The Future of Bonsai, The Third Dimension by Will Heath
I have been involved in numerous discussions over the course of the last few years as to what the future holds for the art of bonsai both in America and elsewhere. I have given this a great deal of thought, viewed a few bonsai collections, talked to some artists, and put in some long research hours, all to better understand the current state of art in bonsai. The general consensus seems to be that each country and districts thereof tend to want (consciously or unconsciously) to develop an individual style that is unique to them. Most lean toward the factor that the trees in their area and the way they grow there will influence them. This is of course a huge contributing factor and it no doubt has and will continue to shape bonsai styles. However, I feel that these regional influences, although important in defining an areas bonsai design, are relatively minor compared to the revolution I see in the direction that the future of bonsai holds for us. I think this revolution will make bonsai better, more advanced, and greater than it has ever been before.
First let me explain where I think the current state of bonsai as an art falls short. We often talk about the four-dimensional art form that makes bonsai what it is. We talk a great deal about depth in bonsai and about avoiding two-dimensional trees, yet we choose a "front" as a preferred viewing angle for our bonsai. We take advantage of this "front" to carefully arrange branches and foliage to hide flaws. We painstakingly select the best view of the tree and then spend our time grooming and defining this one single view. All pictures that are presented of the bonsai are of this "front" and this "front" is also the only view shown at shows. Often when viewed from the side these bonsai are narrow and very unnatural.
I believe that only styling and perfecting one single view of a bonsai is simplistic and sorely outdated. I believe that the next major step in bonsai is the creation of true three-dimensional trees where the bonsai is viewed in a 360 mode and no faults can be hidden. Imagine taking bonsai to this step, where chops are no longer hidden behind foliage, where two dimensional trees are quickly revealed, where flaws, scars, and mistakes are no longer turned to the back side because there isn't one. Every single idea and technique of the artist must be perfect from every angle and view.
Can bonsai be shown with a 360 view? They can and are being shown this way already. Click on any of the links on the right side of this Korean site http://www.bunjae.net/zboard.php?id=cyber_gall
and you will experience truly three-dimensional bonsai. The experience says it all, to see the whole tree, to expose all the artists' vision, to actually sense the depth, the full, the all of the bonsai for a change. Granted, not all the trees on this site meet the criteria for three-dimensional bonsai, only a few pass the test, but the unique perspective of viewing a bonsai from all sides is exciting.
Colin Lewis in his book, "The Art Of Bonsai Design" while restyling a Juniper, runs into a problem with choosing the front because all sides have possibilities. He "solves" this problem by styling the bonsai in a manner where all sides look good. He creates a great example of a truly three-dimensional bonsai. While designing a Juniperus Chinensis Sargentii he states on page 81 "Although I had established roughly what I had in mind for the design, I still found it difficult to settle on the best side. In a rush of lateral thinking, I realized that if I couldn't solve the problem, I could eliminate it by not deciding on a front. If all angles looked good, why not use them all?"
He goes on to say on page 86, "In addition to my desire to create an all-around bonsai - one which could be viewed from all sides - I also wanted to create visual harmony among the trunks, the jins and the foliage masses."
On page 88 he shows multiple sides of his bonsai, a cascade that I would be proud to own even if it only had one of the four remarkable fronts shown.
Styling a tree for viewing from all sides will be immensely more difficult than what we are used to. It will take much more skill and require even more patience than ever before. It will produce better and more technically advanced bonsai. It will also leave simple two-dimensional styling in the past.
Walter Pall has recently shown a couple of bonsai that have multiple front view possibilities and recently commented on this subject saying, "While I always had one single front in mind as the best one I tried to make the tree look natural and credible from all sides. In the end I found several fronts which are looking good to me. That's exactly the kind of problem that I want to have."
Here is the future of the art of bonsai, expanding the perfection, increasing the skills needed, and presenting bonsai to the public in a brand new, more exciting way. Here is what will define bonsai in the years to come and I believe this is what bonsai was always meant to be.
Of course, as pointed out to me by Attila Soos, "this concept will challenge some of the traditionally held views of how a bonsai must be styled, such as, the apex has to lean forward, the branches can't point toward the viewer, the trunk movement must have a sideway direction, and the front of the tree should be free of branches to show the trunk. But I believe that the above mentioned guidelines do not invalidate the merits of a truly 360 degree bonsai."
I realize that strict abider's of the traditional rules may have problems overcoming these "rules" and many will still be unable to open their mind past the point of "choosing" a front only. Many who have spent time mastering the typical two-dimensional styling of bonsai may well be offended at the concept that there possibly is more to learn, more to master, that flaws can no longer be hidden, and that there is more to a bonsai than just a carefully groomed "front."
This is certainly not a 'new' concept. We have read and heard this spoken of often in past decades. But it seems that the general bonsai practitioners do not follow it in general or are at the least very hesitant to do so. Even those who preach it quite often don't follow it. Truly three-dimensional bonsai may never be completely possible given the nature of the material we work with, but the attempt can only lead to better bonsai, better artists, and a deeper appreciation of the whole.
The good news is that I know of a few artists like those quoted above that can grasp this concept and are putting out good 360 degree, three-dimensional trees. We need to start displaying them in ways such as with The Korean site that will show all of the art and not just a "snapshot" of 25% of it.
Will shows in the future consist of slowing rotating stands and/or displays? Will they have rows of bonsai displayed on open floors where the viewers can walk on either side? Will Monkey poles become the norm where people can walk around and view the entire bonsai? Can we as artists accept the challenge and step up to it? Will a great divide between artists come into effect, the 3D's and the 2D's? Will subdivisions in shows be made to showcase the 3D? And lastly, will two-dimensional bonsai become a thing of the past?