Bonsai & Art

Bonsai & Art

Defining Western Bonsai in the 21st Century

Bonsai as an artistic medium is quite unique in its form and execution. At Mirai, we tend to refer to bonsai as being an island within the breadth of horticultural knowledge; it speaks the same language, yet the application and results can vary wildly when it's applied to a containerized tree. As we have come to find out, having an in-depth education in horticulture will only get you so far in our realm. Just as so, bonsai as an art form tends to be parted away from the art history canon, still perceived as a hobby, a craft, the island away from the art history textbooks. 

 We are involved in the appreciation of a living object that breathes, grows, and changes as we do. Bonsai can be an uncomfortable departure from the art object as the general public understands it, and this has been reflected by the reactions of buyers and appreciators alike. One can never own a piece and expect it to stay how it was, unlike a painting, photograph, or sculpture. It will outgrow its design, branches might fall off, leaves might change, or the entire tree itself could die if not taken care of.


"Bonsai as an art form tends to be parted away from the art history canon, still perceived as a hobby, a craft, the island away from the art history textbooks."
 

A bonsai tree can be understood as a physical sculpture, a stationary image, yet its very being as a living tree is ephemeral like a performance or a dance. With the endless considerations that go into the care and maintenance of these art pieces, how do we bring Western bonsai into the already established understanding of the general arts? 

This pertinent question brought me to the Ryan Neil’s method of teaching design principles. He uses his entire body, moving his arms, legs, and head, to describe the trees in terms of the fundamental asymmetry that is so central Mirai’s approach.

Interestingly enough, the positioning of his body is a direct portrayal of contrapposto, an idea originating from Ancient Greece that describes the counterpoise of a subject used to create more dynamic portrayals of the human form. This strategy of depicting a subject appears well into modernity and continues to be referenced in contemporary art to this day. Relationships like this are begin to point at potential bridges between bonsai and what is understood as the arts in the West.

While many of these artists were heavily concerned with upholding a tradition, Ryan’s work is a break from the Japanese ethos surrounding the aesthetics of a tree. Make no mistake, he has an utmost respect for what Japan has taught him. However, that hasn’t stopped him and other like-minded practitioners in the West from exploring what is possible beyond the confines of this age-old tradition.



"A bonsai tree can be understood as a physical sculpture, a stationary image, yet its very being as a living tree is ephemeral like a performance or a dance."

 

A lot of what we see as “static” in Japanese bonsai can be possibly attributed to trees being made in observation of only other bonsai trees. However, especially in the U.S., a lot of refreshing work is being made to resemble the landscapes the material came from or is native to, resulting in wilder, more free compositions.

Whether it's a rugged lodgepole pine mirroring the wild ones that hang off a cliff, or an ancient bald cypress that stands in the murky bayous of the south: these pieces reflect a wildly different design principle than what we have seen in the past. The fact that the U.S. is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world is a testament to what is possible, and what was impossible in the contained biosphere of Japan.

There is also the freedom to cull inspiration from other art forms outside of bonsai: painting, sculpture, photography, music, dance; whatever moves you to create your next composition. Maybe a particular movement in a performance informs your design of a swirling rocky mountain juniper, or you translate the colors of a painting into the type of ceramic you choose for your tree.



"It takes an intent self-awareness from a collective group of practitioners to evolve a conversation, to really explore beyond what a medium can do within the strict traditions from where it was born."

 

If trees are developed and refined to reflect the individuality of the practitioner, and that practitioner proceeds to influence others in their respective region, it could very well lead to a greater appreciation of the artform as the pieces themselves speak more closely to the audience it serves. It all feeds into what we believe in here at Mirai: bonsai is a reflection of the culture, nature, and the individual. 

So where does Western bonsai go from here? Ultimately, the goal is to push bonsai beyond what was thought possible and to garner a more widespread appreciation of this beautiful medium. It takes an intent self-awareness from a collective group of practitioners to evolve a conversation, to really explore beyond what a medium can do within the strict traditions from where it was born.

If everyone has the same tools and abilities, only then will we create something special, something that is different from what anyone has seen before. This is where the independence of Western bonsai begins, where a new audience can begin to relate to this ancient art form as it has been transformed, and we could not be more excited for what the future holds of everyone.



Notes: 

Written by: Ricardo Nagaoka 
All photography by Bonsai Mirai
Artwork in order: Ary Scheffer, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil, 1835; Raphael, Drawing study, circa 1500; Dosso Dossi, Bacchus, 1524; Jacob Jordaens, Meleager and Atalanta, circa 1620-1650
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