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 Post subject: The Principle of the Steelyard in Bonsai Display
PostPosted: Fri Mar 04, 2005 9:49 pm 
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This thread is for discussion of the article by Carl Bergstrom: "The Principle of the Steelyard in Formal Bonsai Display."
http://www.artofbonsai.org/feature_articles/steelyard.php


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 06, 2005 4:31 pm 
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What an intersting concept!

I must admit that I am not fond of us doing traditional three point displays. Of us, I mean those who come form another culture than the Japanese. I have no scroll and never will use one. But it is quite interesting to learn about principles from this.

So far scrolls have bothered me. Probably they still will. I think a scroll distracts form the tree. And I have no clue what the signs mean on ths scroll. And all these Japanese letters and images do not mean much anything in my part of the world.

This steelbar thing is intruiging though.

Now crucify me.

Walter


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PostPosted: Sun Mar 06, 2005 6:25 pm 
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Carl,
Excellent piece on an important aesthetic principle. Composers, landscape painters, novelists ...all artists can use this mechanism to lend effectiveness to the communication in their works - as we bonsai artists can. I am so glad that you bring this up for others to become acquainted with.

Walter,
Perhaps it is not what you meant, but I am surpised if you have never before considered this fundamental artistic mechanism. It is the very thing from which the idea of asymmetrical balance is extrapolated. As for scrolls, it seems that you only reference those which depict Japanese calligraphy. Those are not nearly as common as ones depicting some reference to nature.

Do you not see the benefit of the contextual support/expansion that can come from such a painting? A more broad, rectangle common to most western landscapes would not suffice, as it does not effectively provide the pivot point in the composition (narrow, vertical weight).
----

As for scrolls with Kanji, few westerners have any idea what they say, but the same sort of thing with English poetry/words would not likely have the necessary aesthetic qualities for display with bonsai. I think it should be obvious why this is, but I'm keen to see if anyone will hit on it here in discussion. Anyone care to weigh in on this?

Kind regards,

Andy


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2005 3:05 am 
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Andy,

I am afraid that you did understand me. I read your article about combining bonsai and art and that this is not a good idea. I feel combining a bonsai with a scroll is just as bad an idea.

Now I will be excommunicated: I believe that bonsai is an international artform and has ceased to be a Japanese artform. A person trying very hard to include reference of Japan in an exhibit lives in danger of doing ethnical kitsch.

shoot me.

Walter


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2005 3:43 am 
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Walter,
I'd like to stress that in the steelyard article, I did not mean to promote traditional formal display, but rather I hoped to make an effort to understand it. If we are going to reinvent formal display in a Western cultural context, we would do well to understand the artistic foundations of why Japanese formal display works so well, at least within its own cultural context.

I personally enjoy traditional display, and I seek to deepen my own understanding and appreciation and ability to engage in this sort of display --- but that I agree wholeheartedly with you that for most Western audiences, Japanese traditional display loses the majority of its subtlety in the wash of cultural difference. This is what I was trying to get at in the How Good Art Gets Better article when I wrote "To most Western viewers, even carefully planned [traditional] displays will be scarcely distinguishable from (well composed) orientalistic kitsch." The flip side is just as dangerous; I suspect we have all seen a western artist throw together a three-point display that violates most of the principles of successful composition, and yet the artist considers the production a success "because it looks so Japanese."

With my best regards,

Carl


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2005 12:29 pm 
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The word kitsch is used here a lot, and I can see why. A great work of art draws the viewer's imagination into the picture, making him an active participant in the process. It leaves a lot to imagination, so the viewer can add to it from his own experience.

A kitsch force-feeds you the idea presented, you are stuck with it, nothing to add, nothing to phantasize about.

The tokonoma display is foreign to the average viewer, since there is nothing like it in the Western culture. Since the viewer cannot relate to it, and the closest thing he can associate it with is the Oriental exotica so prevalent in the west, it becomes kitsch in his eyes.

If the viewer was more educated about the principles used in creating this kind of display, its artistic merits would become obvious.
But how can we expect this from the average Western viewer?


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 07, 2005 12:34 pm 
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Now, the problem with the above comment is that Walter is not the average viewer, and he still doesn't like it. For that one, I don't have an explanation (smiley).


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PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2005 12:17 am 
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The use of a scroll in bonsai display suffers from the same issues Andy mentioned in his essay about showing western style art with a bonsai.

Westerners (Japanophils especially) tend to over emphasize the use of a scroll with bonsai display. I just leafed through two different Kokufunten albums and in over 500 photographs of wonderful bonsai not a scroll to be seen - and no suiseki either. "Masterpieces of Bonsai" edited by Yoshio Takayanagi - 96 pages of bonsai, no scrolls. Another Japanese book by the Nippon Bonsai Association "Classic Bonsai of Japan" - 180 pages of bonsai - again no scrolls. Just great bonsai and stands.

Japanese use scrolls on their walls for the same reason Westerns hang art in their house because scrolls were what Japanese (and Chinese) people traditionally used for art. Scrolls can remain hanging from a wall with little maintenance.

The Samurai class popularized the display of art objects as a form on entertainment. Scrolls were only one of many things that a Samurai would display in their rooms or niches. Therefore it was only natural that when it was time to bring a bonsai inside for display; viola it was in front of the scroll.

I have been in many Japanese houses and the concept of a steelyard (by the way, what is the etymology of that use of the word?) would be as foreign to those Japanese as most westerners. I agree that there is a basis of asymmetrical placement of items in an artistic design, but this asymmetry can occur without other accoutrements and the tree will still look great (to wit the photos in the books I mentioned above.)

BTW, the use of asymmetry in bonsai art would a great topic for another thread. Suffice it to say, I think the emphasis of it is overblown. The reason is simple. Symmetry implies order and the natural flow of things in our universe ever since the Big Bang is towards more disorder (or entropy). If something is not symmetrical, then by definition it is asymmetrical. Only a little bit of disorder makes a symmetrical thing asymmetrical. Therefore we are used to seeing asymmetrical things because it is much easier for nature to assume that state.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2005 1:08 pm 
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Rob Kempinski wrote:
(by the way, what is the etymology of that use of the word?)

The name Principle of the Steelyard comes from the (old) technology used in the steelyards to lift heavy stuff. There are mechanical devices involving levers, counterweights and pivot points.
Basically, using this principle, visual balance is approximated with mechanical balance.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2005 4:11 pm 
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Rob,
As I stressed in my reply to Walter above, my purpose in writing this article was not to advocate traditional three-point display, but rather to try to understand why it is artistically successful. I agree that three-point display will seem to be cliche to many Western audiences, and that for Western audiences, other forms of display may less culturally loaded and thus more successful at facilitating appreciation of the bonsai and/or accent objects involved.
Rob Kempinski wrote:
I have been in many Japanese houses and the concept of a steelyard (by the way, what is the etymology of that use of the word?) would be as foreign to those Japanese as most westerners.

My argument was not that the Japanese have deliberately incorporated the principle of the steelyard in their design. Rather, I am arguing that the composition principles that we see in three-point display are familiar ones to us as well --- they make sense because of something very fundamental in how the human eye perceives pattern and balance.
In particular, I find this concept of the steelyard to be useful in understanding the composition of three point display with regard to following comment that I often here from Western viewers: "The scroll is crowding the tree!". I worried about this myself when I first started viewing three-point displays. Over and over again on internet forums and even at shows, I hear people complaining about traditional placement of the scroll close to or even partially behind the tree, and see them trying in virtuals or in real life to put the scroll equidistant between tree and accent object.
That doesn't work! The reason that it doesn't work is not some obscure and culturally-specific rule of Japanese composition - it is a basic principle of balance. The larger, visually dominant mass of the tree has to be far closer to the pivot of the scroll in order to be properly balanced by a smaller subordinate accent object.
Quote:
I agree that there is a basis of asymmetrical placement of items in an artistic design, but this asymmetry can occur without other accoutrements and the tree will still look great (to wit the photos in the books I mentioned above.)


You're right - two point display works beautifully, is used commonly at Kokufu and elsewhere, and indeed is my leading candidate for an appropriate paradigm of formal display for Western audiences. Here you are getting something very interesting, something that I still haven't resolved myself.
In a previous email discussion, Richard Fish and I wondered about exactly this point, and I wrote "Of course, the vertical pivot is not essential. Two-point display works beautifully without a vertical pivot. One thing I've wondered about is whether two-point display includes an implied pivot and whether the principle of the steelyard continues to apply there. "
Any thoughts on that matter?

With my best regards,
Carl


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2005 7:00 pm 
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Carl Bergstrom wrote:
One thing I've wondered about is whether two-point display includes an implied pivot and whether the principle of the steelyard continues to apply there. "[/i]

Of course it applies.

Any display, object, arrangement has an implied pivot, and that is the vertical line crosing the center of gravity of the arrangement as a whole.
In a two-point display the pivot ideally should be at the center of the display area, or the table if you will. So, the bonsai with the stand should be closer to the center of the table and the accent plant a little further from the center.

Furthermore, the bonsai-stand combination alone also has an implied pivot of its own. It should be the center of the stand. That's why in many cases a slanting bonsai is placed on the stand slightly off-center in order to keep the center of gravity/pivot at the center of the stand (although Andy and many others would place the pot exactly on the center of the stand, slanting tree or not).

The Principle of Steelyard is basically the same as visual balance. Is just explains it in more tangible terms.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2005 7:39 am 
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Rob Kempinski wrote:
Westerners (Japanophils especially) tend to over emphasize the use of a scroll with bonsai display. I just leafed through two different Kokufunten albums and in over 500 photographs of wonderful bonsai not a scroll to be seen - and no suiseki either. "Masterpieces of Bonsai" edited by Yoshio Takayanagi - 96 pages of bonsai, no scrolls. Another Japanese book by the Nippon Bonsai Association "Classic Bonsai of Japan" - 180 pages of bonsai - again no scrolls. Just great bonsai and stands.


Of course! It must be understood that these exhibitions are contests of craft, not art. These contests and books are not put on or published for artistry. Rather, they're endeavor-specific exercises in craft.

I sincerely hope that we don't start trying to equate what is done in contests with what is appropriate for artistry. Merely pointing to the Japanese and noting that the large scale events they put on do not jive with the particulars of formal artistic display is a non sequitur. Apples and oranges, folks.

Art involves craft. Great art involves great craft. But contests of craft and artistic exhibition are not the same thing. Let's not be too smart by half! Yes, let's have vigorous and beefy discussion/debate/argument here, but let's not use irrelevant data to support our contention.
Kind regards,
Andy


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2005 10:43 am 
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Andy Rutledge wrote:
Of course! It must be understood that these exhibitions are contests of craft, not art. These contests and books are not put on or published for artistry. Rather, they're endeavor-specific exercises in craft.

I sincerely hope that we don't start trying to equate what is done in contests with what is appropriate for artistry. Merely pointing to the Japanese and noting that the large scale events they put on do not jive with the particulars of formal artistic display is a non sequitur. Apples and oranges, folks.
Art involves craft. Great art involves great craft. But contests of craft and artistic exhibition are not the same thing. Let's not be too smart by half! Yes, let's have vigorous and beefy discussion/debate/argument here, but let's not use irrelevant data to support our contention.
Kind regards,
Andy


Oh dear, not the art versus craft debate, how I hate that dreary and pass' argument - you might as well debate which came first the chicken or the egg. And I don't think you can dismiss the thesis that bonsai themselves are the art with a wave of the hand like that.

In reading the title of this site 'Artofbonsai.org' I interpreted it as this site was about the Art of Bonsai which to me means the bonsai are the art. In my mind there is no doubt creating bonsai takes great artistic ability, and great technical skill. In order to display this artistry requires placing a well executed bonsai in a position such that the tree (and its pot) can be appreciated. A bonsai displayed properly (eye level, clean pot, good surface treatment such as nice moss, and a uncluttered background) can communicate on many levels and as such accomplishes the goal of the artistry.

A bonsai does not need the other little artifacts of the three point display to give it presence nor to help it communicate. In fact, the other artifacts will usually give a different message than if the bonsai were alone. It seems the goal with a three point display is to communicate a landscape at some level. But I contend that bonsai on their own can communicate much more than a landscape. They can evoke a whole variety of human emotions. In fact, I am writing a book about this.

Bonsai display with other artifacts pleasing as it may be pales in comparison to the art required to envision and execute the tree. I would go as far to say that there is very little artistry in creating a traditional three point (or two point) display. It to me is the same as Andy's critique of Crisco's art installation. The other artifacts are merely decoration aimed at establishing some perceived milieu

And as Andy has said 'Great art requires great craft' - where is the great craft in a three point bonsai display' Give a gaggle of monkeys a great bonsai, an accent plant and a scroll and sooner or later they will place the objects in a position that professional critics find pleasing. Those same monkeys will never take a plant and fashion a bonsai from it because bonsai art takes foresight, artistic vision, technical skill, and patience.

Finally, for time being, I will discount the Kokfuten yearbooks, since Andy claims they come from a result of competition and hence disqualify them from art - (which to me is an illogical.) But the other books I mentioned, "Masterpieces of Bonsai" edited by Yoshio Takayanagi, and "Classic Bonsai of Japan" by the Nippon Bonsai Association, and even other books such as 'Bonsai - Art of Living Sculpture' by Jack Douhitt and Colin Lewis' 'Art of Bonsai Design' are not a product of bonsai competition but rather purposely written to delve into the bonsai as art. These books focus on the trees as well they should.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2005 11:14 am 
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Great discussion.
Attila Soos wrote:
Carl Bergstrom wrote:
One thing I've wondered about is whether two-point display includes an implied pivot and whether the principle of the steelyard continues to apply there. "[/i]

Of course it applies.

Any display, object, arrangement has an implied pivot, and that is the vertical line crosing the center of gravity of the arrangement as a whole.


Thanks Attila -that makes sense to me.

My obvious question is, that if this is the case, why are we bothering with all this additional cultural clutter? Colin Lewis, (in the How Good Art Gets Better discussion), commented:
Quote:
When I design a tree and select the pot, it is a stand-alone work of art; it is not created with a view to combining it with anything else. Of course, to display the work at its best it may be necessary to raise it above the display table, and to consider the space either side of the piece. But how it is raised is a matter of my choice and taste, and what occupies the space either side should, in my choice and taste, be a blank surface - just as a sculpture or a painting is given its own space in a galley or exhibition.


Rob's most recent post above seems to echo the same standpoint as Colin has on this subject.

Perhaps a well designed tree, that is successful in communicating the artist's concept is the ideal here. Does this not leave more room for personal viewer interpretation, rather than the viewer being pointed down a specific route by other seasonal and geographic clues provided by the other items on display? Assuming the viewer even understands the route he is supposed to be following.

Regards,
Richard.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2005 5:31 pm 
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Andy stated "It must be understood that these exhibitions [Kokufu-Ten, etc] are contests of craft, not art."
Andy, have you been to a Kokufu-Ten exhibition? I can't imagine describing it as a 'craft' competition and not an 'artistic' display. I was more enthralled by many of the displays there than by that silly Mona Lisa thingy in the Louvre!
;-)


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