Toshiko MacAdam

Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam explains the crucial turning point in her textile practice came the day two children innocently clambered onto her art. Despite being sited within the unspoken no-touch rules of the gallery, Toshiko saw that “suddenly the piece came to life. My eyes were opened. I realised I wanted just such a connection between my work and people alive at this moment in time – not a hundred years from now. I realised I was in fact making works for children.”

If Japanese textile art brings to mind subtle investigations of monochrome materials, you would not be wrong. But Toshiko is not that kind of artist, at least not today. Her textile art first emerged in the late 1960s and enjoyed acknowledgement in publications such as The Art Fabric: Mainstream, which described her Air Contained in a Floating Cube (1977) as a “haloed radiance” of linen and Mylar knitted panels and floodlights. Her past work suggested a defiance of gravity, but her work for children now actively encourages it.

After studying fine art and weaving at the Tama Art University in Tokyo, Toshiko’s postgraduate studies at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan provided the freedom to determine her own direction. A persistent interest in space, tension and the ability of the textile to act as both structure and surface emerged. Her 1976 sculpture Moving Columns made in Thread in the ancient technique of sprang, an early elastic textile structure, epitomises these interests. Today Toshiko’s creations share some visual similarities with the work of Brazilian Ernesto Neto or Canadian Janet Echelman. But closer inspection reveals the integration of form and function in Toshiko’s work that focuses on an entirely different audience by inviting the energy of children into her work.

Based since 1988 with her family in Nova Scotia, Canada, her current practice has evolved through an unrelenting process of trail and error. As early as 1971 a hand crocheted prototype of AirPocket, one of two systems she continues to develop today, was donated to a playground in Japan. It tolerated less than six months of play. After a number of projects self-financed by freelance design work, her first commission arrived in 1979. By 1981 Knitted Wonder Space I for the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan was completed and lasted an impressive 28 years before Knitted Wonder Space II was installed as a replacement. Made from nylon, the work measures 15 meters by 9 and weighs approximately one tonne, produced entirely by hand.

It goes without saying that the production of a tonne of crochet is no small undertaking. Suspension demands even further input. Since 1990 the Tokyo-based structural engineering firm T.I.S. & Partners advise on the engineering of complex projects, which are handled on a site-by-site basis. Charles MacAdam, who overseas the installation of his wife’s projects, concedes that “a lot of learning” went into their early works, particularly to create a consistent tension necessary to allow the bouncing, climbing and nesting each work is built to encourage. While sites are ready to use from the outset, others including a recent project at MACRO in Rome require the creation of purpose built points strong enough to hang the work.

Even the cheerful rainbow colour scheme belies a painstaking dye process. For a few years, a textile manufacturer marketed a solution dyed nylon that worked for their needs but when production was discontinued dyeing of the nylon was – after several false starts – brought in house. Today the nylon filament is knitted into a tube, dyed, de-knitted, wound onto a bobbin and fed through a braiding machine – all just to create the yarn which is the basis of each structure. Even these early production steps involve unexpected feats coordination. Like so many regions, Nova Scotia has witnessed a decline in local industry and the net making machinery owned by companies manufacturing fishing nets is no longer local. Instead the braided nylon travels across North America from the east coast of Canada to the west coast of the United States where it is loomed on a net making machine, before returning to Nova Scotia for further work by hand.

Interplay Design & Manufacturing, the company Toshiko and her husband run in Canada, offer two basic designs adapted as necessary to the specifics of each commission. The AirPocket design is crochet by hand; the modular Space Net is knot by machine and acts more like a giant bouncy spider web intended for use outside. Once assembled and installed, each project’s lifespan is dependent on factors such as frequency of use and climate. “The textile can be very forgiving,” Charles explains, “as long as you don’t use it. Make it work and over time it is going to wear out.” Regular inspections determine when each of their installations needs reinforcement or replacement.

Toshiko compares the energy of these structures to the rocking motion first experienced by an infant in the womb, later felt cradled in a parent’s arms. A little older, and children playing in her elastic playgrounds begin to learn that their actions impact those around them. “Their creative minds start to move and they find new ways of playing”, she explains. “They respond to each other. It is sometimes hard to entice children out of the net; they can sometimes be lost in it for three or four hours.”

The enthusiasm children show for her work is the primary testament to their success. Interest has continued to grow globally, with work currently underway on commissions in Singapore that will involve the major restructuring of a building to create the space needed for the installation and New Zealand, where an Auckland-based philanthropist is building a children’s park. 43 years have now passed since Toshiko’s first creation for children. Today a different type of legacy is emerging: adults who played in her art as children are now returning to introduce their own children to her unique playgrounds.

Selvedge magazine (issue 60, 2014: 50-54)