Article 81 – ‘Covert versus Overt’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this post we discuss the art of deception – what is real and what is not.

Introduction‘Deception is an act or statement which misleads or promotes a belief, concept, or idea that is not true.’ According to U.S. naval intelligence officer Barton Whaley deception is comprised of two parts, dissimulation covert, hiding what is real and simulation overt, showing the false. Deception is not a modern trait, it has been in existence for thousands of years in for example, religion, politics, finance, art and journalism; now the finger is pointing towards bonsai horticulture.

The art of bonsai – began in China in the 6th century known as Penjing, (also called penzai) it is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, plants, and landscapes in miniature. Diplomats and emissaries from Japan and Vietnam who visited China were amazed by what they saw and purchased many specimens subsequently returning home where most of their plants died, due to the lack of required horticulture knowledge. Why these diplomats and emissaries did not receive instruction on plant husbandry is unknown.

As a result during the same period Chinese Chan Buddhist monks visited Japan to teach in the monasteries, activities included introducing Leaders-of-the-day to the various arts of miniature landscapes as accomplishments befitting men of taste and learning. Hence the knowledge handed down was a closely guarded secret and remained thus – even the Chinese and Japanese immigrants to America in the mid 19th century brought their knowledge of miniature tree cultivation but, were reluctant to share their technical skills, their perception was that westerners were not permitted the extensive knowledge and instruction regarding horticulture development.

From what has been said here thus far, we note that the Penjing masters (Chan Buddhist monks) were the elite of society and their technical horticultural knowledge was not for the peasant class. Even the Japanese elite adopted this perspective – were they protective of the skills and technical knowledge or simply being tergiversate, from the Latin root word tergiversari’ meaning ‘to turn one’s back” or more figuratively ‘to be evasive’ hiding the truth.

In more modern times the 1960’s onwards if one wanted to gain the technical knowledge Japan was the destination and centre of learning and many students and citizens from various countries worldwide went to there to study in the nurseries; with many becoming apprentices. The Japanese bonsai masters soon realised that such knowledge was much desired and travelled to other continents, bringing the knowledge to those desiring to learn.

Is age important the general perception among many is that for a tree to become a bonsai it has to be ‘old’, which is a misnomer; admittedly there are bonsai that are old for example. Bonsai specimens from the seventeenth century do still exist and one of the oldest-known living bonsai trees thought to be at least 400 years old, is one of the national treasures of Japan housed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection. The tree a 5 needle pine Pinus pentaphylla v. Negishi known as ‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ was first trained as a bonsai in the year 1610 by the shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu a Hachi-No-Ki enthusiast.

‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ by shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu

Other bonsai that depict signs of age are ‘Yamadori’ – the definition of Yamadori in short is ‘collecting plants from the mountains’, the collected specimen is then carefully and skilfully trained into a work of art and is the most coveted type of Bonsai because of its unique characteristics. But, not all Yamadori are old some are as young as 20 years of age whilst others can be 5 times this and more.

As stated a tree does not have to be old to become a bonsai, a young tree if planted from a seed can in the right hands be skilfully turned into a bonsai in approximately 5 years thus giving the impression of age. (Although much depends on the species) Some of the best bonsai artists include Qingquan Zhao, Kunio Kobayashi, Ryan Neil, Peter Chan and Graham Potter whose demonstrations on design can be witnessed on their ‘youtube’ channels.

Covert or overt – the question is are we deceiving the populace in our attempts to change a tree’s structure from a mundane appearance into a work of art by the many methods that are often implemented; there are those whom would argue that we are, because we are taking it out of context and not leaving it in its natural state as nature intended. But in the wild, nature itself has created many tree specimens into various shapes and forms.

The first fictional work regarding bonsai The Tale of the Hollow Tree, by Utsubo Monogatari originating in the year 970 states “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

Thus came the perception that nature could only become beautiful if shaped according to human ideal; no doubt this topic will be debated further, but for the moment we will leave you with this thought: is bonsai horticulture covert or overt? Until next time, BW, Nik.

World’s oldest bonsai a 1000 y.o. FICUS at Crespi – Italy

Article 69 – ‘Design: a discussion’ Part 1

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 perception and to attempt to make sense of it all in a rational manner.

Introduction – there are two basic principles in understanding design, (a) ‘perception‘ – the act or faculty of perceiving or apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition. (b) ‘concept ‘ – something conceived in the mind, a thought or notion to test or implement new ideas. These two factors are strongly connected because from what is perceived by the mind can be conceived in other ways or forms.

The arts – to explain the above statement we offer these examples. The Sistine Chapel ceiling (Soffitto della Cappella Sistina), painted by Michelangelo and other leading painters including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino between 1508 and 1512; a cornerstone work of high renaissance art depicting the human form.

Michelangelo ‘The creation of Adam’

Other painters viewed art in different ways, English artist Laurence Stephen Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in industrial districts often referred to as ‘matchstick men‘. Spanish painters Pablo Ruiz Picasso a post-impressionist (known as Cubism) and Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech was attracted to Cubism, but moved closer to Surrealism in the late 1920s. American painter Paul Jackson Pollock a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement was widely noticed for his “drip technique” of pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface, enabling him to view and paint his canvases from all angles.

Perception and concept has had an effect on other art forms, music like painting has undergone changes, classical, the blues of the deep south, big bands including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller; the music of the swinging sixties to what is being touted today. Fashion, cuisine, architecture and other art forms have been affected by perception and concept through time.

Bonsai horticulture which began in 6th century China has also received its fair share of perception and concept. The first fictional work regarding bonsai ‘The Tale of the Hollow Tree‘, by Utsubo Monogatari originating in the year 970 states “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

But what is Monogatari saying, does it mean that we can change and fashion our trees into any shape or form as many modern bonsai designers are apt to do, where the designed specimen has little or no resemblance to its wild counterpart. According to American horticulturist John Yoshio Naka “Don’t turn your tree into a bonsai, turn your bonsai into a tree.” A tree that resembles its wild counterpart to some degree, the aim of bonsai is to mimic or copy what we see in nature but in miniature form; no doubt there will be many differences of opinion on this hypothesis.

The catalogue of styles – lists over 30 classic artistic representations with many quite common and others rare due to the complexity of design. We will discuss a few of these classic designs to shed light on what to some may be a little difficult to comprehend starting with the formal upright.

Chokkan – (formal upright) according to the guidelines as depicted by the old masters, the tree has a straight, upright, tapering trunk. Branches progress regularly from the thickest and broadest at the bottom to the finest and shortest at the top. This gives the branches a triangular shape and symmetry with none pointing directly toward the viewer, which is sought after for a formal upright style. There should be strong surface roots (nebari) visible, moving from the base of the trunk downward into the soil and radiating evenly around the trunk.

In looking at the image below the picture on the left an actual living Chokkan bonsai arguably does not conform to the guidelines, because the branches 1. 2. 3. and 4. protrude outside of the triangular shape and symmetry in addition, the foliage is rather overbearing. The composition of tree and pot can be construed as rather mundane, but this is how the designer perceives this specimen to be as a representation of what is found in nature.

Chokkan

In the right picture (same tree) the foliage has been reduced and conforms to the required triangular shape and symmetry. Sharimiki and Jin have been added to the trunk and apex respectively to give the viewer an indication that the tree has befallen some catastrophe at some point. It can be argued that the right hand picture would glean more interest than the left hand picture due to enhanced character, but it all depends on personal design preference; be it acceptable or not.

Fukinagashi – Wind swept – this style describes a tree that appears to be affected by strong winds blowing continuously from one direction, as might shape a tree on a mountain ridge or on an exposed shoreline. The windswept characteristic can be applied to a number of the basic styles, including informal upright, slanting, and semi-cascade, multi-tree bonsai can also be developed with elements of the windswept style.

The image below is of a 10 metre plus conifer growing on the shoreline of a lake in Ontario Canada, the left hand picture depicts it’s current design shape and symmetry due to element onslaught. We know that this tree although leaning to the left will not topple over, because it’s root spread will cover an extensive area and thus stability is ensured. Looking at the right hand branch it appears that there is very little foliage if any and can be deemed surplus to requirements.

If this tree were in miniature form changes could be made for example, the right hand branch has been shortened and Sharimiki has been applied to distract the viewer’s attention away from the straightness of the main trunk, which could be reshaped if needed. The lower branches have been removed, others pruned, these could be wired into shape to create a more compact look. Such simple changes have arguably improved the tree’s overall symmetry and composition keeping it within the wind-swept style. This is only one concept of design and although some might agree with this viewpoint others will differ.

We understand the viewpoints of Utsubo Monogatari and John Yoshio Naka because both have valid argument, but it is you the designer who makes the ultimate decision. In the next discussion on this subject we look at more classic designs, one of them being Penjing landscapes the Vietnamese Hón non bó and Japanese Bonkei versions. Until next time, BW, Nik.