Bonsai Kusamono Suiseki
A Practical Guide for Organizing Displays with Plants and Stones
by Willi Benz
Stone Lantern Publishing Co., Watertown, MA USA: 204pp.,
Reviewed by Will Heath*
This book is the bible of display.
I realize that that the above statement is a strong one but there is really no other way to describe what Willie Benz has given the bonsai community, actually what he has given to all who are interested in bonsai, kusamono, or suiseki display. The book is filled with information pertaining to display and it covers every aspect of the subject precisely with photographs and illustrations to support the descriptive text. Mr.I Chi Su sums up Willie's accomplishment with this book in the forward with the words, "With his experience, knowledge and artistic talent in both Bonsai and Suiseki, applied with the Western analytical method to explain Eastern philosophy and culture, he has created a refreshing way of design."
As a book simply covering the proper way to display objects, this book would be a valuable reference tool, however Mr. Benz takes it to many different levels and sublevels, adding a multi-dimensional feel to the book where the reader, before they realize it, acquires vast useful knowledge on the creation or choosing of the components of the display, the reasoning behind the guidelines, as well as some very well explained principles of artistic design.
In the first chapter titled "The Presentation or Exhibition of Objects of Art" Mr. Benz leaves no doubt that he considers bonsai, kusamono, and suiseki art and he is very aware of the cultural differences between East and West and does not try and force the Eastern way of display upon the reader, even though a good majority of the book uses such as examples. He sums up his thoughts on this with the words, "Actually, a display is not a presentation of any objects. It rather means 'presentation of esthetic valuable exhibits at a high intellectual level.' Because we are dealing with Asiatic exhibits, it is easy to understand why a display intends to create intellectual relationships between the different objects, relationships which find their origin in the Asiatic veneration of nature or the mythology. However, this is not an absolute obligation in Western displays. Here, Western art comprehension or Western mythology may also be taken into account."
As a reference manual this book is beyond compare, covering so many subjects that I could not possibly list them all here. From how to select the appropriate pot, stand, accent, for a plant, to Tokonoma layouts, sizes, material used to build them, to selecting suitable plants for kusamono and the symbolism of many popular varieties, to defining the different types of displays with examples, right up to seasonal displays .
Mr. Benz covers such artistic principles as visual speed, direction of flow, negative space, harmony, and the golden section. He ties these all together in a clear and precise manner that leads the reader to a better understanding of what makes a display successful and what does not. He also covers many types of display from shohin to larger sized bonsai and discusses display in formal settings such as a tea room, in exhibits, as well as displays in the home or garden.
The only drawback to this book, in my opinion, is Mr. Benz's addition of a chapter on cultivation, which is filled with information on growing kusamono such as descriptions and photographs of soil components. Although he presents this information professionally and it may well be very useful for some readers, I can't help but to think this information is out of place in a book about display. Such useful information as this may well have been better used in another book on creating kusamono instead of diluting an otherwise excellent source of information on artistic display.
204 pages, 16 chapters, a comprehensive glossy and index, illustrations, diagrams, and color photographs featuring some of the best bonsai, kusamono, suiseki, and displays in the world make up this book. However, the book is much more than the sum of its parts, it goes far beyond being a textbook, beyond being a reference manual, it inspires the reader not only to create better displays, but to seek out a higher intellectual understanding of both Eastern and Western artistic display. This book should be in the collection of every person who practices the art of bonsai, kusamono, or suiseki so that they can better understand the displays they view and present their own art in the manner it deserves.
This book truly earns the right to be called the bible of display.
* About Will Heath