Ikebana with a samurai swagger
Japanese designer Tetsunori Kawana travels across artistic disciplines as easily as he does the borders of countries. His work embraces flower arranging, sculpture, stage design, and installation art, using natural materials in unexpected ways.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Kawana stands on the shoulders of past innovative masters of ikebana, the traditional Japanese art of arranging flowers, and he has carved a niche for himself as a sought-after designer, lecturer, and teacher. Television viewers of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, saw his staging for Japan's segment of the closing ceremonies that looked ahead to Nagano, Japan, as the 1998 winter Olympic site.
In 2006, he designed a temple-like space of soaring bamboo poles outside Moscow's National Museum of Russian Fine Art. Next month, Kawana will build another bamboo structure as part of the Japanese chrysanthemum festival at the New York Botanical Garden, where he teaches several classes each year.
"He has a powerful, unique voice," says Peter Grilli, president of the Japan Society of Boston. "The moment you say 'flower arranging,' people think small-scale and decorative. But he thinks of flowers as sculptural instruments; he's thinking on a different scale."
Ikebana today is taught as a domestic art, although it comes down through centuries of Japanese culture as the prerogative of Buddhist monks and sword-wielding samurai. To call it "flower arranging" is a bit of a misnomer, as ikebana teaches appreciation for all parts of a plant and every stage of its life, from early budding to withered stem. Ikebana is practiced as a spiritual philosophy, a way of understanding nature without copying it.
"Natural materials already exist perfectly. I'm just the actor upon them," says Kawana in a phone interview. "I respect and cherish the materials, but I also challenge them. Otherwise, it wouldn't be worth it to move them."
An installation Kawana composed for the 2005 New England Spring Flower Show, for which he was awarded a blue ribbon, offers an example of this philosophy. In the cavernous space of the Bayside Expo Center, a halo of bare tree limbs, suspended by cables from the ceiling, hovered over a 20-foot-long arrangement of driftwood and branches of camellia, forsythia, and flowering quince. The heavy limbs overhead gave a feeling of precariousness that was offset by the calmly balanced flowering branches below. Using the principles of ikebana, Kawana demonstrated the natural cycle of seasonal change, while conveying a poetic message: The specter of winter hangs over the emerging springtime.