Feature Article

Bonsai Display


The Role of the Stand

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Text and illustrations by Attila Soos, USA


THE BASICS

Few issues pertaining to bonsai carry as much uncertainty and controversy as does the correct use of the bonsai stand when displaying our trees. Many of us feel at home when shaping our trees, but suddenly tread on shaky grounds when the issue of display stand comes up. This is mainly due to the fact that we have no problem being inspired by our landscapes and our trees, but cannot easily relate to a bonsai stand, an accessory originating from the traditions of the Orient. Of course, bonsai came from the same cultures, but we easily adapted it to our own image of Mother Nature. The stands, however, that’s a different story. To complicate the matter, we tend to display our bonsai in an informal setting, thus giving ourselves a lot of leeway on the use of the stand. When it comes to formal displays, we tend to use the same liberal approach. And that’s when the controversy starts.

An often heard comment is the following: "Bonsai is not a Japanese art form anymore, so I am not going to follow the rules observed in a formal tokonoma display. Who are they to tell me what to do?" I agree that we shouldn’t follow anybody just because it’s their tradition. That may not be the right reason for an artist to make choices. But do we really understand why are they doing it the way they do? I suspect that if we did, we could make the right choices for ourselves as well. There is a lot to learn from a thousand years-old tradition. We don’t need to mimic our teachers after striking out on our own, but they can certainly provide us with the tools we need if we aspire for mastering this art form.

Let’s have a quick look at the pot and the stand. From a design standpoint, they have two common characteristics: balance and symmetry. Some of them are more formal than others, but they are almost always perfectly symmetrical. I say almost always because, as we know, there are also boards, slabs and bamboo mats that are asymmetrical.

We can start with looking at the symmetrical stands first. Below we can see two examples of how a pot can be placed on a stand. In Figure 1 the pot is placed exactly in the center of the stand. The entire set-up has one axis of symmetry that goes through the center of the pot as well as the center of the stand. The two form one visual entity. Their placement, relative to each other is neutral. The role of the stand is to be an extension of the pot and elevate the tree into a more formal and dignified position. It adds dignity and prominence. And it’s highly decorative.

Pot centered on the stand.

Figure 1.

Figure 2. shows an asymmetrical placement of the pot. We have two axis of symmetry and we are forced to look at the pot and stand as two separate entities. Depending on the position of the pot, we can shift back and forth the visual center of gravity of the stand/pot universe.

Pot off-center

Figure 2.

Comparing the two pictures, the first one has a static balance. The second one carries a certain tension and movement caused by the displacement.

At this point, the two placements are neither right nor wrong. Their appropriateness will depend on how they influence the overall presentation.

Now lets introduce the bonsai into the picture. Here is a slanting tree. It has perfect balance and it is correctly placed into the pot.

Tree in the pot.

Figure 3.

I want to spend a little time on the concept of balance, because for some of us it seems to play a key role in the placement of the bonsai on the display stand. There are several types of balance, when we apply it to bonsai. The first one is the tree’s anatomical balance. I borrowed this term from Robert Steven, who in his book, Vision of My Soul, so eloquently defined this key concept. It has to do with the correct proportions, relative to each other, of the trunk, branches, and nebari, in order to evoke the image of an old tree. The second one is the tree’s design balance, which has to do with the overall shape of the tree. And the last one is the correct placement of the tree into the pot.

When all of the above are done successfully, we can conclude that the tree has an overall aura of balance (it is important to distinguish between balance and movement: a tree that has movement should also have a dynamic balance). And this is why I have brought the concept of balance into this treatise: some believe that the tree has to be placed in a certain position on the stand, in order to achieve balance. They automatically place a slanting tree to one end of the stand to "balance the composition."

I would like to categorically dispel this false myth. If the tree already looks balanced in the pot without a stand, than the stand has no business of trying to balance it further more. The stand has many other roles, but balancing is not one of them. If you need a stand to balance your tree, there is something wrong with it in the first place, and the stand is not going to fix that.

Here is the tree placed on the stand. It is in the center of the stand, has a strong slanting movement that extends beyond the edge of the stand, and yet it has perfect balance.

Tree centered on the stand.

Figure 4.

Let’s look at the first example of display. It is a formal 3-point display. The slanting tree is placed exactly in the center of the stand. The neutral and symmetric position of the pot/stand unit lends a stable and formal grounding to the tree and does not distract from the overall harmony of the whole display. Remember: a formal 3-point display is an exercise in minimalism. Every little unnecessary detail can disrupt the perfect harmony.

The tokonoma display

Figure 5.

Now let’s change the arrangement by shifting the tree to the left side of the stand. This little shift added absolutely nothing to the picture. But instead, we introduced new forces and tensions to the tree/pot/stand unit. The pot and stand are clearly separate entities. We introduced a new moving part into the harmony that existed before. The question is why would we do that?

The tokonoma display with the tree shifted on the stand

Figure 6.

The traditional 3-point formal display places the pot in the center of the stand. It is the most efficient use of space that maximizes harmony. It avoids the redundancy of creating a little balanced space in the close proximity of the tree, and instead, concentrates on the overall harmony and balance of the three elements throughout the entire display area.

It warrants mentioning that the point demonstrated above does not conclude that we cannot create of a pleasing display when placing the pot off-center. But that’s not the point. The point is that if we want to maximize balance and harmony, we should follow the above-described practice. It is a simple demonstration that introducing extra elements and dynamics into the picture will diminish its effectiveness.


WHY DO WE STILL DO IT?

Recent discussions and inquiries within the bonsai circles revealed that a lot of people still like to place the pot off-center. The reason is simple: they regard the stand not simply as an extension of the pot and a device to elevate and dignify the tree, but as a display area. This is a very important distinction worth repeating: they are not using the stand as a pedestal, but as a display area. This changes everything. One obviously does not like to place the tree in the center of the display area, but off-center. The tokonoma itself does not place the tree in the center.

To aggravate this trend, following digital photography and the Internet, we see more often the pictures of bonsai instead of displays of real bonsai. And the pictures are mostly close-ups, meaning that if the tree is placed on a stand, this stand occupies 90% of the area around the tree. So the stand is virtually the display area. If the tree has a strong lateral movement, the artist will try to "compensate" for it by placing the tree off-center.

Well, the above practice gives a new role to the stand. But it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves that the stand wasn’t originally designed to serve as a display area. We can simply put the pot back to the center and chose a correct display area for the tree/stand unit instead of trying to alter the tree/stand unit to match an inadequate display area.

When displaying bonsai in real life, placing the pot off-center creates redundancy. Our eyes wander from the tree to the accent plant and the other elements of display, sensing the harmony of the display. Then, as soon as we realize that the pot is off-center, we need to shift our perspective, focusing on the mini display area created by the tree and the stand. Then, we need to shift focus again, looking at the big picture and display area. It’s similar to those drawings where one can see different forms when refocusing one’s eyes, such as a vase that also shows a kissing couple.


WHAT ABOUT THE EXCEPTIONS AND INNOVATIONS?

In art, nothing is set in stone. We can always find circumstances when placing the pot off-center would actually improve the display. It’s important to know though, that these are not formal 3-point displays.

One example would be when we have limited display space, on a display table for instance. There could be cases, where leaving a large slanting tree on the center of the stand would crowd the visual center of gravity into one side of the picture. We would need to compensate for that by shifting the tree to the side. This shift would make the stand into a display area and create open space where it is needed. We need to do this in cases when the space around the tree is reduced mostly to the surface of the stand and there is not much room beyond that.

Another example is when we use slabs that suggest landscape around the tree. An irregular slab lacks symmetry, and therefore a dynamic balance and a sense of space is achieved when placing the tree off-center.

A tree off-center on an irregular display slab

Figure 7.

As we notice, expanding the space to the right of the group enhances the austerity and simplicity of the image. Often, literati trees are displayed on irregular slabs, conveying impressions similar to the above.

In conclusion, when displaying bonsai one needs to focus on the overall display area with all its elements in order to determine whether assigning a new role to the stand creates any improvement. Stands and pots are designed with symmetry in mind, and there is a strong reason for respecting that in our displays.

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