sculptural form, was also responding to the success that Kyoto ceramic artists had already experienced in making the move from functionality to non-functionality.

CDM: Many masters have considered the 'mouth' of a piece its soul, a sacred and elemental part of any work. Yamaguchi Ryûun's madake and rattan 'Fire' (2006) and Shôno Tokuzô's madake, rattan and steel 'Illusion' do not have a mouth. When I saw them, I felt that they are radical, even more so than Ikeda Iwao's madake, red and black lacquer series, 'Destruction and Creation' (2005-06), which literally explodes the notion of 'container'. From incorporating additional materials to subverting weaving and plaiting techniques to imbuing sculptures with overt sexual imagery, contemporary artists have burst the seams of tradition. What do you see as the most radical innovations?

JE: If you mean which ones have the potential to move furthest from tradition then we need to look at the younger artists. The senior artists will go on producing great work, but with one or two exceptions I don't see any big changes of direction. That mostly means a small group working in and around Beppu. I've already mentioned Nakatomi Hajime, who has a kind of 'anti-weaving' manifesto to fulfill and has said himself that he doesn't know where this will take him, but he is already making radical innovations. Morigami Jin's sculptures use one of the most basic of worldwide plaiting patterns - the hexagonal, or mutsume - but works in three directions at once. That's radical in itself, as is the fact that in his pieces there is absolutely no visible beginning or end to the weaving. I think it's likely he'll do something very different with this technique in years to come. And, lastly, I wouldn't underestimate the potential of Ôki Toshie to move a long way from Outburst; that's just a first tentative step away from container making.

CDM: Fashioning bamboo baskets and sculptures involves painstaking, time-consuming work. Much of this production takes place outside urban areas. Uematsu Chikuyû, whose sculptures exemplify the painstaking and introspective nature of bamboo art, lives in Tokyo. After graduating in 1975 from the Beppu Occupational School, he made classically styled flower vases. About 1990, he decided to focus on one large sculptural work each year. It seems that with this decision, Chikuyû crossed a membrane through which other artists travel back and forth between art and craft. Yet, his works remain meticulously crafted. For the show, you placed his works in one space on their own. Where does his work fit within the scope of the exhibit and within the realm of contemporary bamboo art?

JE: Partly we took the decision to devote our coincidentally but appropriately named 'Bamboo Room' to Uematsu because Bill Clark [editor's note: Willard 'Bill' Clark of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, California] generously agreed to make Japan Society the first venue in the US for a major display of the Uematsu collection he's built up in recent years. Also, as a simple display matter, most of Uematsu's work is wall-mounted and that makes the room suitable, too. But he does stand out from the crowd in terms of scale, extra-uncompromising pursuit of technical perfection, and Olympian detachment from the ebb and flow of fashion or, more specifically, the American market for bamboo sculpture. He is something truly special, as the gasps of astonishment from our audience attest.

CDM: Two women participate in your show. Tanabe Mitsuko's sculptures are bold and compelling. Her 'Life in the Jômon Era', made of kurochiku, a dark bamboo ranging in colour from green to purplish black, references an ancient earthenware fertility goddess figurine, one of the earliest types of Japanese ceramics, and 'Cappadocia', constructed of torachiku, a speckled variety of bamboo, pays homage to Christian churches and monasteries in eastern Turkey. A stark contrast to Mitsuko's rock-like forms is Ôki Toshie's first steps from basket making to her madake and rattan sculpture, 'Outburst' (2008), about which you previously commented. Is this number representative of the percentage of women practicing bamboo arts in Japan?

JE: Yes.

CDM: Stephen Talasnik's inclusion in 'New Bamboo' is provocative. You displayed him in the lobby along with Kawana Tetsunori's kakoi. The interaction between these artist's sculptures creates a perfect harmony of disparate forms, materials, techniques and moods. How did you select Talasnik? What is your intention in bringing him into 'New Bamboo' and making his works first among those seen?

JE: Japan Society tries to introduce an international element into much of its programming and to avoid an old-fashioned essentialist approach to Japanese culture. And, to be frank, Stephen got in touch with me very early on in my tenure here and I had a great studio visit with him, without having originally thought of including an American artist in the show. As it happens, he is one of the few non-Japanese doing anything serious with bamboo these days, so it just seemed a natural fit, and I selected our lobby to show his work as it is a site of dialogue and exchange.

CDM: A few of the artists in 'New Bamboo' have exhibited extensively in the West, with some receiving commissions for large-scale works. For instance, Kawashima Shigeo produces large outdoor sculptural installations and miniature indoor versions, as seen in your show. His sculptures can be found in Japan, Europe and the US, most recently at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. How has interaction with the West affected bamboo arts within Japan? Are many artists looking for opportunities to make an impact abroad?

JE: I think that all, or nearly all, the Japanese bamboo artists who have sculptural aspirations are represented in the show.

CDM: For me, the most remarkable aspect of 'New Bamboo' is the textural variety of these sculptures. Nakatomi Hajime's torachiku and rattan 'Prism' series (2007) resembles an interlocking metal puzzle; Kawashima Shigeo's madake and cotton 'Cosmic Ring' (2001) could be a modernist sculpture of machine-era materials; and Nagakura Ken'ichi's madake, lacquer and powdered polishing stone and clay 'Flight' seems to be hewn from rock. What do you hope that visitors remember most about 'New Bamboo'?

JE: I hope they come away with completely different ideas about bamboo, 'craft', 'art' and 'sculpture' than they came in with.

CDM: Since the gallery opened in 1971, when the society moved to its present location near the United Nations, its space has been used to showcase all of the traditional Japanese art forms - woodblock prints, ceramics, medieval manuscripts, swords, No robes and masks, for example - Buddhist and Shinto arts, medieval Zen figure painting, sculpture, photographs, graphic designs for posters and packaging, folk arts, kites, dolls and many other objects and designs drawn from the fine and popular arts.8 Similarly, the roster of upcoming exhibits ranges widely. For example, your next exhibit, opening in March 2009, will feature anime, manga and video games. Following that, you have shows on Japanese tin toys, works from Japan's foremost centre for Outsider Art and patchwork garments made by developmentally challenged adults. It seems as if the sky is the limit. Can you give Studio International readers an inside view of your plans to attract the diverse populations from East and West that live in and visit New York City?

JE: Japan Society has virtually no permanent collection, and I see this as a strength rather than a weakness. The great thing is to take advantage of the freedom that comes with no collection and to avoid becoming a prisoner of any particular interest group. It would be so easy, and so boring, to be just a venue for the crafts, or the cutting-edge contemporary, or ukiyo-e prints, or to operate on a narrow definition of art. When I show people in Japan photos of the tin toys, they all get it immediately and realise that these, too, can be shown as aato (ie, art) and not as shumi, or 'hobbyism'. But we also have much that is more expected, including a contemporary group show that seeks to move New York audiences beyond the critical dominance of Murakami Takashi; an ukiyo-e print show; another on 18th-century Zen painting; and another on the great twentieth-century textile artist Serizawa Keisuke. Even though it is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to mount loan shows of Japanese painting from before about 1850, we plan to do just that in 2012 with a major exhibition of the Rinpa decorative painting tradition. Japan - past, present, future - has this incredibly rich visual culture. All we have to do is keep a Zen-like open mind!

1. 'New Bamboo' opened at Japan Society on 4 October 2008 and closes on 11 January 2009. The show then travels to the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture in Hanford, California, where it will be on view from 17 February until 9 May 2009.
2. A 128-page, full-colour catalogue, written by Earle and available from Japan Society (, includes a historical and contextual essay, reproductions of 88 of 90 works in the show and a glossary of bamboos used by contemporary makers and their predecessors.
3. The first craft association, the Nihon Kôgei Bijutsu Kai, was established in 1926. Two years later, the Imperial Arts Exhibition established a 'craft art' section, the forerunner of the modern craft industry in the country.
4. According to the TAI Gallery website (, co-owned by collector, dealer and scholar Robert T. Coffland and his wife, Mary Hunt Kahlenberg. Located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, TAI is the only gallery in the USA or Europe to show and sell museum-quality bamboo art. For Japan Society's 'New Bamboo' exhibit, Coffland participated in an evening talk with curator and gallery director Earle.
5. Prior to his appointment, Earle contributed to two shows at Japan Society as curator of Contemporary Clay (29 September 2006-21 January 2007) and co-curator of The Genius of Japanese Lacquer: Masterworks by Shibata Zeshin (21 March-15 June 2008), a travelling exhibit originally organised by the San Antonio Museum of Art in San Antonio, Texas. To read Studio International's review of Contemporary Clay, go to:
6. Published by Yale University Press in March 2008, The Craftsman is the first of three volumes exploring material culture and how the making of things reflects human beings, their lives and their aspirations.
7. Kudzu is a climbing, deciduous vine native to Asia.
8. To read Studio International's review of the exhibition catalogue for Awakenings: Zen Figure Paintings in Medieval Japan, go to:

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