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 Post subject: Is That Bonsai Real?
PostPosted: Tue May 03, 2005 8:13 am 
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Is That Bonsai Real?
by Will Heath

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Drawing by Richard Fish


That stunning bonsai that is displayed so well, the beauty that screams perfection, the image that touches your very soul --- is it natural, or is it cosmetically enhanced? Does the award winning grace come from the bonsai and the artist who shaped and styled it? Or is it the product of cosmetic trickery, makeup, dyes, props, and other unnatural enhancements that could turn an average bonsai into a showstopper?
Ridiculous, you say?

Consider the many enhancements that we already take for granted, from Tanuki to waxing foliage to carving deadwood. We oil our pots, brush our trunks, we wax this and wax that, all to better bring out the natural beauty of our bonsai and it's display. We push or postpone flowering by adjusting climate so that a tree will reach its peak on the day of the show and we purposely keep a tree in the shade to darken the foliage. I have even recently learned a trick to hide wounds where you simply press pieces of bark from the removed portion onto the sealing putty to camouflage the area.

Acceptable? Apparently, but where and when should we draw the line? When do the innocent tricks used for so long become cheating? Do we stop at dying foliage a prettier shade or using putty or clay to thicken the trunks or limbs? At attaching additional flowers from a separate plant, or gluing on additional foliage in a needed location, or clipping removable nebari onto the lower trunk for the show? When does the judging change from skill at cultivating, styling, and displaying artistic bonsai to skill at makeup and preparation? When will the cosmetologist replace the artist?

How prevalent is this? It is truly impossible to tell as what artist would readily admit to enhancing his skill or even covering up his lack thereof? Which artist would confess that the flowers on that award winner were actually grown on another plant altogether or that the luscious green of the foliage on that pine is the direct result of spraying dye #189 on in thin layers?

In this day and age of instant gratification and even faster leaps in technology in horticulture and the art of bonsai, these may indeed be questions to be addressed sooner than we think.


Last edited by Will Heath on Fri Jan 25, 2008 11:27 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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PostPosted: Wed May 04, 2005 12:14 pm 
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Some of the techiques used to hide little faults are accepted practice amongst the higher echalons. Attaching a piece of bark to a small bare spot would be perfectly all right. The old bark on the rest of the tree testifies for the age and character. It is authentic and needs some repair. Conversely, adding new bark to the entire lower trunk would be falsification, since it did not previously exist on the tree.

Adding fruits to a tree that does produce the same fruits is another example of acceptable practice. However, if you add something that the tree has never produced, I see that as dishonest.

Dying or lacquering the foliage is out of question in my opinion. I saw it in one exhibit on a Natal plum, and it looked ridiculous and tacky.

Enhancing the deadwood with preservers, colors and sometimes cement is widely accepted. The only requirement I see here is to be in harmony with the rest of the composition.

Grafting different species belonging to the same genus is only accepted in case of Junipers in my experience. I have never seen others, and I strongly believe that it would be looked at as a freak show.
These are my thoughts on this, based on what I saw in the last fifteen years, I am sure that others have more to say.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu May 05, 2005 8:36 am 
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"That stunning bonsai that is displayed so well, the beauty that screams perfection, the image that touches your very soul --- is it natural, or is it cosmetically enhanced? Does the award winning grace come from the bonsai and the artist who shaped and styled it? Or is it the product of cosmetic trickery, makeup, dyes, props, and other unnatural enhancements that could turn an average bonsai into a showstopper?"

The question is really does any of that make any difference? The end justifies the means in bonsai. By it very nature, bonsai is unnatural--trees aren't meant to be kept by humans in pots. So the very foundation of the art/craft/whatever isn't natural.

There are only varying degrees of cosmetics/trickery/props etc. They range from crass and ineffective (laquered leaves) to the subtle and transparent (well Dremeled jins and glued on quince fruit on quince trees). The fact that bonsai is unnatural is a given. The proof of an "award winner" is if it's "unnaturally natural" and moves the viewer.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri May 06, 2005 6:52 am 
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Mark Rockwell wrote:
The end justifies the means in bonsai. By it very nature, bonsai is unnatural--trees aren't meant to be kept by humans in pots. So the very foundation of the art/craft/whatever isn't natural.


I disagree on that. Where the pot ends and where nature starts is sometimes really difficult to say. Trees in clefts or along avenues come close to trees in pots (at least from a biological point of view). The 'end' I simply can't see. After the exhibition live goes on. So the award in fact appreciates a moment in a process, not it's end.

Well, thoughts of someone who does not have to sell bonsai. I am an amateur, I like trees (amare), but my life does not depend on them. You may say: 'Just a hobby then'. On the other hand it allows me to focus on the tree's process more than on social moments?

I personally would like to have catalogues with every exhibition showing the trees some years before and it's supposed future as a virtual maybe. This would allow the professionals to win or sell ? and me to see the process.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Fri May 06, 2005 12:01 pm 
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I would have to agree with Mark on this topic. I think he made a very good point with:
Quote:
By it very nature, bonsai is unnatural

and
Quote:
There are only varying degrees of cosmetics/trickery/props etc. They range from crass and ineffective (laquered leaves) to the subtle and transparent (well Dremeled jins and glued on quince fruit on quince trees). The fact that bonsai is unnatural is a given. The proof of an "award winner" is if it's "unnaturally natural" and moves the viewer.


I didn't really look at it this way until he mentioned it, but the truth of the matter is, you can't allow one cosmetic enhancement and then say that another is out of line. Can you? I'm relatively new to bonsai, but it seems to me that one of the main focuses in this art is to create a tree that is styled by human hands, yet looks like human hands have never touched it. So, why exactly does wiring branches, carving deadwood and jin, and techniques like Thread and Pheonix grafting have credibility over covering missing bark or dying leaves?

I guess it really all boils down to how you look at bonsai. If you look at it from a perspective that it's strictly horticultural, then of course using clay to thicken the trunk of your bonsai or waxing or dying leaves would be out of the question, because the focus of your tree would be the horticultural skill used in creating it. However you would also have to rule out grafting and carving, since those are blatent handmade aesthetics that have nothing to do with horticulture.

But if you look at bonsai strictly as art, then anything goes really. And that could be dangerous in the sense that the exreme of that is a plaster of paris mold that is expertly crafted and painted to look like real bark, and then real leaves are glued onto it.

The reason that we find guidlines so difficult to pin down in bonsai is because it is neither strictly horticultural or art. It's both. So there is some blurring.

I would ask Will Heath why certain techniques he considering "cheating"? The most obvious reason that I find some of these things intially "wrong" is that it seems to take away the main driving force behind a powerful bonsai, and that is the patience of it's owner. If I see a bonsai with really gnarly trunk, lots of character and thickness and taper, then I'm impressed and the tree can move me. If however, I later find out that most of the character was actually chunks of clay molded to look like a rotted out branch, then I suddenly lose most of my respect for the tree as a bonsai (even if it may be a good work of art) mainly because the illusion of age has been shattered. I now *know* that the look of the tree was achieved in the amount of time that it took the artist to sculpt the features and fire the clay.

To me, there's a sense of awe that comes along with looking a tree that has taken decades to get to where it's at. I admire, more than the horticultural or artistic side of bonsai, the patience. And if whatever you are doing seems to have the sole intention of "speeding up the process", then that ruins it for me.

But I would like to hear many reasons why I'm wrong as well as other reasons why some of you may find some of these things "improper" in the world of bonsai.

michael


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Fri May 06, 2005 1:19 pm 
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Michael Thomas wrote:
To me, there's a sense of awe that comes along with looking a tree that has taken decades to get to where it's at.


I agree, that's a big part of the impact bonsai has on me.

The other is the knowledge and technique of the creator of the tree. He created a tree from live material, that looks like a majestic, old and massive tree but in miniature. The fact that this was done from a live tree, is something to behold.

To emphasize the above, let's see what would happen if the whole tree was created from plastic. Today's plastic technology is so advanced, we can easily imagine a plastic tree that looks exactly like a live bonsai. From a few feet, one couldn't tell the difference. Knowing that the whole tree is made of pastic, would that make a difference? After all, if all that matters is the "artistic" effect, why not make it entirely out of plastic?

Or let's make a plastic casing, imitating the gnarly trunk and old bark, and insert a young tree inside it. With enough skill, it could be made to look very "real".

The truth is that such a creation would mean nothing to me. The meaning of bonsai would be entirely lost, and I would rather stick with landscape paintings in that case.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Tue May 10, 2005 11:20 am 
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"I disagree on that. Where the pot ends and where nature starts is sometimes really difficult to say. Trees in clefts or along avenues come close to trees in pots (at least from a biological point of view). The 'end' I simply can't see. After the exhibition live goes on. So the award in fact appreciates a moment in a process, not it's end."

Bonsai is not bonsai without man's "unnatural " intervention. You have already crossed the "unnatural line" by putting the plant in a container. You've already begun to modify it unnaturally with that simple beginning. What is being discussed is what other modifications are "fair game." I think just about anything that "adds" to the tree's basic illusion is fair. The Japanese have no qualms about this kind of modification and manipulation. The final illusion is what matters. The thinking that bonsai is some inviolate practice based on untouched nature is a romantic western notion of eastern philosophy.

Bonsai is NOT nature. It is man's interpretation of it. Trees in clefts have nothing to do with trees forced into pots by man. They may spark the imagination and be a little similar in their biological function, but they have as much in common with bonsai as a lump of granite does to a sculpture.
The beauty of bonsai lies in the intepretation of nature by man, not in trying to have natu


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed May 11, 2005 4:18 am 
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Mark,
The nature discussion leads nowhere. The term 'nature' is artificial, a romantic idea, an interpretation already. That was all I meant to say.

Some cyclists say: When all do doping, then it's not cheating anymore. That is right ? as long as everone knows it, public included! Sure you can allow any 'fine cosmetical surgery on trees'. You just have to declare it. It is being done with cows, dogs, birds, so why not with trees. We have to agree then an exhibition is not meant to show trees 'as they are'. Then it's theatre, all about 'being believable'.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed May 11, 2005 11:09 am 
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Andrew, you said "where the pot ends and where nature starts" in your post. You drew the line.

I said you have made an artificial distinction by the very basic practice of putting the tree in a pot. A bonsai is inherently an artifical thing. You start the tree with artificiality. You have already crossed the line from what's "natural" and apparently "not cheating" into the realm of "artifical" and "cheating" by placing the tree in a pot and pruning it to shape.

"Cheating" here is benign. It's hardly chemically doping onself to beat others for money... Cheating here has a completely different aim, one of beauty to the beholder. It's largely benign even in competitions, since all of the "cheats" are pretty obvious to those doing the judging.

What you're hung up on are some of the more extreme methods of artificiality. Some of them are distastful to those who prefer to see bonsai in romantic terms--some people watch the spectacle of circuses, other complain about the elephant poop...

You have admired those quintissential Japanses bonsai? Those trees have been primped more than an AKC best in show winner. They have had mature branches grafted on, jins implanted, fruit glued in place, younger trees' root systems fused to their nebari, and a host of other techniques applied to them for years. That's how most award winning bonsai are produced.

If you display such trees, should a plaque be placed beside them outlining the laundry list of things that have been done to them to make them beautiful? You'd have to include feeding schedules and pruning schedules too, since those are "artificial" modifications to the tree.

That list would be unread by most. The final bonsai image speaks for itself to the vast majority of people looking at it. Such things make no difference at all if the tree is effective as a bonsai.

To those few that do care about technique, many of those practices are readily apparent in the finisihed tree to the trained eye and require no explanation. This, of course, doesn't really excuse selling a tanuki as a "real" bonsai, however, even that is relative if the tanuki is done well enough--well done tanukis can actually be valuable because they are well done tanukis...


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed May 11, 2005 6:01 pm 
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Mark, would the same thoughts apply to artificial fruit, bark, or foliage if attached, is there a line that we should not cross or is all fair in the name of the final image?

Will


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Wed May 11, 2005 6:14 pm 
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Without trying to cut into Mark's response, there has to be a line somewhere. It's easy to say that everything goes in the name of the final image. But in the extreme case where the tree is 90% plastic and 10% live matter, what would be the response? I know that this is far fetched, but we are talking about principles here. If the plastic tree would deceive you into looking live, would you call that bonsai?

I just can't accept that and be touched the same way as if it was made entirely from the original tree material. May be I am just old fashioned.


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 Post subject: Re:
PostPosted: Thu May 12, 2005 4:48 am 
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Mark Rockwell wrote:
Andrew, you said "where the pot ends and where nature starts" in your post. You drew the line. [?]
If you display such trees, should a plaque be placed beside them outlining the laundry list of things that have been done to them to make them beautiful? You'd have to include feeding schedules and pruning schedules too, since those are "artificial" modifications to the tree.

Mark,
please read again carefully what I wrote. There is an appendix: 'is sometimes really difficult to say'. So I did not draw a line but stated exactly the contrary ? that the 'line' is in fact a grayzone. No matter ? even if I would admit that line, this would not allow you to say: 'it starts artificially, so everything is allowed consequently'. That is eristic, but sophistic, too. One could allow a lot of nonsense basing on that logic. So much for the discussion 'nature vs pot'.

Yes, I would find it good to tell the public all about technical tricks. It does not have to be a plaque. It can be a catalogue you have to buy. Or a detailled internet page. It just has to be accessible for those who want (you can leave away the feeding and pruning schedules you just added to lead my thought ad absurdum?). Why not? Or rather: If not, then I will continue calling it cheating, because there seems to be something that has to be hidden.

Sure I have admired those quintissential Japanese bonsai. As I have admired a lot of quintissential stuff. But some time later I have also felt this strange boredom, that quintissential art produces. Today I prefer art forms that want more from me than plain admiration.

But why so excited? We know what it takes to make a model look perfect for five minutes, what is being done to make a glass of beer look 'fresh'. We appreciate good advertising artwork although know it's not real. Why not doing the same here? Those who want to create the 'absolutely perfect tree for a day' shall do it. But they should be honest about it. That's the line.

Attila: In former cultures mighty ghosts where being fought by being named first. Let's create a name for the ghost. 'Show trees' maybe or 'optimized trees'. So they have their place and we have our peace.


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 Post subject:
PostPosted: Thu May 12, 2005 10:00 am 
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"So I did not draw a line but stated exactly the contrary ? that the 'line' is in fact a grayzone. No matter ? even if I would admit that line, this would not allow you to say: 'it starts artificially, so everything is allowed consequently'. That is eristic, but sophistic, too. One could allow a lot of nonsense basing on that logic. So much for the discussion 'nature vs pot'. "

One man's nonsense is another bonsaiist's jin. Your definition of "nonsense" may or may not be mine bonsaiwise. In placing the tree in a container and keeping it at your whim, you have already made it artificial. It is no longer a "natural" thing. It is a "domestic" thing and subject to your will. The logical extension of your argument would lead to not keeping trees in pots, as such treatment is "unnatural" and even "cruel" to some. The same arguements about "unnatural" have been made about horse breeding, dog breeding etc. for many many years. They are ineffective and beside the point. This boils down to issues of personal taste, experimentation and perception. Bonsai can end in disaster, or in a thing of beauty and even those results are arguable, just like in other living/artistic efforts, like dog breedin, horse breeding. One person's perception of "crossing an ethical line" in dog breeding for instance is another man's football-headed English bull terrier ;-) Some see a grotesquery, others see a thing of beauty (created through the artificial means of selected breeding)--I fall in the latter category when it comes to bull terriers;-), by the way.

"Yes, I would find it good to tell the public all about technical tricks. It does not have to be a plaque. It can be a catalogue you have to buy. Or a detailled internet page."

Groan...Why would you want to inflict such a thing on the public? They will either care less, or be a little poorer for you intruding on their illusion. Bonsai is illusion, much like a magic trick. Sure magicians can explain how they do a trick, but somehow, that kills the charm and "magic." THey tell if they're ASKED about it. If someone asks me how something is done on a bonsai, I would not hesitate to explain. In general though, the public really doesn't require--or desire-- the knowledge of how the trick is done. Same for paintings and other art. Ultimately, the public, and even artists, cares only about the image, not the technique. People rarely ask about Da Vinci's brush technique when looking at the Mona Lisa. They just see the smile.

As a practical matter, you want to have a catalogue of pruning, jinning , root pruning, feeding, etc. practices when you purchase a tree? How many trees do you own? Do you keep records on the details of pruning, feeding, pot changes, soil changes, design changes? I don't. Too much work for not much return. A healthy tree is apparent for those familiar with them. The work you're worried about is done every day to many many trees. It's a given. If this is a concern in buying a tree, then simply talking to the owner will probably be alot better than looking at a web page. If you're buying from a reputable dealer, the points you're interested in should come up in discussion of the plant. If the dealer won't talk about the work he/she has done on a tree, I would look elsewhere.

By the way, what would be worthy of inclusion on the web page/record book? Would the pinching of new growth on a deciduous tree qualify? Would the removal of a branch? I consider both basic work that happens to every bonsai in the course of development. Even major repositioning of major branch may not be a big deal, but it could be a major operation. Where would you draw the line?

I would tend to draw the line at adding things that the tree couldn't have in a wild state. That would mean bark or fruit from another species, plastic foliage or fruit or bark, or whatever. This is a purely hypothetical "pointy-headed" ;-) issue, however, as such things that tend to be most "egregious" at crossing some arbitrary line don't make for an effective bonsai image. The so-called "line" in other words becomes self evident when the image doesn't work.


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PostPosted: Thu May 12, 2005 10:23 am 
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Mark, we should come to an end.
When I show you that you proove nothing by leading my thoughts ad absurdum and speak of 'nonsense' in an absolutely general meaning, then you reply with jin and bonsai. When I speak about exhibition catalogues showing what is 'real grown' and what 'looks like grown', you start speaking about a gardener's diary. I mean false fruit and foliage, you argue with a removed branch. Finally, you tell me bonsai is basically the same like a magic trick. And the viewers are stupid fools anyway who only want to see a great image.
Either you don't read carefully or you don't understand or you don't want to understand. No matter what ? it's playing around, not discussing.


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PostPosted: Thu May 12, 2005 10:58 am 
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Andrew, others asked me what I thought. My response was to those questions, as well as in response to your thoughts.

You raise interesting issues. As for things you seem to take issue with me, I may have missed some of the references you have made. If you're talking about using a list of things in an exhibition album, I still see no reason to include a laundry list of "things done this tree."
I didn't call the averge viewer an idiot, far from it. They are aguably better bottom line judges of bonsai than experts. They are unbiased about bonsai technical minutia. They are all about whether a bonsai is effective at being a bonsai.

as for my arguments about what's acceptable, you miss the point entirely. "False fruit and foliage" ARE the same thing as a removed branch. They are all esthetic alterations of the plant. The point is futile in deciding which is more "ethical" since they are all really the same.

In case you haven't noticed, good bonsai is a magic trick. You are using a collection of horticutural techniques to ultimately created an optical illusions of a tiny landscape or plant. When done well it is magic.
As for being upset, sorry if this discussion upset you. However, this section of the site is for critical posts...


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