Sunday, May 9, 2010

The BMW Saga nr. 15

After having delivered my third batch at the BMW exhibit on Friday morning I came to water on Saturday late afternoon. Wow! What had happened? They apparently spent about two hours to find the best way to put spotlights onto the trees 'to bring out their best'. A linden in bluish spotlight? I would not have dreamed of it before. A ponderosa pine in red light? Halloween? Overall it looks mystic, spooky. I am quite sure that the general public loves this.

I tried to speak to the art director about this shift in paradigm, about this concept of exhibiting bonsai which is strange to the bonsai community. She said 'these are not bonsai these are objects of art'. I tried to speak about tokonoma and seasonal felling and such and found no interest at all to speak about such hocus pocus.

They have shown Giacometti sculptures a while ago. The insurance value of these was several hundred million US$. They showed them quite similar to how they show my 'art'. They never asked Giacometti whether he liked red spotlights on this sculptures.

What has happened here? It is a clear paradigm shift. Bonsai is definitely taken out of the context that we know so well. They actually take it away from us. Has bonsai arrived in Hollywood now? Or even Las Vegas? 'How deep can you fall?' some might ask.

'How high can you rise?' some might ask. Take the big hornbeam. A couple of years ago it was for sale. You could have gotten it for twentyfivehundred. Now they built a special stand which costs about three grand. Take the whole group of trees. Originally they cost me less than five grand altogether. Now they build a glass fence around them which costs about fifteen grand. To protect the art like animals in a zoo.

If this is not a western concept of displaying bonsai then what is?

It is like pieces of art which were made to be a part of a church setting - sculptures of saints which were meant to be placed in a religious context. And then they are exhibited in an art exhibit with colored spotlights like the have nothing to do with church. Not allowed to happen? It happens all the time. Go to a historical art museum and you will find thousand of such items exhibited outside their original context.

Another revelation: they don't know what a tokonoma is, they don't even know what a proper bonsai stand is or accent object. And they don't want to know. They handle art professionally and would to talk to an amateur in this field.

How do I feel? We'll see in a few weeks.

Since more than ten years the discussion went on the internet about bonsai being an art or a craft. Well, here it is definitely being treated as art. Is this what we expected?

One thing is for sure however: if we really want the real world and not just the bonsai world to appreciate our creations this is the way to go; in the West at least. It may well get out of our hands. But it may well bring a lot of attention and some money into the community.

Why is it that bonsai exhibits are in lousy places more often than not? It is because we cannot afford proper exhibit venues. If this paradigm shift gains momentum we could all of a sudden.

When do we know that the shift really has happened? When you look for a bonsai book in a library and find it in the art section.


Matt Williams said...

Dear Walter,

These observations and thoughts interest me. I personnalky found the last bonsai show I attended pretty aweful. There was no space to appreciate trees individually and the lighting was terible. Often the assoicated scrolls and small accent objects detracted baddly from the work (too kitsch for my tastes). I like trees on plinths, that you can view in the round like any good sculpture.

The aesthetic of bonsai is no longer limited to what were some fairly short lived (in the total history of making small trees) design principals or "rules". These were invented by a society just comming to the end of its highly formallised and ritualised fuedal system and though Japan has birthed bonsai as we know it the baby has grown up and become a man of the world (this is not supposed to sound anti-Japan... just pragmatic).

Surely the display of bonsai is due to mature and progress too!


p.s. Why should one worry about trying to reflect the seasons in display... as living plants they will manage that without our contrivances!

Al Polito said...


The seasonal display aspect of bonsai is that the display is about more than the bonsai: it is about the experience of a scene and a season, of which the bonsai is part. I think we Westerners are estranged from that aspect because a) we're divorced from nature and we don't know to match the right accent plant and the right rock with the right tree or the right scroll for that matter.

Taken together, the display might say "summer by the river!" with a maple or oak, some dried-up grass, and a rugged rock suggesting a cliff side. Unfortunately we don't have scrolls with scenes of western nature, such as trout jumping or a mayfly on a blade of grass, but something like that would really make sense to someone in the United States, like me (provided there's that level of intimacy with nature).

That intimacy with nature is lost in the BMW-style display, but I agree with Walter (and you, really) that the trees speak for themselves.

Matt Williams said...


Do you suggest that many Japanese are more conected with nature than the average Westerner? I think not, this is a cultural fantasy.

I understand the aim of and methods of trying to evoke seasons in traditional bonsai display, I just think that it is often poorly realised.

I do not find ANY intimacy in nature in most bonsai display... it is too contrived, it is a fantasy of intimacy. If you want intamacy with nature, walk in the countryside!

We agree the tree as a piece of art or craft can speak for itself. It is also more apealing to a wider audience if taken out of the Japanese kitch context. There is nothing wrong with traditional Japanese Tokonoma display but it is best in a traditional Japanese home!