I only got to understand the true essence of a gentle soul after I moved to Taiwan. The level of your gentleness defines the capacity of your soul, which in turn shapes up your character and altitude. In times of anxiety, it is fine to loosen up to take a different rhythm. Perhaps there is something we can learn from soaked rattan. Its endurance and flexibility make the material highly adaptive to all kinds of environments.
Shu Wen is the rattan weaving craftsman of Table 77. As a graduate of the Graduate Institute of Applied Arts from the Tainan National University of the Arts, the focus of her research was weaving art. Taiwan was once the biggest exporter of bamboo in Southeast Asia, therefore a large number of bamboo craftsmen on the island. Unlike bamboo, rattan comes from a plant that mainly grows abundantly in Indonesia, its harvest is not easy, and so it is not very common in Taiwan. The tenderness of rattan is in such huge contrast to the sturdiness of bamboo, and the weaving of such formable materials has really got Shu Wen attracted to.
Starting from June 2019, life in Hong Kong seems to have never been normal again. The longer you live in insecurity, the more numb you feel about your inner fear. But when time passes by, you even start to lose the sense of space. The first time I met Shu Wen for a chat in a cafe, we were both wearing face masks. The second meet up we had taken place at her studio. We took off our masks and talked about space, plants, and light while sipping our tea.
Me: Look, the lampshade is basically an inverted fruit bowl.
Shu Wen: That’s true! My graduation thesis was about basketry, so what exactly is basket weaving? I’m intrigued by the idea of space. What is space? What is the inside, and what is the outside?
Me: I think space is a container itself. It can contain tangible things, it can also contain memory.
Shu Wen: Rattan is more flexible than bamboo, which makes many creative ideas possible. Weaving a basket using rattan broadens my creativity. Pulling a stripe of rattan in and out, the concept of inside and outside becomes blurry. Weaving is a process for me to put my memory and imagination into the product.
The basket has a rectangular bottom and an oval-shaped opening; when I think of these two shapes, I imagine them being integrated as one wholeness. The most special experience I had with weaving was a time when I designed a basket based on the shape of a camphor tree branch that I picked up from the ground. Space is connected to time, imagination, and memory.
Me: I believe we can obtain the energy of nature by hugging a tree.
Shu Wen: That’s possible! I like rattan a lot. The processed rattan has a perfect thickness and silky smooth surface; I think Japan and Korea really have the best rattan processing technique.
Me: The rattan from Indonesian or Japan has gone through many steps before it reaches your hand. It is a long process for rattan to become a basket; in this process, the warmth of the maker’s hand would be absorbed into the material to become a healing power. I guess this is the cycle of natural fiber.
Shu Wen: Soaking rattan in water can make it even more pliable for being woven into a basket. I would either use coffee or black tea to dye the rattan, or simply keep its original color. Weaving is a soothing experience. I was totally fascinated when I saw my teacher in my university demonstrated rattan weaving. Since then, weaving has always been healing my soul.
Every moment of weaving makes me feel happy and content.
Shu Wen: I spent nine years studying in Tainan. Upon graduation, I have decided I really preferred Tainan, so I begin to constantly travel between Tainan and my hometown Taichung. My parents often question how much I can earn by selling a rattan basket. They are worried about how can I possibly make a living.
Me: Aren’t most of the parents like that? I think it is rather normal as they love and care about you.
Shu Wen: That’s true, but I really like weaving. I have my workshop right next to my home, and downstairs is a coffee shop. When I first came to Tainan, many of my neighbors came to visit me. Back then, I thought Tainan artisans were all so passionate, but then it didn’t take long for their passion and kindness to fade.
Me: The sun can hurt our eyes if it is too bright. That is not the warmth that we want. An optimum level of dimness can rather show the genuine essence of an artwork.
Shu Wen: Therefore I was a bit afraid when you acted so passionately at the beginning!
Me: That’s okay. Basketry is a process of weaving time into space; As clear-cut as how things get illuminated by light, there is always a way for you to tell passion and indifference apart.
Shu Wen: This is a container that is made up of numerous holes. The inside of this container can interact with the space outside, but there is still a line between inside and outside. These holes are indeed the opening of a solid object.
Me: The distance between people is similar to the light transmittance, or the holes like how you described. The size of the holes all depends on the level of the craftsmanship.