Bonsai Display pt. I
Bonsai Display pt. I
an overview of chinretsu-kai and kazari display.
by Peter Warren
Bonsai display is fundamentally the act of taking a bonsai out of the garden and appreciating it as an artistic object in a way that allows the viewer to focus on the tree. The display provides an opportunity to interact with the composition in a way that is impossible to do when sat on a bench surrounded by other trees. Displaying a bonsai is done to honor and respect the tree, its history and what it represents to both the exhibitor and viewer.
For many enthusiasts, displaying their trees at an exhibition is the culmination of many years of effort and work, a chance to share their love for a tree with others. For others it is a minefield of doubt, worry and anger if overlooked for awards or praise from the public. However you look at it, bonsai display is an integral part of the practice of bonsai, and there are many different ways to approach the more artistic side of bonsai.
Chinretsu-kai: show display
Most of our experience of bonsai on display comes from larger exhibitions with many trees all lined up together in a row in a large hall. This is the chinretsu-kai approach to viewing and enjoying bonsai; lining them up to make them easy to see and compare. The current method or formula of exhibition display is not too dissimilar to how it was practiced a hundred years ago, and within the confines of a traditional exhibition with a large number of trees in an available multi purpose space, there is little more that can be done.
Within the limitations of a six foot space it is possible, however, to present a tree in such a way that accentuates the character of not only the tree, but also the pot, the stand and any accessory object that may be used, making the whole image greater than the sum of its component parts.
The Artisans Cup exhibition in 2015 stands out as the most notable large-scale example... The experience went from being intense and overwhelming at first, to remarkably satisfying once taking the time to understand the vision.
My experience at the Artisans Cup exhibition in 2015 stands out as the most notable large-scale example, where innovative layout and lighting allowed for 70 plus trees to be experienced in a similar way to seeing them in a tokonoma. The experience went from being intense and overwhelming at first, to remarkably satisfying once taking the time to understand the vision.
Kazari: artistic display
The alternative to a large-scale exhibition would be what is known in Japan as kazari, or an artistic display. This approach requires a much deeper level of attention and interaction between all participants and components in the display. It involves both the viewer and the creator of the display, and from both of those a studied contemplation of not just the tree but how it interacts with all of the other components and also the space in which it is displayed.
The environment and setting play a big part, but equally as important is the mental approach of the participants.
In order to focus on minute details and subtle interactions between objects, this needs a quiet space, free of sensual distractions; traditionally in Japan displays have been created in a tokonoma, however, any similar such space within a Western house is possible. Most art galleries pursue this focus, with muted tones, plain backgrounds and spaces between the pieces of art in order to allow such individual interactions.
Bonsai display is the antithesis of crowded galleries, it is not just designed and created to only look pretty, but it is a gateway into a deeper conversation about more than design, wiring technique, fertilization or placement of objects within a space. In order to do this, the environment and setting play a big part, but equally as important is the mental approach of the participants.
When considering the entirety of a Tea Ceremony, the experience as a participant begins when the invitation is received, consideration of what to wear, and excitement at what will be served. On the day itself, the ceremony allows for a period of pause in a tranquil garden in order to calm oneself and mentally prepare for the interaction that is about to take place. Tea rooms themselves are usually austere places, lacking decoration or distraction. The whole experience revolves around drinking tea and appreciating the taste, but it is not just a cup of tea. If that same tea was prepared and drunk in a nightclub, it would taste different. For beginners to Tea looking on without experience, the constraints and formulaic approach to the ceremony become the focus of attention. Less experienced tea masters worry that the spacing between their bowls is not sufficient, or that their whisking technique is being judged.
The ritual and the space of the Tea ceremony is all designed to allow for participants to focus on what is important without distraction, and bonsai kazari is no different.
Tea masters who have decades of experience know that such things are of no concern, the ceremony is necessary but it is just the path, not the goal. The greatest tea master Rikkyu himself noted that “Tea is not but this. First you make the water boil, Then infuse the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know.” The ritual and the space of the Tea ceremony is all designed to allow for participants to focus on what is important without distraction, and bonsai kazari is no different.
A Tokonoma is an empty space that receives objects to create an experience. Take that same Tokonoma and arrangement of objects and put it in a nightclub and it will be a different experience. A space clear of distractions, allowing the viewer to engage specifically with the objects is the ideal. Subtle backgrounds, distinct space and sympathetic lighting play as pivotal a part in the experience as the objects themselves, but what is that experience supposed to be? As the creator of a display, what exactly are you supposed to achieve? This is the essence of bonsai display. If it is a tree displayed in a club show, a national exhibition or in a tokonoma in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, the objective is the same; to allow the viewer to experience nature in an abstract way whilst looking at a literal representation of nature.
Wind can be heard blowing across the mountains, or perhaps the birdsong of the forest... The objective is to allow the form of bonsai to become the path to a wider exploration of nature.
A successful bonsai display starts with the design process of the tree, developing character over the years of growing, pruning, wiring and cultivation. It peaks with the bringing together of elements such as a stand, accent plants or in the Japanese aesthetic, a hanging scroll, combining to amplify that character and allow it space to resonate. If the viewer is in a suitable frame of mind and has a certain amount of life experience, then they will be able to see past the literal form of the tree and feel what it represents. Wind can be heard blowing across the mountains, or perhaps the birdsong of the forest. Memories of childhood escapades may be brought to mind, or existential dread. The objective is to allow the form of bonsai to become the path to a wider exploration of nature.
I have experienced this feeling on numerous occasions in Japan, and elsewhere. Small intimate exhibitions held in temples, or displays created in bonsai nurseries, as well as brief moments of walking around exhibitions before the public were allowed in. This feeling is not easy to create, and is quite impactful when done successfully.
Clearly understanding the objective, considering the objects needed to achieve that and creating a small blank space within your home is all that is needed.
Bonsai display need not be as complex as that in order to achieve a similar goal. Clearly understanding the objective, considering the objects needed to achieve that and creating a small blank space within your home is all that is needed. Most importantly however, is creating the right frame of mind and the time to enjoy it and focus upon it properly, “that is all you need to know”.