Report: Portland Japanese Garden

Amid transformational changes taking form at the Portland Japanese Garden, a series of site-specific installations foster a sense of tranquility.


Bamboo is known for its ability to grow quickly, adapt to changing conditions, and beautify the surroundings in which it has sprung up. The same might be said for the Portland Japanese Garden, an Oregon institution since the 1960s, currently undergoing a $33.5-million expansion by architect Kengo Kuma. It’s apropos that the exhibition “Bending Nature: Four Bamboo Artists in the Garden” obliquely references the garden’s current evolution, which began with new construction late in the summer of 2015 and will culminate in a grand opening of its Cultural Crossing facilities next April. Of the four artists in the current show, two (Anne Crumpacker and Charissa Brock) are Portland-based, while two (Jiro Yonezawa and Shigeo Kawashima) are based in Beppu, Japan, a celebrated hub for bamboo art.

Adroitly curated by Diane Durston, “Bending Nature…” follows up on a 2012 exhibition, “Bamboo Art: Meditation and Transformation,” in the garden’s Pavilion Gallery which displayed works by Brock, Yonezawa and Crumpacker, who once studied with Brock and Yonezawa while earning her MFA in Applied Craft and Design program, jointly run by PNCA and Oregon College of Art and Craft. In the past, those artists had focused primarily on indoor sculpture and installations, but when plans for the renovations were announced, Durston proposed they-and Kawashima, whom she added to the mix-consider making larger-scale outdoor work for visitors to enjoy during the expansion process. By inviting the artists to expand upon a previous show, Durston effectively bridged the garden’s past and future. “Each artist used different techniques and created their own designs,” she notes, “but I think their work is very complementary and fits well into our environment at the garden.”

The current show, a completely outdoor affair, highlights the intersections between art and nature, an idea crucial to Japanese aesthetics. To walk through it is to foray into a kind of fairyland of suspended disbelief. You look up into the hills and trees and, inexplicably, see art; you spy a boat not in the water, but grounded upon the grass. It’s uncanny, floaty, calmative: a balm against the construction noise that intrudes as you navigate the trails leading across these meticulously orchestrated spaces.

Upon ascending from the parking area toward the garden, you encounter two untitled works by Yonezawa: one a sphere made from myriad bamboo strips, another hugging the gentle curve of the hill on which it sits. It evokes a cap, a sheath, a shelter. It looks as if it were made to be here-and it was. The artist built the piece on-site, and its relationship to the grounds is palpable. Yonezawa was a longtime professor in Portland before returning to his native Japan, so his instincts toward the topography of the Pacific Northwest and the traditions of his homeland are tightly intermeshed.

“emergence,” 2016, Charrs Brock, Dimensions variable, installation view

Just further up the footpath is Brock’s woven bamboo piece, emergence, a winsomely elegant mobile hanging by cables from three trees. Its form, while semi-abstracted, suggests a fish or vessel, with four component pieces, the middle of which is cocooned within the others. Subtly, this alludes to the in-between stage in which the Portland Japanese Garden now finds itself: a stage of growth not unlike that of a larval butterfly about to metamorphose. The spirals of the composition also call to mind those of a chambered nautilus, another creature from the natural world emblematic of growth-which, as poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., put it, was blessed always to leave “the past year’s dwelling for the new.” At the bottom of Brock’s sculpture, motifs fashioned from waxed linen look like stylized oars, lending further impression of a voyage from one state of being into another.

“Ukifune,” 2016, Anne Crumpacker, Dimensions variable, installation view. Photo: Jonathan Ley

Inside the garden proper stands Crumpacker’s Ukifune (“Floating Boat”), near a waterfall and pond where koi fish swim, flaunting their scales of orange, white, black, and gold. Primarily comprised of bamboo that has been sliced into circular cross-section, rather than into strips, the sculpture provides an object lesson in how contemporary artists can innovate techniques even in media with lineages stretching back millennia. Notably, the gently arching bamboo stem that crowns the piece arrived at its shape naturally; it sagged under the weight of falling snow and retains that agreeably beleaguered contour to this day.

“Moonlight Arch,” 2016, Shigeo Kawashima Photo: Jonathan Ley

Finally, Kawashima’s Moonlight Arch holds court behind the garden’s pavilion, overlooking one of Portland’s most iconic vistas: skyline in the foreground, Mt. Hood rising regally 60 miles to the east. The sculpture is in many ways a pièce de résistance, a metaphoric gateway bridging Western and Eastern sensibilities. With its poetical title, this visual sonata, surely worthy of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”-is so named because of the full moonlight filtering once a month through its thinly-sliced bamboo stems, casts a filigree of midnight shadows upon the earth and gravel beneath it. Kawashima built the piece, in situ, over the course of 10 arduous days, whittling 15-foot stalks down with a fine blade and tying it with cotton twine. The arch’s contours swell bulbously at the bottom, like a Boab tree. Arch functions not only as an exemplar of Kawashima’s technical virtuosity, but also of the exhibition’s holistic emphasis on the interaction between materials, setting, and positive change. One day I might be able to have a garden as fantastic as this. My friend told me that he learned a lot about how to maintain his garden through nc lawn care. It is well worth checking out if you wanted to increase your understanding of garden care. My friend managed to get the Japanese inspiration in there too.

Lead image: “Untitled 2016,” Jiro Yonezawa
Dimensions variable, installation view
All photos: courtesy Portland Japanese Garden