Chained to a Tree
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Author:  Will Heath [ Sun Dec 20, 2009 11:17 am ]
Post subject:  Chained to a Tree

Chained to a Tree
by Will Heath

Photograph by Don_Gato (LoFi Photography)

Consider the concept of art as it applies to bonsai, more specifically bonsai as an art form weighed against the forms, history, and evolution of other art forms. Many people prefer to discard common sense and consider bonsai as an art form that is somehow separate from other art forms, placing it in some imaginary universe where it exists outside of the realm of true art while somehow still being an art form. This makes no sense, all art forms are different, not just bonsai.

Sculpture is very different from painting and even these art forms have different variations, relief carving, for example, is a form of sculpture and many masters have mixed painting with other forms of expression, such as collage, etc. So, just because bonsai deals with a living plant instead of non-living material, it is no more or no less an art form than sculpture or painting. Considering this, it stands to reason that (within the limits of keeping the medium alive) bonsai is just as a valid of an art form as any other and, as such, should have as much freedom of expression.

For many years classical art dominated, realism was in, art was of real things, in lifelike proportions, true to nature. The Last Supper, David, The Thinker, and such all portrayed life as it was, perhaps making it more so, but with life as the model. The masters of old enhanced the human form, bringing it to near perfection, but the model was still human, the rules were solid and set in stone.

Then art changed.

Abstractism, Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, showed us life, not how it actually was, but another version, another way of seeing it, it was no longer imitation of life, but in many ways, pure creation, pure imagination. The medium became plastic; artists broke free of the chains of imitation, they were no longer limited by how things actually were, but instead they could explore the perception of their creativity.

But bonsai today seems to have remained stuck in one single mode. Realism is the rule and woe be to any who wavers from this school of thought.

Objective reality became our master.

It seems that almost every day on one bonsai forum or another you can find someone quoting John Naka’s words, “Don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree.” Why? Why is this mandatory?

Certainly imitating trees as they grow in nature has long been embedded in the art of bonsai, in fact, like the great masters of other arts, we not only portrayed trees as they were in nature, but with idealism, made them better. We developed rules and techniques to eliminate inherent flaws found in nature and these rules have so imprisoned our mindset that any violation of them, such as a bar branch, is quickly noticed and condemned. It seems we are so focused on these rules designed to make a bonsai look like a tree, that the total image presented is ignored and instead we examine the tree only to find rule violations.

However, in China and Japan, in bonsai’s early history, the art was much more abstract, trees that brought to mind dragons, tigers, cranes, or other animals were highly valued and desired. Somewhere along the line we lost this side of bonsai and with it many styles.

Thankfully the great abstract artists, the impressionists, the cubists, and other great artists never went by the rule that a tree must look like a tree, that a person must be imitated exactly, that nature must be duplicated, that an artist only succeeds if they are nothing more than a Xerox machine. Even those great artists who were masters at realism, stretched proportions, perspective, and color to make the real, more real than simple copies.

We, as bonsai artists, are still chained to the natural image of a tree. Bonsai are judge quite often as to how closely they resemble a tree in nature, if the species grows as such in nature, if they realistically portray real trees. This is not unlike the great masters I spoke of above, where art imitated nature.

If bonsai is indeed an art, then is it not possible to express the tree in manners that, although not true to nature, are still visually pleasing? Can there be abstract art, Cubism, Impressionism, or surrealism in bonsai?

Why are we chained to the natural image of a tree? Can we not do more than imitate trees in nature; is there no imagination, creativity, lust to present a tree as we see it in a dream?

Isn’t it strange to others that simply because we use a tree as a medium for expression that the outcome must look like a tree as well? We don’t need a tree to make a tree; this can be done with pencil, pen, paint, clay, and even paper can be used to make a bonsai of sorts

We shouldn’t be bound by the medium, imagine if the only thing you were allowed to make with Legos were reproductions of Legos, ... _17sfw.gif

What if a artistic creation of balloons were judged and critiqued solely on the basis that the resulting art had to look like a balloon? ... _14sfw.gif

In closing, I ask, must bonsai be judged by only what can be observed in nature? Must bonsai represent only images of trees? Can imagination and creativity be used to break the chains of realism in bonsai?

Can we imagine the wispy thin trunks and thread thin branches of trees in low gravity, certainly the modern sumo style could be said to represent a tree in higher gravity.

Can we imagine a carnivore tree, or one capable of moving to a better environment? Can we ever embrace impressionist trees with straight trunks and perfectly round foliage without pushing it to the realm of topiary?

Are we chained to only images of trees as they exist in nature?

Author:  Attila Soos [ Mon Dec 21, 2009 8:15 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

Will Heath wrote:
[Are we chained to only images of trees as they exist in nature?

It's a matter of personal preference. We are all different, and our primary interest may be different, as well.

I got into bonsai for my love of nature, so to me the greatest challenge is to create bonsai that evokes images from nature. I find this much harder to accomplish, than to create more abstract forms.

But having said that, I also love to play around with plants, so if a certain material lends itself to an unusual subject, I wouldn't shy away from creating a bonsai that reminds me of an animal, human form, or any other fantastic creature.

My primary focus still remains nature, as a source of inspiration. The great thing about nature is that it supplies us with endless array of forms, images, moods. I remember, as a kid, watching the clouds with my sister and trying to find different fantastic shapes in them. It's the same with trees: I can see in them anything I want.
Instead of feeling restricted by nature, I feel rather liberated.

Author:  Gene Deci [ Mon Dec 28, 2009 4:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

Will’s provocative piece makes me think of a trip I took a few years ago through the heartland of this great country. I happened to drive past a nursery on the outskirts of a small town. Hanging below the main sign like rungs of a ladder were placards that said "evergreens", "fruit trees", "flowering shrubs", and "bonsai". By the time I saw that magic word on the bottom I was too close to the entrance to stop so I went on by until I came to a place where I could turn around and go back. I have no doubt every one of you would have done the same thing. I pulled in, parked and began to search for the bonsai. I had not yet found them when a gentleman came up and asked if he could help me. I told him what I was looking for and a perplexed expression came over his face. With a silent wave of his hand he indicated the plants arrayed on the benches in front of me. I had not paid much attention to them because they were not what I was expecting to see. Some might have been classified as topiary but most just defied description. One juniper had a straight, bare trunk with straight, bare branches each of which had a little tuft of foliage at the end. One broadleaf I didn't recognize had been grown in a coil of several loops, which were all fanned out. It reminded me of a leafy Olympic symbol as much as anything. It did not seem that there was any attempt to echo nature in miniature but rather it seemed the goal was to make each tree as bizarre as possible. When I realized that there would be nothing there that interested me, a strange thing happened. I became interested in what was there. They were fascinating in their own way and I enjoyed looking at them. That may qualify them as art but I never did consider them to be bonsai.

Like Attila, I have always considered the art (and the hardest part) of bonsai to be ability to elicit the grandeur of nature with a small tree in a pot. That is not to say that using the same material for some other aim isn’t art but that is not what grabbed my soul originally and not what still does.

Author:  Ravi Kiran [ Tue Dec 29, 2009 7:07 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

For any art form to evolve it has to go through the “settling down” phase, during which it is appreciated and accepted. For classical art to evolve into impressionism, cubism and (my favorite) surrealism, took time.

Though Bonsai is an accepted art form, and has existed for over a thousand years, it has been only about 50 odd years since it has spread globally and it still is spreading. It still needs some time before it evolves into its next phase. What would it evolve into would be difficult to predict, but evolve it surely will.

Evolution of art is caused by a specific breed of artists. Such artists are (as the cliché goes) into art for heart’s sake. For such artists, rules are a means and not an end, acceptance by peers, critics or general public is of no consequence. Neither is money. It is when the mind is not shackled by such things that pioneering work in any art can happen. Acceptance takes time and as in Van Gough’s case might not happen in the artist’s lifetime.

It is also important to realize that when art evolves, it does not replace or demean the existing art styles. It adds on to the ways, that art can be created and appreciated. So an artist belong to the older school of art need not feel threatened by the evolving art style.

It is also important to say that all attempts at evolving bonsai may not succeed. Like for example “Pop Bonsai”. Such failures happen when the evolution isn’t good enough.

Bonsai would certainly evolve as an art and such evolution would be governed by much older adages – “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”

Author:  Ana Veler [ Tue Dec 29, 2009 7:44 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

Gene Deci wrote:
... it seemed the goal was to make each tree as bizarre as possible.

- possibly the other good reason to break away from any pretense of tradition of interpretation, let alone rules...

Simply the first thing that came to mind reading. Cannot remember right now where I read a fairly interesting saying about rules: [approximately] that the best and the worst thing about rules is that they can be followed.

Author:  Gene Deci [ Tue Dec 29, 2009 4:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

Ravi is surely right that bonsai will go the way of the other arts and new genres or schools will develop as time goes on. That has already happened. But the question remains: Will nature play any role in how bonsai is defined or will it be “anything goes”?

For example, years ago a good friend created a forest fire bonsai. It was assembled like a well designed group planting but the trees were all dead - burned and blackened. A couple were fallen to the ground. It looks very much like the burned over Jack Pine forests of northern Michigan where, to speed renewal, the forest service had conducted a controlled burn. Each year my friend re-seeds his creation with jack pine seeds which sprout and grow to complete the picture. He has submitted it a number of times to various shows and been turned down each time because "it is not a bonsai". The fact is, I like the piece very much and it is a reflection of nature which includes living trees. But most people do not consider it to be a bonsai. So what is a bonsai anyway?

Author:  Al Keppler [ Wed Dec 30, 2009 12:39 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

Thanks Will for validateing my thoughts....

Author:  Will Heath [ Wed Dec 30, 2009 6:03 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

Al Keppler wrote:
Thanks Will for validateing my thoughts....

That's rather vague Al, care to elaborate on your thoughts?


Author:  Ana Veler [ Tue Jan 12, 2010 10:56 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Chained to a Tree

Gene, you can count one more fan of the idea of a Burnt forest planting. Would even bet I'll turn out to be a fan of the real thing too, if there was a chance to seeing it. Enabling comes easy! [LINK - one option of a whole lot]

Until anyone decides whether it may get into any bonsai or arts exibit and under what label, it seems to fit in a fairly diverse group of art objects proposing bundles of the commonly professed meanings of bonsai in other media, some with no [confessed?] awareness of the coincidence....

Gene Deci wrote:
Will nature play any role in how bonsai is defined or will it be “anything goes”?

I take this is one of those questions that cannot be answered, but are well worth shooting at. A possible take:

Considering that the life-span of some above-mentioned kindered art objects is no longer then the duration of one exibit, bonsai must have been doing something significant differently. However, it seems inapropriate that the legitimcy of the medium might be addressed with anything but the tools of the trade. From the outside, I would be pleased to hear what some of the makers of said art objects might say, for example on whether entrusting their work to a medium with no legacy is deliberate... So far, just wishful thinking - this one isn't half baked yet.

Utagawa Yoshitoyo - 'various types of potted plants'; in an account of Edo gardening, Ota Collection

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