Bamboo and rattan test the limits of belief. The former is a grass which, when used as a building material, can be stronger than mahogany, while the latter is a vine that can be fashioned into comfortable and stylish furniture. When woven together, bamboo and rattan become a third wonderful material: wicker. These seemingly fragile plants are remarkably versatile, and they are also the stuff of beautiful, museum-quality artwork.
Bamboo is considered an evergreen perennial of the grass family poaceae. Genetically, it’s not unlike the grass on your lawn or in nearby meadows. Giant bamboo, a subspecies strong enough for use in construction, is harvested by hand in Asia. It can grow to 30 meters, or nearly 100 feet, at the rate of an inch and a half per hour, making it the fastest-growing plant in the world. As mentioned above, mature bamboo can match or exceed the strength of mahogany. Because it is hollow, it cannot be bent, even under extreme heat.
More than 600 species of bamboo grow throughout Japan. Traditionally, it has been used for drainpipes and general framing as well as religious and social purposes, such as in tea services (sets) made entirely from the hardy grass. Several dedicated bamboo guilds in Japan are recognized for their artistic works in the organic medium, which extends to musical instruments, textiles and even martial arts.
Rattan is a vine, or more accurately, a climbing palm of the subfamily calamoideae. Rattan roots itself in the ground and uses spines to attach to trees so it can climb upward to seek sunlight. Found mostly in the wild tropical forests of Southeast Asia, rattan can only be harvested by hand, a task embraced by small, independent farmers. Rattan’s diameter is never more than about two inches wide and it is solid throughout, yet it is as strong as bamboo. The key difference between the two is rattan is thinner and can be bent and shaped when subjected to extreme heat, which makes it suitable for furniture production.
Wicker, which takes the best qualities of both bamboo and rattan, in used in a myriad of products. Possibly taking its name from the Swedish verb meaning “to fold,” wicker is created by using the outer layer of the rattan vine, known as the cane, to bind the bamboo and the rattan into one piece. Wicker is not a plant in and of itself; it is an ancient means of weaving.
Wicker is only one expression of the strength and beauty of bamboo and rattan. Over the centuries, both plant materials have been featured in paintings, sculpture, carvings, tableware, jewelry and a wide range of objets d’art.
Celebrated in Japanese literature as a symbol for steadfastness, bamboo, along with the pine cone and the plum, is one of the “Three Friends of Winter,” a trio famed for its hardiness during cold winter months. China recognizes bamboo as a symbol of uprightness and celebrates it as one of the “Four Gentleman,” or the four seasons, which also include the plum blossom, the chrysanthemum and the orchid. Bamboo has been a part of everyday Chinese life since antiquity, and is lionized in Chinese poetry as a symbol of personal strength. About 300 species of bamboo appear throughout China, where they are used to create baskets, housing, fences, traditional medicines, and a broad range of household furnishings.
Rattan possesses thorns that make it tricky to harvest, and it is hard to reach as well, growing deep within the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Would-be rattan harvesters must also contend with resident wild animals. Despite these challenges, rattan is relied upon for making mundane goods such as baskets, furniture, incense sticks, walking canes and serving tools. It is also transformed into polo mallets and beaten into textiles that ultimately become clothing.
In addition to their practical uses, there is a thriving contemporary art market for bamboo and rattan sculpture at auction. Sopheap Pich, a former painter, now creates one-of-a-kind pieces for exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum. When an interviewer from theculturetrip.com asked the Cambodian artist why he enjoys working with bamboo and rattan, Pich said, “Making a three-dimensional object is different for me in that I am making something real as opposed to making a kind of illusion on a flat surface … I was concentrating on learning how to build a sculpture and testing my ability to bring something to the finished work.”
Another contemporary artist who works in bamboo and rattan is Tom Dixon, a Palm Beach, Florida, resident who earned fame for creating a wicker sculpture replicating a full-scale Harley-Davidson motorcycle, complete with saddlebags. The piece is so realistic, it’s easy to imagine yourself donning a helmet, hopping aboard and driving off.
Notable artists who have worked with bamboo and rattan include Hayakawa Shokusai I, a 19th-century basket weaver who twisted thin bamboo strands into unique shapes. He also signed his work, a practice his namesake sons and grandsons continue with their own bamboo work. Another well-respected name in this realm is contemporary Japanese artist Tanaka Kyokusho, who juxtaposes bamboo and black accents in forms that reflect the ancient art of bamboo sculpture.
Depictions of wicker, bamboo and rattan in paintings, haiku, glassware, porcelain and even furniture showcase them as symbols of strength and adaptability that persevere in the most trying of circumstances. The hardy grasses of bamboo and the sturdy vines of rattan endure the hardships inflicted by nature, and we can honor their strength by employing them as renewable resources.
Whether made from bamboo, rattan, or a weave that transforms the two into wicker, we can all enjoy works made from these plants, no matter where we are from or how sophisticated we might be.