Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Camille Henrot - ‘Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?’

Have you also heard the statement "Ikebana is art!", and wondered what it really means?

From the advent of contemporary ikebana, and especially after World war 2, the discussion on ikebana has been influenced by a western understanding of art. From being a contemplative and highly regulated art form, ruled by tradition, it is now often understood as a means of self expression and individual creativity.

Recently this discussion has taken a new turn in western art, as ikebana works have been incorporated in concept art installations. Camille Henrot, a French artist based in New York, is maybe the most profiled exponent for this phenomenon. In the two year span of 2011-2013 she worked on the project "Is it possible to be a revolutionary and like flowers?", that was first exhibited in Paris. Last summer her work were on display at the New Museum in New York.

Following the idea that ikebana and books are related as bearers of language but also in their function to “console the soul”, Henrot created more than 100 arrangements in tribute to the books that make up her personal library. Some of the ikebana creations were then exhibited and photographed. In this process the books are subjected to "becoming flowers".

Henrot is a trained ikebana practitioner and have studied with the Sogetsu school of ikebana. Each of her ikebana is created to represent a literary work, following a principle of reinventing the coded language that decides the shape of the arrangement and the use of flowers in traditional ikebana. Reassigning traditional ikebana codes Henrot uses the Latin and common names of the flowers, the names designed for their commercial exploitation, their pharmacological power and sometimes even the history of their travels. For example, in the ikebana piece that pays homage to the book Caractère fétiche de la merchandise (The fetishistic nature of consumer goods) she uses a rose named “freedom” and three carnations.

The coded language in Henrot's work reminds me of the allegoric messages in old European paintings, where objects and flowers are added to the composition to tell a coded story. Even though flowers are used as message bearers in ikebana, this language in my experience is often more concerned with what is understood as the inner character of the plants, than of a direct representation of an idea that can be associated with a specific flower.

Seen separately, the ikebana works have clear references to contemporary ikebana and to iconic works by Sofu Teshigahara, founder of the Sogetsu school. Put together as an exhibition or a "library", the works must also be seen in relation to installation art and assemblages of natural materials and found objects.

So what happens to ikebana when it is no longer an artform in it self, but is incorporated in an installation? There are similarities between ikebana and installation art. For example, ikebana is always site-specific, or at least site-sensitive. But there are also differences. Concept art is preoccupied with an idea, a concept, whereas ikebana is much more starting with the materials themselves, working towards a conceptual expression.

Henrot's installations have been categorized as "ikebana inspired sculptures". Discussing them herself, she calls them "heterodox ikebana", deliberately based on certain naiveties and even misinterpretations of the fundamentals of ikebana: "I like to remove segments of culture in partial and unfinished manners in order to grow them in the fertilizer of my work".

The ikebana works by Camille Henrot are being recognized as art. But are they also still ikebana? If so, with their reassigned language code and close dependence on the concept of litteratur and libraries, they certainly offer a different answer to the question what ikebana can be today.

PS: If you wonder about the title "Is it possible to be revolutionary and like flowers?", it is borrowed from Leninism under Lenin, written by Marcel Liebman in 1973, and refers to flowers as being seductive: “You start by loving flowers and soon you want to live like a landowner, who, stretched out lazily in a hammock, in the midst of his magnificent garden, reads French novels and is waited on by obsequious footmen.”

Photo courtesy: © Camille Henrot / Photo. Fabrice Seixas Courtesy the artist and kamel mennour, Paris

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Contrasting Branches

Apple branches, Macedonian pine, Forsythia.
Using branches only.

Sometimes things becomes clearer when you see them in relation to their opposite. The differences helps define what I'm not and who I am.

Putting together branches with different appearance and opposite characters helps making a stronger impression. Each of the branches stick out when contrasted with each other. They are not all the same. At this time of the year some are bare, some are evergreen and some are richly blossoming.

colorful birds
set free in the trees...

Issa, 1788

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

An Unexpected Meeting

Flexible metal pipe, jute fibre, polyester rope, Calla lily 'Green Goddess'.

"I see trees differently after I started studying ikebana" - the words were my class mate's when we sat on the bus on the way to our ikebana teacher and watched the bare branches of the trees passing by outside the window. Our ikebana practice is full of unexpected meetings with all kinds of plant materials.

Studying with the Sogetsu school, we are also encouraged to see manmade materials with new eyes, integrating them in the ikebana creations. It makes me think about the differences between natural and manmade materials. I've come to the conclusion that everything we do, is reorganizing materials that surrounds us. We are ourselves part of nature, and all the things we make are basically, in one way or another made from nature. Therefore there isn't much difference between arranging living plant materials and plastic or metal.

Lead sheet, bast yarn, Calla lily 'Green Goddess', Sibirian dogwood.

When we arrived at our teachers studio, I was met by a big box filled with all kinds of odd objects and materials. I had brought a bunch of interesting Calla lilies named 'Green Goddess', perfect for a sculptural contemporary arrangement. My exercise that day was to approach the stuff in the box as if viewed for the first time. These three ikebana arrangements is what I came up with. Let the unexpected meeting inspire your creativity!

Felted wool, Calla lily 'Green Goddess', Sibirian dogwood, coloured jute, pine.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Of Mice and Flowers

Plastic building material, Aspidistra, Pincushion flower.
Curved, straight and radiating lines.

With the introduction of abstract freestyle ikebana came a strong trend, in the postwar period, of experimenting with different manmade materials in the compositions. The Sogetsu school and its founder Sofu Teshigahara were leading this development, focusing on the sculptural form and the shape and character of the materials.

In this kind of ikebana arrangement the manmade material plays the leading role. Adding too much naturalistic looking plant materials will only confuse the design. The material is used in a surprising way making it look unknown and different. This helps seeing things as if you have never seen them before.

If I am not mistaken the plastic material used in these two arrangements is a product preventing mice from getting inn behind the exterior wall cladding of houses.

Plastic building material, Aspidistra, Pincushion flower.
Curved lines. Two containers.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Time for Hanami!

Welcome to the 2015 hanami day at Historical Museum in Oslo on Sunday March 15th, 13:00-15:00.  Although spring is in the air it's far to early for cherry blossoms in Oslo, but we're all seriously waiting for the blossoming.

Let's come together to share our anticipation. There will be a lot of fun for all ages, koto music, origami, Japanese art, ikebana, kendo, akido and I-Go (Japenese board game). For the kids there will be an opportunity to try on Japanese Happi jackets.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Hanaike Battle 2014-15

The Hanaike Battle is a yearly event taking place in Japan. Ikebana artists are competing live and before an audience over five qualifying heats and a grand finale. The finale of the 2014 battle was held earlier this week and this years winner was announced. The simple rule of the battle is: The artist who impresses the audience most will be declared the winner. And the winner was Ueno Yuji, whom I have been writing about on a few occasions in a earlier post on this blog.

I'm posting a few pictures from the event to congratulate the winner, and also the runner-up Itoh Teika, who is one of my favorite contemporary ikebana artists, a very experienced artist and a teacher of the Ohara school.

Photos from the Hanaike Battle Facebook page (where there is lots of more pictures to enjoy).

Friday, 6 March 2015

Kanji Mixup

Dried and fresh Aspidistra leaves, Ornithogalum, Bouvardia.
Curved and straight lines.

"What is it in kanji?" - When asking about the meaning of a Japanese word I often get this question back. The meaning of Japanese words are not always clear when you only hear the pronunciation, or read a transcribed version using the Latin alphabet. Words can sound the same although they are not related. Written in kanji it will be obvious which of the words that is intended in a specific setting.

For non-Japanese speakers this can be confusing and challenging. You will have to ask which translation is the correct. Even Japanese speakers will sometimes think for a while before they get the picture and can identified which kanji that are intended, and hence what the meaning of a word is.

When I got my flower name it was translated for me by someone who did not have access to the kanji characters. My name 'Senju' can have the meaning "a thousand hands" (千手), and that is what I was told that it meant. At first I felt that it was a strange name, but thinking of reaching out a hand as associated with doing good, I started to like it. The meaning could maybe be something like "many good deeds" or even "merciful". The idea of the merciful hands is the inspiration behind this ikebana work, that I named "Senju".

The funny thing was that when I asked other persons, that could also read the kanji, it turned out it was all a typical kanji mixup. Reading my flower name Senju with kanji it reads 泉樹, the first character meaning tree and the second a spring with lively water. Put together the meaning is something like 'A tree growing by a spring with gushing water'. I guess I'll have to make another ikebana arrangement inspired by my flower name to correct the mixup. Or maybe, if one thinks about it for a while, the two meanings "Merciful hands" and "Tree growing by a spring" might not be that far apart on a deeper level after all.

A flower name is a kind of artist name that is given to an ikebana practitioner when reaching a specific level. In the Sogetsu school the name is given together with the first teachers certificate.

This is a tradition that goes back to the idea that knowledge in the arts is transported in the relation between the master and the novice in the act of practicing and correcting. When a geisha apprentice is starting her training she is given a professional name that will be her new name. The word Geisha means 'a person trained in arts' (gei=art + sha=person). The professional name is her geimei 'artist name' (gei=art + mei=name). This name that she is given is derived from her teacher as an expression of the tie that will always be between them.

Senju Kannon 
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