Article 75 – ‘Design: a discussion’ Part 5

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this article we discuss the complexities of design, it’s meaning and message what the designer or artist is attempting to impart with their perspective and to attempt to make sense of it all in a rational manner.

Introduction Tanuki – is the Japanese word for Raccoon dog or Badger an animal known as the arch deceiver in Japanese folklore, meaning nothing is quite what it appears. The Tanuki technique is the marriage of a living tree affixed to an interesting piece of deadwood (often from an entirely different species) with the idea of creating a driftwood style composition, which is completely false.

This technique often known as ‘Phoenix Grafts’ (after the mythological Phoenix, which arose from its own ashes) is not currently accepted as part of the Japanese bonsai tradition and would not be displayed at a formal Japanese bonsai show. Nonetheless, many bonsai growers outside Japan consider Tanuki as an acceptable technique, because it reduces the amount of years to produce a deadwood bonsai specimen in the traditional way.

The combination of live and dead wood was usually restricted to coniferous varieties resulting in some surprising and effective displays, but now is a common practice with deciduous varieties. Yet combining live and dead wood is not that easy to accomplish if one wishes the outcome to have a natural appearance. There are two common approaches of how this technique can be achieved, (a) by surface fixation and (b) insertion method.

Surface fixation – the deadwood or host is cleaned, prepared long before hand to allow it to become weathered. The ‘live’ wood can be wrapped around the ‘dead’ wood and either screwed using stainless steel screws, brass nails, wire, raffia or plastic cable ties to make a permanent bond. But problems can arise using this method (a) infection from pathogens to the wounds made by the fixings, (b) ugly indentations in the ‘live’ wood made by wire, plastic and cable ties. Moreover, this method attaching ‘live’ wood to ‘dead’ wood takes some considerable time for the ‘live’ wood to conform to the contours of it’s new host.

Insertion method requires a more delicate approach as it involves the use of extremely sharp carving or power tools and one mishap can result in catastrophe. Once a ‘dead’ wood candidate has been selected, it needs to be treated to remove any decaying material and bacteria potentially harmful to the ‘live’ wood partner. The deadwood in the images shown below are roots from dead pines that were boiled for approximately 20 mins, allowed to dry and left to the elements for 2 years.

Tanuki deadwood

The left picture depicts the front and the right the rear in which you will notice a groove has been made via the use of a Dremel. The groove using the ‘keyhole’ method meaning wide enough to insert the ‘live’ material, but enlarged within to allow the plant room to expand and lock itself in place once inserted. Once both ‘dead’ and ‘live were aligned correctly wet raffia was used to secure the ‘live’ material in place that will eventually swell producing a rigid seam at the rear giving what can be deemed in all intents and purposes a natural entity although we know it is not. (Shown below)

Tanuki left = front right = back

A point of view – if we follow the guidelines of the Japanese masters the meaning of bonsai ‘bon’ – pot and ‘sai’ – tree is the marriage or coupling of the two components and nothing more. Thus we can argue that Bonkei (no ‘live’ material) Saikei (which has) and Hón Non Bó are not bonsai, they are landscape designs using figurines, rocks and structures. Moreover, Tanuki is not bonsai it is a combination of ‘live’ and ‘dead’ wood material often from different species, a fake composition set to deceive the viewer and many purists will concur with this viewpoint.

However, there will be arguments to the contrary some will contend that BonkeiSaikei, Tanuki and Hón Non Bó the latter modelled on the Chinese Penjing style are simply other art forms in the heady world of bonsai. (which is the umbrella term for miniature tree horticulture) If we had stuck to the purist points of view then would this ‘living art’ form have progressed in the way that it has.

If we think back to the first article in this discussion we note that many aspects in life, art, music, architecture and various other entities have radically changed through the eons. Is this the natural course of events of life’s rich tapestry that we are confronted with and should accept as we progress along the highway of a lifelong learning curve. The perception and/or concept of the artist/designer is what it is and we have the freedom to accept or reject what is presented.

This article on Tanuki is merely a discussion – ‘food for thought’ but, Tanuki is the arch deceiver in Japanese folklore meaning nothing is quite what it appears, thus the meaning of ‘covert’ and ‘overt’ comes into being; to be discussed at a later date. Meanwhile bonsai artist Peter Chan of Herons Bonsai gives a good explanation on Tanuki (link below) until next time, BW, Nik.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pc18yBpcqIo&ab_channel=HeronsBonsai – 1:06 min.