In the lofty main gallery of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Liga Pang is overseeing the construction of her room-sized installation using bamboo, part of a "New Work" show. While that may suggest a thicket of tall and solid poles, the raw materials of her opus are the twiggy tips of Japanese bamboo, thousands and thousands of them, painstakingly tied together to create a delicate web that hints at the dual essence of bamboo, flexible but strong, simple yet versatile.
For four weeks, she and her assistants have been binding twigs in an overlapping pattern, stem to stem. "This is like a drawing to me, you see," Pang says in her soft-spoken voice, "with each branch connected to another." It is also a kind of meditation, she points out, to do the repetitive motions hour after hour, day after day.
When she first conceived the work for the museum, her plan had been to use natural material found locally. However, on a trip to L.A. in February, she didn't find anything she thought was satisfactory. So when she returned to Japan, she purchased 150 brooms--made with these bamboo twigs--and shipped them to the U.S. to be disassembled and then reconfigured.
Although Pang lives in Japan, she maintains a studio in West Los Angeles, and there she and her team made long strips of bamboo webs, which they brought to the museum to connect into one large tapestry that will measure about 24 by 66 feet when done. The idea was to suspend the piece, creating a wave pattern through which visitors can walk.
A week before the official unveiling of the installation (it opened Saturday), Pang is not sure about the final look. She points at the interwoven twigs, "This is quite heavy, so in order to keep the weight up, I'm going to put this inside it." Her assistants are assembling a rafter of stiffer twigs that will be integrated into the piece. And so, as in so many Japanese arts, the creator will assist nature in its expression.
Indeed Pang's work is rooted in the core of traditional Japanese aesthetics, in which nature is seen as the primary source of beauty, inspiration, even moral education. In ancient Japan, every natural object--trees and grasses, rivers and brooks, mountains and rocks--was thought to have a spirit, and each was revered. To this day, certain trees or unusual rocks may be girded with sacred rope and decoration at a Shinto shrine.
The same philosophy underlies ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, which she studied when she was growing up in Japan. "The purpose of ikebana is to enhance the character of the flower," Pang explains. "It's like giving life again to the flower, which is exactly what I do, except I use other natural materials."
Also, she adds, "my arrangement are more contemporary--I look at the lines and at the form from my training as a painter."
Born in Japan in 1939 to Chinese parents, Pang enjoyed drawing as a child and had already enrolled in life-drawing lessons at age 12. In her late teens, she saw an American news story in which an artist was shooting paint onto a canvas, and she thought excitedly, "If any country allows that, that's where I want to go!"
At first, her conservative father, a successful restaurateur in Yokohama, was reluctant to allow her to go to art school. She managed to persuade him to give her the money he had been saving for her wedding--an often ruinously expensive event in Japan.
"I took my wedding money and came to the United States by myself," Pang says, "not speaking a word of English." In 1958, she entered Mount St. Mary's College in Brentwood, but after a year she transferred to the Otis Art Institute. Those years were eye-opening in more ways than one. Brought up on Japanese textbooks, she knew little about Japan's aggression in World War II, until confronted by other Asians. "My roommate was from Hong Kong, and she was pounding the table, saying, 'How could you stay in Japan?' " she recalls. "That was embarrassing."
In 1962, Pang got an master's in fine arts from Otis, but she quickly skirts over the next two decades of her life. She had married and stayed in L.A., and while she painted and had occasional shows--her works have been collected by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and Japan's Ohara Museum of Art, among others--she says that mainly, "I did the mother, the wife bit."
Shortly after her marriage broke up, she reassumed her maiden name, Pang, and decided to move back to Japan in 1989. "I was drawn to the four seasons," she explains, "and I was drawn to this place, Hayama." She describes Hayama as a quiet town of 30,000, on the west coast of Japan, where she can be close to sea and forest. She was also hired by film director Hiroshi Teshigahara ("Woman in the Dunes"), head of Japan's Sogetsu School, which teaches traditional and fine arts. At first, she taught painting, printmaking and collage, but in 1992 she began to teach assemblage with natural materials--a kind of fusion of ikebana and contemporary art.