While bamboo is a traditional staple in ancient art, it has gone largely unrepresented in modern artistry. In East Asia, ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were often decorated with carved bamboo shoots and Zen paintings featuring the bamboo plant but modern artists veered towards oils on canvas or hard metals for their work.
One reason that we have seen little of bamboo and other organic materials used in the world of high art is that artwork is perceived as needing to be permanent. But many contemporary artists have come to accept the fact of art’s ephemeral nature. If nothing truly lasts, then what’s the point of trying to defy nature? Sculpture and installation art does not have to be permanent anymore. It is more the experience of the creation and production of the art itself that matters.
Bamboo is a traditional material that modern artists are using because of its versatility and beauty.
One such artist is Gerard Minakawa who is renowned for his work with bamboo installations. His bamboo structures have a rock star aesthetic and make unrepentant use of electric lighting and industrial contraptions. So far, his most prominent work has been featured at Burning Man and the Coachella Music Festival.
His latest project is the Starry Bamboo Mandala, a new interpretation of an ancient legacy of sacred spaces. Mandala, meaning “container of essence” in Sanskrit, symbolizes both a microcosm of the universe from the human perspective as well as spiritual centers of meditation. As opposed to the traditional two-dimensional mandalas, this one has been translated into 3-dimensions. Seen from above, the eight columns are arranged in a circular pattern on the ground, symbolizing an 8-spoked “wheel of life” as it is called in Buddhism. By shifting the arrangement of the bamboo poles as they progress upwards through the structure, the wheel is transformed into a star polygon (an item frequently found in Islamic art. And further up, the shift in poles creates the Star of Lakshmi (a prominent symbol in Hinduism). The structure itself is 55 feet high and 55 feet wide. Within the dimensions of the structure, there is a Fibonacci sequence of numbers which are common to art and architecture and give a nod to the fact that man’s earliest inclination was to create. They reinforce a certain sense of harmony and intelligence that is found in nature and interpreted in such ancient monuments as the Pyramids of Giza and Machu Picchu.
Minakawa chooses bamboo as the principal material because “it represents the very best in alternative ways of living and expressing oneself: is both strong, light, and incredibly flexible; is multifunctional and highly renewable to the point of being indispensable in cultures ranging from Latin America to Asia; it exudes a curious mixture of humble abandon and dignified poise.”
Another artist exploring the use of bamboo in his work is sculptor and committed environmentalist Andy Goldsworthy. Using a variety of natural materials, he creates outdoor sculptures that form a sympathetic contact with the natural world. Before they disappear, he records them with stunning photographs. He has no desire to leave his mark on a landscape but rather, he wants to work with it instinctively. He uses bamboo shoots and poles that are already fallen and weaves them to create delicately precise structures that are man-made but feel natural.
In his own words: “I need the shock of touch, the resistance of place, materials and weather, the earth as my source. I want to get under the surface. When I work with a leaf, rock, stick, it is not just that material itself, it is an opening into the processes of life within and around it. When I leave it, these processes continue.”
Of course, these artists may surprise themselves with the permanency of the resilient bamboo plant. In 100 years or so, their bamboo works may be the new ancient art.