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Were you to consider the philosophy at the core of ikebana, grounded as it is in Japan’s ancient polytheism and its Buddhist traditions, you might find an art that can expand your appreciation of beauty. Who wouldn’t, in this age or any other, want to find beauty where you hadn’t seen it before? According to one of Japan’s most influential modern ikebana practitioners, Toshiro Kawase, that is precisely the point: to see that “the whole universe is contained within a single flower” — for one small thing to open our minds to so much more.
Ikebana originated with temple worship. Today it is practiced widely in Japan and across the globe. There are many schools of Ikebana. The most widely known schools in the US are Ichiyo, Ikenobo, Ohara, and Sogetsu. Each school has its own emphasis or approach to flower arranging.
Kado (the historical art of flower arrangement) in Japan is said to have originated around the fourteenth century. Rooted in Buddhist practice, it was adopted by the nobility as a leisure activity. Like many traditional Japanese arts—Noh, Kabuki theater, instrumental music and calligraphy—kado spawned many schools, or ryu-ha, each with its own master and distinct style. Sogetsu was one of these.
Sogetsu Ikebana School was founded by Sōfu Teshigahara in 1927 as a school of ikebana flower arranging. He believed that Ikebana is an art and that the difference between the Sogetsu School and traditional Ikebana lies in the belief that once all the rules are learned and the techniques mastered, an unbounded field remains for freer personal expression using varied materials, not just flowers.
Sofu's father was an Ikebana master, who taught his son from childhood. Sofu wanted to become a painter, but he found that the possibilities for creative expression in using green materials are endless, just as in painting. He found that the strict rules of traditional ikebana did not allow individual expression and broke away from traditional ikebana and formed his school in 1926.
“THEY SEEK FREEDOM OF SPACE
AND SPREAD THEIR WINGS IN NATURES MIDST
IF THE LIVES OF HUMAN BEINGS ARE UNCEASING SPIRITUAL JOURNEYS
THEN THESE WORKS OF ART GIVE THE BEAUTIFUL LIFE FORCE IN OUR HEARTS THE COURAGE TO GO ON. “
The Sogetsu school is an open-minded and avant-gardist school and was one of the first to have English textbooks. A famous saying by Sofu Teshigahara and credo of the Sogetsu school is that Sogetsu can be done by anyone, anywhere, anytime with any kind of material.
Sogetsu typically uses either a tall, narrow vase such as one made from a bamboo stem, or a flat, open dish called a suiban in which the flowers and branches are fixed in a hidden spiked kenzan. However, other forms are possible, including highly elaborate creations that fill an entire hall. The arrangements in a tall vase are called Nageire, the ones in a shallow container are called Moribana. One of Sogetsu's central ideas is that an arrangement should have three strong elements, each with certain proportions and arranged at a certain angle. But there is considerable latitude to work with whatever materials are available and to express the spirit of the moment.
In 1929 he held the first Sogetsu exhibition at Ginza, in 1930 at the Josui Kaikan in Tokyo working with scrap metal, a new medium. In 1949 the first major post-war Sogetsu exhibition was held at the Mitsukoshi Department Store in Ginza and proved to be revolutionary. Between 1950 and 1970, he held exhibitions and demonstrations across Europe and the United States.
Sofu never deviated from the basic principles that distinguish Ikebana from other forms of floral art: to grasp and express the feeling of the material, to express the third dimension and asymmetrical balance. The concept that was foremost in his teaching was that the principles never change, but rather that the form is always changing. His further belief was that Ikebana should be considered art, not merely decoration and that it is for the entire world, not just Japan alone. In addition to Ikebana, he continued to create various sculptures, drawings and works of calligraphy until his death.
When the Sogetsu Art Center was founded in 1958, Sofu’s son, Teshigahara Hiroshi, who would later be known as an avant-garde filmmaker, became its director. When Sofu opened the new Sogetsu Kaikan, a new building for the Sogetsu school in the Akasaka area (across from the imperial crown prince’s residence), he gave Hiroshi office space for SAC administration and permission to use the concert/lecture hall with moveable seats. Among Tokyo’s young artists, it quickly became known as a center for creative collaborations by the city’s foremost experimenters.
The building was designed by Kenzo Tange and included a concert hall, a recording and electronic music studio, film projectors, and a custom-made vermillion red Bosendorfer piano, which had a distinct aerodynamic shape that was closer to a retro-futuristic spaceship than the classic nineteenth-century grand piano. One of only three pianos of this design, it was custom-ordered especially for the hall. Inside, the design of the concert hall and the lounge spaces was magnificent yet sleek and modern.
"The centre is devoted to ikebana, the traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement....The offices and a lounge are on the first floor, while the classrooms for the teaching of ikebana are on the second. The sculpture garden can be converted into an open-air theatre, and sculptures can be exhibited in the terrace-garden. Some of the facades are clad in ceramic tiles, while the others are of concrete. In addition to the work of Japanese artists there are pieces by Mathieu, Sam Francis, Léger and Miró." — Udo Kultermann. Kenzo Tange: Works and Projects
As an institution with a concert hall, exhibition space, recording studio, custom-made Bosendorfer piano, administrative staff, and its own journal, the SAC provided small and often loosely structured collectives with favorable conditions for the creation of artistic and social networks. It was especially significant for the history of experimental music in Japan: with a stage and auditorium rather than a gallery as the central space for gatherings at the SAC, music and musicians occupied central places in the programming, particularly during the first half of SAC activity, between 1960 and 1964. Throughout the entire duration of the SAC, film programs were the most consistent and longest-running events.
Kudō Tetsumi Kudō was a Japanese artist associated with the Neo-Dada tradition. While intimately bound to the techniques and styles of the avant-garde in Europe and Japan, Tetsumi Kudō distanced himself from them by giving his work a satirical edge. This was not simply to mock his fellow artists, but to draw the logic of their work in directions that they would have found unsettling. In Kudō’s work, satire functions as both an analytical method and a means of organizing artistic production. His work was consistently cultivated by his milieu and polluted by the trends of the avant-garde. Pollution and cultivation could then be exaggerated into forming objects, the symbolic implications of which placed his work in a heretical position vis a vis the aesthetic and political prejudices of his peers. “While many artists dream of the sky (utopia), this artist turns toward hell, even crossing its threshold,” Kudō claimed for himself.
Tetsumi Kudo is an unlikely guide to the mysteries of Japan's post-World War II character. An avant-gardist who achieved notoriety in Europe and Japan during the 1960s and '70s, he died in 1990 and is remembered primarily for experimental paintings, sculpture and performances dominated by dismembered body parts, fake flowers and slimy things in Day-Glo bird cages.
Tetsumi Kudo studied at the Tokyo University of the Arts, where he much later became a teacher, in spite of his reputation as a genuine agitator. He has been one of the leaders of the Anti-Art movement, and the notion of Anti-Art even seems to have been first formulated in reference to one of his works. The adepts of Anti-Art rejected the expressionist abstractions dominant in the 1950s. But the movement also corresponded to the need of the youth, who had grown up in the aftermath of the war, to engage in political and social questions.
In 1960-1961, Kudō started his creations of Philosophy of Impotence, a harsh condemnation of Japanese conservatism. More generally, the artist denounced the lack of communication between human beings and the destroying power of industry. In 1962, he left Japan for France, then presented several quite virulent performances. A French art critic described him as “Objecteurs – a person who makes objections / a person who makes objects”, questioning the relations between art and reality or the obsolescence of traditional artistic tools. Kudō presented himself as an observer and analyst of contemporary society, and considered his works as “communication tools”, as media to deliver his messages. He praised ecology to counteract the damages of nuclear power, pollution and human alienation. He denounced sexual taboos and the Occidental false humanism. Kudo repeatedly evoked death (of man as of art) and destruction. But he never allowed himself to fall into absolute pessimism, and put his hopes in the emergence of a new ecology, of a new humanism.
Kudō's titles, which he called "one-line essays," are nearly as stunning and suggestive as his works. Often written in French or English (or a combination of the two) without a Japanese equivalent, they include epic constructions like Distribution Map of Impotence and the Appearance of Protective Domes at the Points of Saturation; Human Bonsai -- Freedom of Deformity -- Deformity of Freedom; Wandering Jomon Spermatozoids under the Yamanaka Sky; and The Structure of the Jomon Period = The Structure of the Emperor System = The Structure of Contemporary Japan (On the Structure of the Emperor System -- The Sacred Black Hole).
Kudō's art is metaphorically laced with all the big troubles that afflicted his homeland in the second half of the 20th century -- the horrors of the war, the socio-political traumas of defeat, the environmental degradation caused by rapacious industrialization, the spiritual alienation of individuals adrift in a world bereft of god(s). His meticulous micro-environments combine industrial materials and everyday objects that suggest the threats posed by nuclear energy and technology. The sculpture from a group of works known as “Pollution–Cultivation–New Ecology” features depictions of human organs painted in fluorescent colors and insects entangled in electrical cables and wires on a circuit board, all covered by a layer of dried-up soil and discolored plastic flowers in a state of near ruin.
Like the homeland he left behind, Kudō was full of contradictions, a somber critic of human frailty and failure and yet a bemused modernist who gleefully embraced the gaudy flotsam of contemporary life. More radically than simply de-centring the function of human beings in the circuit of nature-technology, Kudō’s work undermined the claims of phenomenological thought to ascertain reality in any substantial way. If philosophy is impotent it is because it, like the organic human body, is equally incapable of grasping the fact that it is not an adequate model for reality but only an element in a set. Kudō's works are not as shocking as they once were, and stylistically they tend to verge on kitsch, but there is also something eminently human and winningly handmade about them. Unlike so much contemporary art, these are clearly the efforts of a man who cared deeply about and devoted himself to expressing his unique vision at any cost.