No one ever suspects the basket weaver. The practice fits so easily into nursing-home craft circles and pre-industrial agriculture, and doesn’t usually push boundaries.
The woven bamboo works at Tai Gallery, however, do just that, in regard to the craft. Though Tai Gallery hasn’t wielded a full-fledged exhibition since August 2010, focusing instead on the art fair circuit, it has been manning a quiet riot all along. Continually swapping out works by its 50 contemporary Japanese artists, Tai Gallery exposes a strange rift in today’s Japan: the battle of the bamboo. This face-off between conventional and uncustomary weaving unfolds in hushed tones, and no one is backing down.
The traditional weaving creates objects, mostly baskets, that can be used for utilitarian functions—although most people would be hard-pressed to use these baskets for the lowly act of carrying stuff around.
For example, Hirasawa Noboru’s “Ancient Tree” and Hatakeyama Seido’s “Vine” are bamboo baskets so finely wrought they seem more like chic fabric purses—complete with intricate, varied stitching, multiple colors and illustrative embroidery—than anything made of bamboo. Nay, would that Hermès’ Kelly and Birkin bags—the highly coveted and pricey (they start at $6,000) French purses, made-to-order by a single person using just one piece of thread—had such attention to detail.
The nontraditional sculptural pieces are similarly detailed.
The sculptures, which are set among the baskets, often use the same weaving techniques but vary in structure and functionality. They require a bit of imagination (and gentleness) to serve as baskets and, frequently, they abandon the basket idea altogether, ars gratia artis.
Kawashima Shigeo’s “Dancing Stars in Whole Sky” balances, using six support sticks, a rounded Möbius strip of a Milky Way above an oval orb. Unlike his larger installation works, which tower overhead and dazzle the outsides of art museums the world over, the bamboo in this microwave-sized piece is fastened together with cotton ties. The result is a crazed jungle gym, this time too small to crawl inside.
Similarly sculptural, Morigami Jin’s “Galaxy I” looks like a giant boulder with a hole the size and shape of a large can at its center, and with a weave constructed from stars of David. Jin’s “Quiet Ocean” tries to resemble a basket, but its wavy, irregular gossamer weave ought to ward off attempts to put objects of weight inside. It is a basket for looking, not holding.
Yufu Shohaku fans both traditional and sculptural flames. He jettisons the delicate and minuscule for the robust and girthy. In “Drinking at the Time of Fragrant Olives,” he uses thick, dark bamboo to create a gnarled, tree-like piece whose twisted sculptural qualities belie its hollowed-out, utilitarian interior.
All the bamboo works—baskets, sculptures, a mixture of both—are finely wrought with similar materials and techniques, but diverge in function.
Though in some ways they fight against each other, they’re also fighting the same battle. The placement of the sculptural works amid the baskets rescues both by exploding the persistent barrier between art and craft. The useless sculptures, which can only be art, explicate bamboo art, which has long been considered wares instead of works. So perhaps they’re not so useless after all.