Bamboo debut in Washington

March 21, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Hiroshi Teshigahara had not yet arrived, but his presence was keenly felt in the frigid bowels of the Kennedy Center, where last Monday, a platoon of volunteer art students, Japanese carpenters and free-lance stagehands scrubbed, sawed, split and planed four acres' worth of bamboo, hauled to Washington from Georgia in two tractor-trailers.

When the artist, revered in his native Japan and known internationally for his rhythmically powerful sculptures, did arrive later that week, he and assistants would use the prepped bamboo to create two stunning tunnels and a bamboo pavilion in the Kennedy Center's atrium, based on elaborate blueprints completed in Tokyo.

Mr. Teshigahara's environmental sculpture, "enteringartnature," is the focus of this year's Arts of Japan Festival at the Kennedy Center, which will also feature demonstrations of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. (The ikebana demonstrations are sold out.) The festival, which takes place Monday through March 30 and precedes Washington's Cherry Blossom Festival, is supported by a conglomeration of Japanese corporations that form the Japan Endowment of the International Performing Arts Fund of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Last year's festival was titled "The Art of Samurai: Flashing Swords and Fighting Kites." In 1994, the festival's first year, visitors beheld wondrous 40-foot-tall rice paper floats, made in the city of Hirosaki to celebrate the harvest season.

As in such previous displays of Japanese artistry, Mr. Teshigahara's debt to an ancient tradition ikebana is clear in the way he allows bamboo's supple essence to determine the shape and breadth of his creations. In the long, strong, woody stems he sees waterfalls, fields, tunnels and thickets like molecular structures, awash in spring greens and yellows. As with ikebana, architectural space is also a natural consideration for Mr. Teshigahara, who adapts his organic imagery to such stark, geometric environments as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea.

At the same time, his bamboo installations intentionally flout custom.

"Traditional ikebana developed from something only seen from a distance and from one side," Mr. Teshigahara said by way of translated fax. "The concept underneath my work is that I want to break that rule. I want people to experience my work organically, through their whole bodies. Therefore, I make it possible for people to physically walk through and around my work. By passing through my work, different illusions are provoked."

Mr. Teshigahara's works also part with tradition in their spatial and labor requirements. Like his friend, the artist Christo who last summer wrapped the Reichstag, Berlin's once and future parliament building, in silver fabric Mr. Teshigahara thinks big. 00 By necessity and by design, his art is as much about collaboration as it is about results.

And so, before he arrived in Washington, Mr. Teshigahara's staff, students and union stagehands overcame language barriers and the dark, raw climate of the Kennedy Center's loading dock to fulfill the artist's vision. Using ad hoc sign language and elementary English, the Japanese crew and the American crews prepared the bamboo and built large, bamboo dollies for transporting materials to the atrium. They referred to a book of exquisite blueprints that included dimensions for the sculpture's every detail. All notations were in Japanese.

Victoria Kleeschulte, a sculpting student at the Corcoran School of Art, had spent the weekend power-washing and scrubbing the bamboo to rid the long stalks of dirt and fungus. On Monday, she was back for more hard work. "It's like an incredible honor to work on a project like this," she said. "It's been a really harmonious experience working together."

Takashi Mikawa, the master carpenter's assistant from Japan, held a serrated Japanese machete used to cut bamboo. "The American students do a good job," he said.

Upstairs, in the executive suite, Kennedy Center festival manager Shelly Brown and Mikako Aizawa, a project manager for Mr. Teshigahara, updated the complex logistics required to complete the sculpture while staying within budget. Long before construction began, the project demanded the kind of diplomacy and attention to detail usually reserved for international summits.

Additionally, because of a last-minute medical problem, Mr. Teshigahara did not visit the atrium before designing the site-specific sculpture. Instead, he worked strictly from measurements provided by the Kennedy Center and made frequent revisions to accommodate fire exits and other structural limitations.

To assure that all ran smoothly, Ms. Brown, in Washington, and Ms. Aizawa, in Tokyo, communicated daily by fax for nine months before meeting in person. (Each fax was translated into Japanese or English when it arrived.) After Ms. Aizawa finally got to Washington, "I felt like I had met my long-lost friend," Ms. Brown said.

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