Ikebana with a samurai swagger
Tetsunori Kawana's designs rewrite Japanese flower arranging on a massive scale.
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One might think this subtlety would be lost on beginning students, but not so, says Penny Resnick of New Rochelle, N.Y., who took her first two-day workshop with Kawana at the New York Botanical Garden recently. "He taught us how to see these plants as living things. By snipping one branch or leaf, you were into a whole new thing."Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Grilli of the Japan Society says that traditional ikebana schools turn out many excellent practitioners of the art, but arrangements are often derivative of the teacher's work. The rare, sensitive master of ikebana, such as Kawana, is able to transcend the rules and take the art into a different realm.
In this arena, flowers are incidental to the overall design. "A flower is beautiful, but I don't need a sentimental approach," the Japanese artist says. "I welcome flowers, but I'm looking at what beauty really is."
Part of Kawana's uniqueness, says Grilli, is his work in stage design. This gives him a keen awareness of what lies in the background, like subtext in a piece of writing or a painting. Kawana worked with film and opera director Hiroshi Teshigahara on a production of "Turandot" for France's Lyon Opera in 1992. "His mind was so wide," Kawana says of his mentor, Teshigahara, who also led one of Japan's foremost ikebana schools until his passing in 2001.
Although Kawana is deeply grounded in a Japanese sensibility, he is not trapped by it. He says he expects people studying ikebana in other countries to not simply imitate the Japanese style but develop an approach that reflects their own culture.
Kawana's artistic interests are wide-ranging. He finds inspiration in the work of Western contemporary artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Frank Stella, and especially sculptor Richard Serra. He points to the extraordinary power of Mr. Serra's walk-through metal structures, which were displayed recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It's hard to imagine a man of nature finding transcendence in monolithic slabs of steel, but Serra's pieces appealed to Kawana because, like ikebana, they showed the effects of time (in this case, the rusting of metal). The Japanese artist also says Serra's work inspires him to want to build large installations that engage all five of the senses.
Regardless of scale, Kawana's designs restore a samurai-like muscularity to the delicacy of ikebana, giving the traditional art a powerful boost into the 21st century.
• Tetsunori Kawana's next installation can be viewed at the New York Botanical Garden during the exhibition, "Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum," Oct. 20 to Nov. 18. Visit www.nybg.org for more information. Or visit Kawana's website: www.kawana-tetsunori.com
Ikebana: The pastime of monks and shoguns regains popularity
Ikebana in Japanese can be translated as "living flowers." Its origins hark back to the altar displays in Buddhist temples of centuries past: Scroll paintings from as early as AD 800 illustrate the use of flowers placed ceremoniously next to statues of Buddha. The first book on the subject was written in 1445, according to scholars.
The art of ikebana blossomed alongside the tea ceremony and other rituals promoted by Shogun Yoshimasa Ashikaga, a great patron of the arts in the late 15th century. Dozens of formal ikebana styles developed, each with its own set of rules. Flowers also became endowed with specific meaning. For example, the chrysanthemum is considered a symbol of immortality, while bamboo represents endurance.
As the practice of creating floral displays eventually trickled down to average Japanese homes, a dedicated space such as an alcove or niche, called the tokonoma, was used to display the family's hanging scroll, incense burner, statue of Buddha, and a flower arrangement.
Western-style flower arrangements typically emphasize masses of colorful blooms at their peak, but with ikebana, all kinds of natural objects at any stage of growth can be used in a composition: seedpods, fruit, dried stems, moss, vines, and flowering branches, as well as half-open blooms.
In ikebana, the structural elements are primary. As is true of sculpture, "empty" space is as important to the design as the space occupied by flowers.
Today, ikebana is seeing a surge in interest that parallels the popularity of gardening in many countries. Ikebana International, a nonprofit group in Japan dedicated to spreading the art, claims 165 chapters in 60 countries, with 30 states in the US having at least one chapter.
Probably the most popular school of ikebana is Sogetsu, which was founded in 1926 by Sofu Teshigahara and headed by succeeding members of his family.
While still grounded in classical ikebana, this style is more freewheeling and experimental, allowing it to dovetail more easily with contemporary art.
Sogetsu's flexibility gave rise to the ikebana-based sculptures begun by Teshigahara and continued by Tetsunori Kawana, an installation artist and master teacher of Sogetsu ikebana.