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Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005

Bamboo forest offers artist strength and succor

Maki Uchida drives her vast white estate van with a strength and ease that seems at odds with her size and frame. It comes as no surprise therefore to learn that her creative lifeblood as an installation artist is bamboo -- one of the toughest, most resilient natural materials known.

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Maki Uchida made her first bamboo light for herself while living in a hut in a bamboo forest. Now she makes them for Ryuichi Sakamoto and Toyota concerts, ballet and jazz, and has set up Gallery Cooren in Kawasaki.

"Look!" she points as we cross the tracks from Shin-Kawasaki Station and head into what appears to be a battle zone. "That huge space used to be a park. See all the signs hanging on the buildings all around? They're campaigning against yet another 'mansion' development. They want nature back."

Maki's base in Kanto, midway between Tokyo and Yokohama, is an old building that houses Gallery Cooren, the name derived from the kanji for "sky lotus." There is a hair salon on the ground floor, and she and her younger sister have rooms at the back that they use for living purposes.

The first floor is wholly their own -- a series of interlocking spaces under a roof opened to reveal the original timbers, a bar and casual seating, decorated by Maki in a style that is original and lovely: bamboo furnishings, bamboo decorations, bamboo lamps. Even the deck outside is fenced with bamboo.

"My sister runs this as a bar and gallery space from 5 to 11 p.m.," Maki explains. (There's building work going on next door also, so she draws the "amado" wooden shutters to try to deaden the sound of pneumatic drills.)

When Maki left high school, there was what she calls "a lot of trouble" in her family. Something about a violent uncle trying to extort money, and Maki taking it upon herself to try to sort things out with lawyers. "By the time I was 21, I hated everyone, all human beings. So I escaped to Europe, sleeping like a homeless person in churches and cemeteries, because, although scary, they seemed the safest places."

How did she survive, eat? "I interpreted people's names into kanji characters, sitting on pavements with paper, ink and brush" like an ancient scribe.

When she came back to Japan in 1996, her feelings about people -- her family in particular -- had not changed. So she escaped again, this time into the heart of a bamboo forest in Kawazu on the Izu Peninsula. "The land -- some 300 'tsubo' -- belonged to my grandfather, who was a carpenter."

Having no money, she made bamboo her currency. She used it to build and furnish a hut, where she lived for three years, from 1996 to 1999.

News photo
News photo

It was during this time, needing lighting and "totemo bimbo" (very poor), that she made a hole in the side of a length of bamboo and placed it over a candle.

This was Maki's first Tikuko, the name she gives to the wonderful lights that are rapidly making her name. "That first lamp was lovely, but too simple. So I invested in a special instrument for boring holes in bamboo. As you know it's very tough -- harder than steel. Now I drill holes of varying sizes for patterns and designs, with the lotus as my favorite motif. It grows from darkness (and slime) and yet is so strong (and true)." The metaphor does not escape!

When she was working in the bamboo forest -- which she admits was not easy; it could be very scary living alone -- she found her vocation meditational. "I can say that bamboo is healing. It healed me. Making lamps also enabled me to support my sister so she could leave her company and become independent. She's fine now too."

Maki, who now has an atelier in Kozu, near Odawara, staged her first exhibition in 2002 in a cave in Shimoda. "It was a collaboration with musicians. They played their music among my lamps."

In 2003, her lighting provided the setting for a concert by Ryuichi Sakamoto (who composed the score of "The Last Emperor") and a Chinese musician. After which an interview with TBS television sent all kinds of creative directors scurrying to Shin-Kawasaki and Gallery Cooren.

The result? Providing an installation for a concert that featured an opera by Enrio Morricone (of film score fame). Creating a window display for GOTO, the flower shop in Roppongi. Decorating the set for a jazz pianist and a tap dancer collaborating in Oji Hall. Ditto for a lobby concert for Toyota, sponsored by Sankei Shimbun.

The high spot of last year was being asked to provide the setting for a program of flamenco, tap, ballet and contemporary dance at the National Museum in Ueno, under the title "Himiko."

"Also I was asked to light the Swedish Embassy's Christmas party. This is where I met my German boyfriend, Christian; 2005 had been a good year in many ways."

She will repeat her success of 2004 at the National Museum next week, with performances on Sept. 2, 3 and 4. This time 38 lamps, ranging in height from 30 to 150 cm, will set the stage for Nihon Buyo (traditional Japanese dance) to a shamisen backing, and modern dance.

With hardly any time to breathe, she then will set about illuminating a ballet at Ikebukuro's Geijitsu Gekijo on Sept. 8, 9 and 10. Followed by a modern dance performance at Haiyuza in Roppongi in October.

Maki apologizes for her home page. "It's old. But I'm too busy and anyway I need a computer person to update it for me."

Christian, I suggest.

"Oh, what a good idea," she says, and makes firm but gentle note.

Gallery Cooren, 2-260 Sukagoshi, Saiwai-ku, Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa-ken 212-0024. Phone (090) 8027-3616, e-mail cooren-kyozon@yahoo.co.jp, home page: bamboolight.web.infoseek.co.jp/ (Japanese)
National Museum, 13-9 Ueno-koen, Taito-ku, Tokyo. For information and tickets, phone (03) 3201-8116 or call Ticket Pia at (0570) 02-9999.

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