Chained to a Tree
by Will HeathPhotograph 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 http://origamibonsai.org/images/572_IMG_2279.JPG
We shouldn’t be bound by the medium, imagine if the only thing you were allowed to make with Legos were reproductions of Legos, http://www.lifeinthefastlane.ca/wp-cont ... _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? http://www.lifeinthefastlane.ca/wp-cont ... _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?