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.
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.
Life and beauty are transitory, Kawana says. His work serves to concentrate that life and beauty in an ikebana arrangement or installation, but "it is for that time and place only," he says. As a result, the artist's work survives largely in photographs or in the memories of his audience, a fact that seems entirely appropriate to him.
In teaching, Kawana tells his students to choose their material not only by the outer appearance of the plant but also by its inner life, the "energy" it emits. He considers cut flowers and branches as living forms. Any arranger who discerns the plant's energy and growth pattern will be guided in using the flower or branch effectively, he says.
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."
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