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By Carl Bergstrom

Over the past four years, several American and European exhibits have paired bonsai with other pieces of art in non-traditional ways. The quality of the individual art pieces and the success of the overall images has varied widely from display to display and from exhibit to exhibit --- but these efforts are important steps forward in the development of Western bonsai display, for two reasons. First, these exhibits represent early steps in the search for ways to successfully transpose formal bonsai display into a new (Western) cultural context. Second, some of these exhibits have managed to lift bonsai out of its associative context entirely and allow us to more fully appreciate the unique textures and forms afforded by bonsai as a living artistic medium.


A Japanese viewer is likely to perceive each component of a formal bonsai display both an art object in its own right, and as a sign which derives its meaning from a broader cultural context. A chrysanthemum may reflect late autumn and represent courage; a bamboo may suggest deep summer and represent humility. But Western viewers, outside of a small elite who are highly trained in the Japanese arts, will take no such meanings from these same images. In the place of these complex and multifaceted signs, most western viewers see simply a stylistic allusion to things Japanese. To most Western viewers, even carefully planned displays will be scarcely distinguishable from (well composed) orientalistic kitsch.

To recapture the expressive power that formal display holds within the Japanese cultural conventions, we must adapt the conventions of display to our own cultural circumstances -- or alternatively, we must reinvent them altogether. [*Note1] Our initial difficulties in making this transition should not be taken to imply that successful formal display will be impossible outside of the classical Japanese tradition. Rather, these difficulties should simply reaffirm something we already know: that we face a significant challenge. Japanese formal display is itself the culmination of a long process of aesthetic experimentation and refinement. We should not be surprised or discouraged if we fall short of its near-perfection in our very first forays.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. "Wetlands." Eastern larch by Nick Lenz and metal sculpture by Lynn Hull. Photo: Carl Bergstrom

We can see the both shortcomings of current efforts and the future promise of this approach in "Wetlands," displayed at Weyerhaeuser's Artful Environments exhibition in 2002. While the composition is not without its flaws -- the positioning of tree and accent objects preclude a visually dynamic relationship between them -- this piece illustrates the potential inherent in a Western re-envisioning of formal or semi-formal bonsai display. Hull's sculpture contributes on a deep level to the emotive power of the composition. The viewer is afforded a culturally relevant sense of place; the smooth patina of the metal emphasizes contrasts with and highlights the weathered bark of the tree. By comparison, a sumi-e painting or a suiseki or a classical Japanese figurine would serve most Western viewers simply as a signifier of the exotic.


A recent exhibition in Ratingen, Germany, paired the work of leading European bonsai artists including Walter Pall with the paintings of Udo Claassen. The best works in this exhibit are riveting not because they place bonsai into a western cultural context, but rather because they remove bonsai from any of the usual contextual associations. Claassen's striking abstract backgrounds free the tree from its role of "[representing] a landscape - without the landscape" (Nobu Kajiwara) and allow us to instead focus purely on the unique possibilities of form, line, and texture afforded by a living medium. We are suddenly able to see beyond what is signified, and into the underlying beauty of the sign itself.

Figure 2. Two displays from the Ratingen show, June 2004. Photos: Walter Pall.
Figure 2. Two displays from the Ratingen show, June 2004. Photos: Walter Pall.

Figure 2. Two displays from the Ratingen show, June 2004. Photos: Walter Pall.

Of course these have not been the first efforts to decontextualize bonsai. Perhaps most notably, Kimura's abstract work moves in this direction, treating bonsai as a sculptural medium for abstract expression. But Claassen's exhibits goes one step further, lifting the bonsai out of its natural context so completely that even neoclassical stylings become abstract signs and pure forms.


Clearly we have a long way to go before we can claim to have developed a new and culturally relevant mode of formal bonsai display. To be successful we will need more than just courage in exploring. This endeavor will require a deep understanding of artistic principles; it will require effort on the part of talented painters, sculptors, and other artists; and it will require active participation from world-class bonsai artists. Most of all it will take committed and sensitive collaboration between all involved parties. Admittedly some or all of these ingredients have been missing from previous attempts. Yet the magnitude of the challenge pales in comparison to the potential rewards of success: a mode of Western bonsai display that is both culturally meaningful and artistically successful. We require no less if we aspire to see bonsai widely accepted as an equal to the other fine arts in the US and Europe.

*Directly adapting the elements of the tokonoma -- replacing the scroll with a western print, for example -- may be difficult because the balance of the tokonoma relies intimately on the forms and interrelations of its components. We are startled by western art with the dimensions and subject-to-frame ratio customary for Japanese scrolls, but these same dimensions are necessary for the artistic role played by the scroll in formal display. I suspect we will be more successful in starting from scratch than we will be adapting or substituting the basic components of Japanese display to fit a Western context. [back to text]

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