Japan is well known for its intricately woven bamboo baskets: Japanese craftsmen and farmers have been plaiting bamboo into practical containers for thousands of years. But as an exhibition at New York's Japan Society shows, a new generation of artists is using the material to create expressive, sculptural works. New Bamboo, which is curated by Joe Earle, shows bamboo which has been bent and twisted into swirling and elegant abstract shapes. The intricate craftsmanship remains, but the objects are no longer simple containers: they are works of art.
'Art bamboo is a relatively new art form,' says Earle. 'Bamboo baskets have existed in Japan since very early times. But the idea of bamboo as an art form is more recent.'
The foundations were laid when bamboo craftsmen began to 'sign' their work in the 19th century, Earle says. 'That's an important marker of artistic status in Japan. But it wasn't until the 20th century that new styles and an aesthetic began to emerge. The past 20 years have been an era of massive growth for the art.'
These new styles and aesthetics are well represented in the exhibition. New Bamboo features more than 90 works in a collection that is surprisingly diverse. Some, such as Hafu Matsumoto's Outsize Flower Basket, still reference bamboo's use for containers. By contrast, works like Kazuaki Honma's Breath 2 and his son Hideaki's Wind Sign IV are flowing, angular designs that exploit the weave and flexibility of the material. Chikuyu Uematsu's sculptures have a scientific complexity, while an untitled sculpture by Jiro Yonezawa is reminiscent of Henry Moore's work. 'The key thing about this exhibition is the many different ways that people have moved from containers to sculpture, without making the sculptures look like containers,' says Earle.
This transition was a quantum leap, Earle says. 'After the second world war, ceramic artists began to make sculptural pieces,' he says. 'Craftsmen working in bamboo followed suit. It was a big leap for them - a moment of liberation.'
Artists featured in the early part of the exhibition came from bamboo-making families, Earle says. 'They did that for a long time, and made enough money not to have to worry too much. So they decided to use their skills to make sculptural bamboo.'
Outsize Flower Basket is one of the few works on display that looks like a container. 'It's on the cusp between art and functionality,' says Earle. 'The work seems like a sculpture, but it can also be used to display flowers. It has a separate copper water basket that can contain a flower arrangement. We had flowers in it to open the show.'
Hodo Yako's works are more abstract. He studied basketry as a teenager, and churned out thousands of bamboo lampshades for Toshiba. His sculptural works are tightly woven, curving constructs that highlight the geometry of the weave. The shapes appear to be influenced by western abstract art, but that's not the case, Earle says.
'[Yako] has never been terribly conscious of, or interested in, western art. His work just comes out of the bamboo-making process, the weaving process,' the curator says.
'He's more influenced by his time spent making lampshades. The quality of the material and the techniques he uses led naturally to these kinds of sculptures.'
Iwao Ikeda's Destruction and Creation doesn't look like a container at all. It's a thrusting wedge of broken bamboo which possesses a strong kinetic energy. 'Ikeda was brought up in a basket-making family, and became a lacquerer. But then he decided to work in a freer way,' Earle says. 'His most recent idea is to make a finished piece, and then smash it. The breakage is not completely random - he takes care over it. It's a rejection of the craft process - a rejection of the cult of perfection.'
Many bamboo artists are not formally trained in art, either western or Japanese. Some, like Tokuzo Shono, did attend art school. Shono's father was the first bamboo artist to be designated a living national treasure, and he sent his son to art school to broaden his creative horizons. Even so, Earle points out, Shono's finishing techniques owe more to tradition than modern art.
Bamboo is not a tree; it's a grass. Its abundance is one reason that it became a popular material for arts and crafts. 'It's readily available,' says Earle. 'But it has to go through a lot of processes before it can be used. If it's processed in the right way, it has a sophisticated finish.'
Artists and craftsmen spend much time preparing the material, the curator says. 'In the gallery, you can see these incredible handwoven pieces. It strikes viewers as an intellectual as well as a handcrafted process. But you are only seeing 20 per cent of what's done. Eighty per cent of the time is actually spent preparing the bamboo.'
Preparing the bamboo is a complex task. 'The artists have to harvest it, and that's normally done between December and February. Then it is dried for 100 days,' Earle says. 'The oils have to be extracted by heating, the outer skin is often peeled off, and the inner skin is stripped away.
'The bamboo is then divided - you can get up to 64 pieces. If it's slit crosswise rather than lengthways, it's very fine, very thin, and it doesn't look like bamboo at all.'
Bamboo art always bears the marks of this long journey, Earle says. 'Sculptors working in ceramics, wood or bronze can conceal all but the last stage of their creative process,' he says. 'But the bamboo artist must reveal all. Looking carefully at a bamboo sculpture, we can trace - or at least try to trace - nearly the entire journey from original concept to finished product.'
New Bamboo, Japan Society Gallery, on view until January 11, 2009. 333 East 47th Street, New York