The Art of Ichiyo Ikebana brings tradition to the modern gallery

Akihiro Kasuya, The Art of Ichiyo Ikebana, 2010, exhibition view. Photo by Susan Sanders; courtesy the Museum of Design Atlanta.

The Museum of Design Atlanta’s newest exhibition, The Art of Ichiyo Ikebana, brings an ancient personal art form into a formal modern setting. The work of Akihiro Kasuya, who has served as headmaster of Atlanta’s Ichiyo School of Ikebana since 1983, explores the spiritual art of flower arranging as a site-specific installation, broadening the genre’s effect and relationship to its viewers. While ikebana is a practice still immersed in centuries of tradition, Kasuya’s Ichiyo School seeks to update the form and stress the arranger’s ability to express emotions or ideas. The difference is subtle but lends itself perfectly to a contemporary art environment.

Photo by Susan Sanders; courtesy the Museum of Design Atlanta.

The exhibit spans two different galleries. Kasuya fills one entire space with a number of massive arrangements that he, his son, and his students were actively creating throughout the opening reception on Sunday. An adjacent gallery features work by the Atlanta chapter of the Ichiyo School that explores a shared theme of water. The students’ works are primarily displayed on pedestals and, due to their smaller scale in relation to Kasuya’s works, many seem ready to take home and display on a dining table rather than be interpreted as site-specific installations.

Kasuya and his son Naohiro traveled from their hometown of Tokyo to Atlanta four days prior to the exhibit to begin collecting materials for their installations. I was impressed by the amount and quality of the flora, but Naohiro assured me that all of their materials were collected from local flower shops around Atlanta. Although many of the materials selected seemed outside the realm of local plants, Kasuya and his students do an excellent job of harmonizing their supplies with the surroundings. The clash of verdure is not at all distracting.

Naohiro Kasuya arranges ikebana during a live demonstration on opening night. Photo by Susan Sanders; courtesy the Museum of Design Atlanta.

While classical ikebana is often practiced in complete silence, the buzzing opening was anything but quiet or still. Visitors could hear the slightest pings of what may have been traditional music, barely audible over the festive chatting and sounds of tinking drink glasses. Kasuya’s larger-than-life arrangements are overwhelming with their vast variety of vegetation, awe-inspiring bamboo, and cleverly constructed containers. The array of textures and fragrances proved to be perhaps too tempting to some viewers, as I noted several who reached out to touch the arrangements, more than once to detrimental effects.

Since the smaller arrangements each demand at least a moment of the viewer’s time, managing traffic flow between so many displayed in one gallery causes some difficulty. Ikebana is known for its minimalist qualities; the crowded space was somewhat distracting. The jovial atmosphere and busy vibe, however, also enhanced Kasuya’s intention of bringing modernity to tradition.

Due to the ephemeral nature of such a display, Ichiyo students will create new arrangements for each week of the three-week exhibition run. The dynamism of this exhibit is sure to provide Atlanta’s gallery addicts welcome opportunity to consider an aged practice anew.

Akihiro Kasuya, The Art of Ichiyo Ikebana, 2010, detail. Photo by Susan Sanders; courtesy the Museum of Design Atlanta.

The Art of Ichiyo Ikebana will be on display at the Museum of Design Atlanta through September 18.

Instructors from the Ichiyo School will host introductory workshops Tuesday, September 7, through Saturday, September 11. The workshops will meet mornings, from 10AM-12Noon, and afternoons, from 1:30-3:30PM.

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  • Jeremy Abernathy
    September 8, 2010 at

    Thank you Elaine Jo for clearing up any confusion we may have had about the Ichiyo school. Although in retrospect I think you and Jon Ciliberto have done a suberb job of showing how my remarks earlier were a bit hasty …

    (I had little evidence to support the parallel between contemporary ikebana and Zen Buddhism and, further, was lazy in allowing myself to confuse classical and contemporary ikebana),

    … I consider this discussion to be highly successful, at least in terms of drawing out your voice to set the record straight. Much appreciated, everyone.


  • Jon Ciliberto
    September 7, 2010 at

    I went to an exhibition at this same venue, by the same group, two years ago. I never completed a review for Buddhist art news, running into the a conflict over how ‘Buddhist’ this sort of thing is. Descriptions of the Ichiyo school do not refer to Buddhism, but such references were present when I viewed the exhibition, and as the above comments indicate, there is a (I think) lazy tendency to link ikebana with Buddhism.

    The Japanese art of flower arranging (ikebana), is frequently referred to as a “Buddhist art”. The explanations for this are: it was introduced to Japan along with Buddhism in the 6th century, and, as an art form it was generated from the same culture that produced the tea ceremony, i.e., one shot through with Buddhist ideas.

    It is needless to add that both of these (ikebana and the tea ceremony) fall under a larger heading: the influx of Chinese culture (Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist) to the Japanese islands, and that these and other arts which came to prominence in Japan at the time are more directly linked to the Chinese literati tradition that to Buddhism.

    Housed in several galleries in the Marquis II, a tower in downtown Atlanta, the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) strides the intersection of art and commerce. Concerned with design, the museum’s exhibitions typically consist of: graphic design, architecture, textiles, and other arts directed at commercial ends.

    Ikebana falls into this group by virtue of its usefulness to interior designers. In its traditional form, ikebana is intimate (for the home), and thus an exhibition of ikebana in a modern, downtown, office building presents some confusion. Too, the noise and cocktail-clinking of an artworld opening would jar many enthusiasts of the form. Unexpected as well is the presence of so much non-flower supporting material — huge elements intended both as architecture to the flowers and as a kind of sculpture.

    Further, the luxury of materials and construction certainly beg the question, ‘where is the buddhism in this art?’ At times, one feels that it is simply advantageous to claim Buddhism for it, for all of the above reasons. This modern school, thus, seems to fall more squarely in the world of interior design (also a close cousin to the products of the artworld).

  • Elaine Jo
    September 6, 2010 at

    I have enjoyed reading the comments about our headmaster Kasuya’s demonstration at the Museum of Design on August 29 and would like to briefly clarify ikebana as it is today in Japan.

    Contemporary ikebana was first introduced into Japanese culture in 1923 by the Sogetsu School and from that time onward became a fluid Japanese floral art which expressed the creativity of the arranger and encouraged personal interpretation. Mr. Kasuya is the third headmaster of the Ichiyo School which celebrates their 75th anniversary next year.

    The tokonoma (an alcove in the traditional Japanese homes where art is placed remained an important location in a traditional setting but artists found a new interest in placing their work in a modern setting, including hotels, restaurants, offices, and, of course, in today’s Japanese homes and apartments. The free style movement is widespread both in Japan and worldwide standing side by side in importance with classical forms.

    Although the influence of zen is a part of all traditional Japanese arts, Zen ikebana is only one branch of the total picture.

    Because most demonstrations are presented before a largely ikebana related audience it is not surprising that a demonstration of the type Mr. Kasuya presented was seen to be a departure from what the general public believes ikebana to be.


  • Laura
    September 5, 2010 at

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify, Cinque!

  • Jeremy Abernathy
    September 4, 2010 at

    “Surprised” not at you, Cinque …. but rather surprised after talking to more than one person who attended the opening and who had no idea going in that “ikebana” was going to be a design show about flowers. I totally took it for granted that the term was not more well known …. I don’t at all mean to sound elitist in the post above … just trying to be helpful in terms of context. ;-)

    So in that sense, I’m pretty excited that Laura’s article might help introduce this tradition (and its contemporary offshoots) to readers who may be less familiar with Japanese art and culture.

  • Jeremy Abernathy
    September 4, 2010 at

    I’m surprised since I thought a lot more people were aware of ikebana. (It has an entry in Mirriam Webster’s English dictionary, for example.)

    Ikebana is usually considered a zen art, and as such it is not very generous to viewers in a way that contemporary audiences might want. The famous rock garden at Ryoanji

    is the closest thing I can think of that 1. is a zen art and 2. is designed so that multiple viewers can appreciate it at once. I haven’t thought about it in a while, but the design actually upholds the typical binary of art and viewer. (We observe it from a separate, raised platform; walking into the rock garden would be extreme sacrilege.) The “zen” is accomplished symbolically, when viewers engage the mystery of form and nothingness suggested by big-rock shapes within a tiny-rock ocean. The austerity is meant to diminish individuality: Who cares about self-expression when there is No Self?

    So, while I think you’re right to say it’s not fair to judge Kasuya’s show at MODA based solely on the opening party, I think it’s completely valid to base the judgment on how these works “live” in relation to viewers walking through the space. Their generosity in terms of color and voluminous form, I suppose.

    (I went searching through my book shelves after reading this article and was reminded that in the word itself, ikebana, means “to make flowers live” …. There’s an essay out there somewhere about the irony of the term, since to practice ikebana, you have to de-root the flowers, essentially killing them for the art.)

    But then after you’ve established that it breaks away from zen arts, we might wonder … what tradition does it belongs to now? Perhaps a form a high-gloss Tokyo Chic, the kind that appeals to the social and affluent urbanite. That’s interesting the think about, too.

  • Cinque
    September 3, 2010 at

    Ok, actually that *is* an interesting tension to explore. Explicitly laying out the framework or your engagement helps explain why you would take that approach. It was opaque in the article, but you’ve made it transparent in the comments. Thanks.

  • Laura
    September 2, 2010 at

    While I agree that basing a review solely around an opening isn’t typically a fair assessment to the art, I felt that gauging the attendee’s response to the show was important in this case.
    The Ichiyo School is exploring traditional Ikebana’s relation to those who view it and I felt the energized presence of the gallery goers was a good indication that they succeeded in engaging their audience. I was afraid I’d be walking into a staid, sterile opening with arrangements placed evenly around a white room with folks walking around and whispering to each other and instead I experienced a lot of discussion and excitement. It was refreshing.

  • Cinque
    September 2, 2010 at

    I’m calling foul. Although it’s mainly a positive review, reviewing the opening is not fair, either to the art or to your readers. Art doesn’t get seen at openings; scenes get seen.

  • Jeremy Abernathy
    September 2, 2010 at

    Update: New photography courtesy MODA this afternoon. :-)

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