Thoughts About Viewing Bonsai
Text and Photographs by Walter Pall
This article appeared in the invitaion brochure for Ichi Shun Ten in Munich 2004. It was posted in 2004 on Bonsai Talk. Subsequently it was published in "International Bonsai" magazine. Bill Valavanis did not want to publish the end of it, the story of the ugly oak. He thought that some readers would misunderstand it. Let's hope that the AoB readers are more sophisticated.
Bonsai is the art of the visible. This is a statement that is commonly used in art theory for painting and sculpturing. This seemingly trivial statement may be acceptable in the West. In Asia one would state the contrary: bonsai is the art of the invisible. A bonsai as piece of art is not an open platitude but it is like a four-line poem where the fourth line is missing. Bonsai is not the art of the visible, it is the art of making visible, while the process of seeing something happens within the viewer who sees something that is not there.
From the point of view of the designer, bonsai is the art of making visible something that was not there previously, which belongs to the unknown and cannot be not understood with our intellect. The intellect can help in thinking about the story the tree is telling us about nature. But the intellect cannot help us in really making understood the emotions that this story evokes.
The viewer is supposed to concentrate on the visible and what he feels, not with the technique that the artist has used. It does not help for comprehending a bonsai if one knows too much about the technique of designing it and about the artist himself. The knowledgeable viewer has a tendency to pull apart a tree, to immediately start to criticize it. He is biased and does not let the tree approach him, speak to him. Bonsai designers are often the worst critics. They tend to think what they would have done, how they could improve the tree instead of simply letting the tree have an impact on their feelings. They should try to accept, at least for a moment, the bonsai the way it is. This is why judging trees according to 'judging criteria' is problematic. Instead of letting the bonsai have an impact on the feelings to the soul and award points according to that impact one picks the tree to pieces with the intellect. In the best case craft can be judged like this in the worst case a tree will be downgraded exactly because of an strong impact when the impact was generated with uncommon means. It is not being judged how a bonsai feels but how the feeling was created.
The biased and preoccupied viewer does not get beyond the touchable, so he cannot reach the artistic. He wants to understand where there is nothing to understand - only to take up. Understanding happens with the left side of the brain, which, however, can never comprehend a piece of art because this is not an intellectual process. The intellect is not called upon. For the viewer who is used to be proud of his knowledge, of his intellect, the most humiliating feeling must be to touch onto something that is untouchable, incomprehensible; something which he cannot put in context with the real and comprehendible world of common bonsai design rules. In this case the viewer is put in an unused inferior opposition - he reacts with an arrogant intellectual pulling apart of the bonsai and hates it, because he hates his humiliation. This explains why bonsai which don't conform to the well documented (Japanese) rules are often not accepted even when they are of much higher artistic value than the standard cliché-trees. This does not, of course, mean that a bonsai that does not conform to the rules is automatically a piece of art.
Schopenhauer has said that one has to approach a piece of art like a person of high level. That means that one has to humbly wait until one is approached for communication. The energies that the artist put into his piece, reveal themselves to the viewer who relaxes completely and who puts his will aside. According to modern results of brain research one can also say that the relaxed viewer sets his left side of the brain (his will) to rest and admires the piece of art as it is with the right side, without putting critique in words immediately.
It is assumed in this context that the bonsai in question is a piece of art. How to distinguish real art and an amateur effort and who does that, is a totally new subject that requires a lengthy explanation in another article.
For the viewer of a bonsai it is not helpful to stand in front of the tree and try hard to understand it, to penetrate it with his mind. It works much better if he stands in front of it and lets it sink in without preconditions. The viewer should casually feel that he has found these forms, these colors, as if he had created this bonsai.
The naïve viewer has an advantage. He does not have the handicap of intellectual reflexions. His prejudices are not deep. He has fewer demands, is more occupied with looking. Whatever he cannot grasp with his intellect he just leaves it at that. The naïve viewer will notice that the bonsai don't really look like natural trees that he sees daily. He will ask why this is so. Well, they are not imitations of natural trees, but idealizations of natural trees. It is also a question of taste - but tastes can change. At the moment the Japanese taste dominates the bonsai world; but this can change again. The naïve viewer is like a an alien from a strange star who looks at fashion magazines and asks the question why the women don't look like "real" women. The opinion of the general viewer, the "healthy common sense" are, however, suspicious of being dominated by the ruling averageness. A simple, naive taste is often a vulgar taste.
The naïve viewer must not be too naïve, otherwise he will miss too much. The naïve viewer often raises surprise with the bonsai enthusiast. People would get bewildered by "dead" trees being exhibited when deciduous trees have no foliage in winter. The usage of much dead wood on a bonsai is seen by many as a sure sign that the tree is dead or will die soon. Large bonsai are often ignored, because they are not "real" bonsai; a real bonsai is a very small one.
A bonsai is not an open book, the contents of which are apparent to everyone who looks at it. It consists of many hidden clues, in art theory called metaphors. Who does not understand the clues will just see a little tree in a pot. Who e.g. does not know the message "triumph in the fight for survival", will have problems with a bonsai with lots of dead wood, a very thin life line, but healthy looking foliage. The laymen will ask why a tree is exhibited that is already dead or will die or conveys such a sick feeling. Who dose not accept the admiration for the old that is so normal for an Asian will rather be delighted by youngish looking deciduous trees than by very old conifers.
It is often a mystery to the experienced bonsai enthusiast why people stand in front of a great bonsai but don't think it's great. One would think that a good tree is just that and everybody should be able to see that, also a layman. This is not so. The tree per se is not beautiful or good, it only sends signals. The receiver must have learned to recognize the signals , to decipher them and to appreciate the tree. This takes a long education. Only the interpretation of signals leads to information, to evaluation, whether one sees a poor or a good bonsai. The information is not in the tree, but in the brain of the viewer. "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder". The way a viewer sees a bonsai is closely connected to the experience of a lifetime, to the collected wisdom of the viewer. It is interesting to note here that the wisdom stored is not only in language form but also in picture and emotional form.
Many people have problems with the "excessive" usage of dead wood in the bonsai art. This is because they have not seen enough trees with lots of dead wood. One can sees such trees in nature, but only in extreme positions, like high mountains or in arid regions. A mountain farmer from Tyrol, who had never seen a bonsai in his life before, went to a bonsai exhibit. He did not ask "how old is it?", "how much doe it cost?", no, he asked "how can it be that such a small tree got struck by lightening?". He had the experience that at the timberline every other tree is struck by lightening eventually. He did not question the usage of dead wood and extreme forms because of his daily experience.
On the other hand one can find people who know very well what trees can look like in extreme positions, but they still are against extreme designs of bonsai. The reason is that often the viewer expects a bonsai to represent an "ideal" tree. The ideal tree being an average, but exceptionally beautiful tree, never an extreme one. This is hard to accept for the artist who is so bored by the normal trees that he learned to see the most extreme ones as ideal. These bonsai are getting so far away from the natural ideal that they are becoming abstract and not acceptable anymore for the average viewer.
One can give the following advice to the viewer of a bonsai: get rid of thoughts about titles, descriptions, style, form, just let the tree as such penetrate you. Everything that can be said with words has not place with the viewer, only feelings count now. The viewer should look and not view. Looking is aimless seeing a bonsai, without any demands. The viewing is opposed to this, it is rational, targeted. One can say that the looking happens in the right side of the brain, whereas the viewing happens in the left side. Who accepts this advice will forget all the rules, just as the artist did when he created this bonsai. The bonsai be a feast for the eye and not for the intellect.
"This is the ugliest tree of this exhibit! Oh is this ugly! I walk away from it, but stop to look back It is really ugly. Going towards the tree again a bit. How can someone dare to exhibit such a tree in an important show? Everything is wrong on this bonsai. Is it even a bonsai, or just a piece of material in a pot? Look at the reverse taper - terrible. Where is the Nebari? Nonexistent. Where is the fist branch? Oh this is supposed to be the first branch? It is atrocious - sets the theme for the whole tree, yes. This crown looks more like a mushroom than a bonsai. On a scale from one to hundred this tree gets minus fifteen points. Oh is it ugly! Walking away from it and letting the tree speak for a while.
Looking back again and trying to see some detail Going closer, very close. Look at this here in the back of the crown, this is a big old hole. A giant owl must live here. Look at the bark - this is so rugged. How come this most atrocious first branch has such an unusual shape. Where did this tree get the huge scars? This must be a very old tree. The longer I look at it the older it gets. This oak may well be five hundred years old. How about that! This oak was there before the Spaniards came. The guard of the valley saw the native Americans the Spaniards going by; it saw the Russians, the gold diggers; it saw the Republic of California! It has seen it all - much much more than we will ever see. This tree owns the valley. It is so strong that it cold not care less what we think of it. We don't exist regarding this oak. What does it concern the old oak tree when the sow rubs it's back at it?
I have deep respect of this tree. I start to admire it. It is so ugly! Ugly in a very serious way, in a respectable way, like a very old person. This tree impresses me deeply.
Is it a bonsai? Is it a good bonsai? Well, if bonsai is a craft and to be judged by the intellect it is a terrible bonsai. If bonsai is an art then we have to ask: is it art when it touches your soul? Yes. Is it high art when it touches your soul very much? Yes. Isn't art about creating something beautiful? NO! Art is about creating something that touches your soul - can well be ugly.
This tree is so ugly that it has started to be beautiful again. Do we want to improve this oak? No, but maybe we can improve it by making it a bit more ugly."