Driving along Miracle Mile in the heart of Museum Row, it's easy to miss Akio Hizume's bamboo Fibonacci Tunnel on the patio of the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM). But if you stop to take a look, you can actually become physically immersed inside the architecturally inspired tunnel itself. You may even wander into the museum as well, where a related exhibit, "Bamboo," chronicles the rapidly changing dynamics of Japanese bamboo basketry, all thanks to the late L.A.-based entrepreneur and collector Lloyd Cotsen, who, incidentally, was the CEO of Neutrogena Corporation and the marketing genius who turned an amber-colored soap into a household name.
Cotsen died last year at the age of 88, but by all appearances he led a nice long life. And, according to Lyssa Stapleton, curator at the Cotsen Foundation for Academic Research, "He knew how to do it right. He was really just an amazing person. A lot of fun, full of interests and energy and just an expert on everything he was interested in as well. He wasn't a dilettante."
Cotsen was, however, an inveterate collector since childhood. In addition to amassing matchbooks, children's books and folk art, Cotsen assembled the largest collection of Japanese bamboo baskets on the planet, numbering close to 1,000. The majority went to San Francisco's Asian Art Museum in 2003, but Cotsen kept his favorites, most of which are now on view in "Bamboo" before heading off to join the rest of the collection in San Francisco.
When you think of typical Japanese art history, bamboo isn't always the first thing to come to mind. Scrolls and Ukiyo-e, maybe — but textiles and woven forms were what captured Cotsen's attention. "He studied architecture in school, so he had this attraction to structure and also a sort of very interesting relationship with the space that an object takes up," Stapleton explains. "He had an eye."
Cotsen's bamboo basket collection began a few decades ago, when he and his first wife browsed through a Japanese antique store in San Francisco and encountered an oddly misshapen, lumpy basket with no known provenance and an even less defined aesthetic, curiously interlaced with wisteria root. "He just loved it," Stapleton says. "And it's very Lloyd. It's sort of beautifully ugly, and just the way it sort of sits in on itself and its structure is really fascinating." The appeal of the odd basket led Cotsen to investigate its cultural history, which in turn exposed the curious collector to the changing tradition of Japanese bamboo basketry, which evolved into Cotsen's collection itself.
In the 19th century, tea ceremonies in Japan were all the rage, and hardworking artisans worked with apprentices to create bamboo baskets as vessels for ikebana flower arrangements during the ceremonies. "But of course, the tea ceremony tradition is really sort of dying out in Japan," Stapleton explains. "So [artists] started branching out and made purely sculptural forms that are not for the tea ceremony." Meanwhile, Cotsen saw that it was an art form that was in danger of disappearing, so he became even more interested in the discipline.
As a result, many of the works in the exhibit are very organic-looking, while others are comparatively controlled, geometrical and obviously mathematically inspired. "There's an interesting contrast, I think, between the way these artists create their work," Stapleton says. "It's an interesting conversation between the two types of Japanese bamboo basket."
What's even more interesting is how the most prolific and dedicated bamboo artists literally have bamboo forests on their land. Essentially surrounded by raw material, they often watch the bamboo grow while envisioning the end product, not unlike a sculptor working with a piece of marble. Once an artist cuts down the bamboo, he might let it sit for a few years, then apply a variety of treatments. "That relationship with the bamboo and that dedication to bamboo art is part of what drives this show and this collection and Lloyd's collection," Stapleton says.
"There's a really deep emotional connection to this work that I'm finding," says Holly Jerger, CAFAM exhibitions curator. "It's material that everyone's likely familiar with, but when you can see it embodied in all these different ways — that is that special sense of familiarity yet surprise at the same time. It makes you sort of appreciate the material and the world in a different way."
This unique appreciation for raw material extends outdoors to Akio Hizume's site-specific tribute to the Fibonacci sequence. Like Cotsen, the artist behind Fibonacci Tunnel is an interesting character. "He's very multifaceted," Jerger says. "He composes musical scores, plays music, makes his own sake, grows his own tea..."
Fibonacci Tunnel was constructed over the course of a few weeks, with the help of CAFAM's preparators, volunteers and even a few board members. The artist is fortunate enough to have his own bamboo forest in Japan, and because bamboo grows at an angle, it gets thinner as it grows up, and not everything is consistently the same diameter. That's why, for the sculpture, 5-inch pieces of 10-feet-long stalks of moso bamboo were cut down to different-sized sections and connected with bamboo stakes and palm rope. About 140 pieces of bamboo were hand-sorted by size before the sections were constructed, increasing and decreasing in diameter: a tribute to the Fibonacci sequence and the structural nature of the bamboo plant itself.
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"Akio Hizume's Fibonacci Tunnel is really just an extension of this show," Jerger explains. "We are touching down upon the whole trajectory of this art form and how over the years it has transitioned into a more sort of individual expression in sculptural works. Akio's installation is one of those very contemporary representations of the form."
Stapleton agrees. "Yeah, we wanted to be able to show how purely sculptural these things could be, and having Akio create that piece for this show was just sort of, again, another step in this conversation about bamboo as sculpture, as a material for sculpture and raw material for sculpture."
Raw material you can literally grow in your own backyard.
"Bamboo" and Fibonacci Tunnel, Craft and Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile; (323) 937-4230, cafam.org. Tue.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; through Sept. 8.