Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The exhibit in the palace - part 1

From April 12 to April 20 an important bonsai exhibit took place in the Diocletian's palace in Split, Croatia. It was presented as art exhibit in a place where objects of art are shown on a regular basis. Many hundred thousand visitors see the palace over the year and tens of thousand will see the bonsai exhibit over the Easter holidays. The article aims at well educated folks who have no or only rudimentary knowledge of bonsai but are well versed in arts.

Exhibition of living tree sculptures in Split 2014

Is bonsai art?

The art of living tree sculptures is called bonsai in general. It is remarkable that bonsai is accepted as being an art form here in Split. In many places around the world this is not so. It has to do with how bonsai in general is presented and practiced. The truth is that by and large bonsai is practiced as craft for the production of commercial products. Most such products resemble stereotypes which the market wants. And then for some it is questionable whether a living thing can be art at all. Bonsai is living tree sculptures changing all the time and this cannot be art for some. In people's mind bonsai is connected with garden, with garden centers and horticulture much more than with art. Even in Japan most would consider bonsai NOT an art form.
Well, if you ask me, bonsai is widely practiced as craft but it can well be art. For me personally a tree is art if it is man made and speaks to me loud and clearly. The trees in this exhibit definitely speak loud to me.

What is bonsai and where does it come from?

A general definition says the 'bonsai'' is a little tree in a pot. But this is probably not sufficient as a definition. The tree must have some quality to qualify as bonsai. Most would say that the tree must look like a bonsai to be a bonsai. But a famous saying in bonsai is "don't make your little tree look like a bonsai, rather make your bonsai look like a tree". One could also say that what looks like a stereotype may well be a bonsai but not art. My definition is: 'a bonsai is a little tree in a container that makes move my heart, that touches me. The more it touches me the more it is art'. The overwhelming majority of bonsai enthusiasts in the world think that the aim is for a bonsai to be beautiful. Whoever is somehow in arts knows that beauty has little to do with art, often it is frowned upon. We are not that far in the art of bonsai but I think a bonsai can be very ugly as long as it speaks to me strongly. Most commercial bonsai are beautiful, but sterile. They are made to please the masses with stereotype tricks to make trees 'nice'. It is called kitsch. I dare to say that the majority of bonsai in the world are kitsch according to this definition.

Most people think that bonsai is a Japanese art form. Well, it comes from China as most things Japanese. The Chinese had and have mostly a poetic view about bonsai. It should look like a wild old tree, sometimes anthropomorphic, sometimes even grotesque. The Japanese have an idealistic view in general, bonsai for them must look ideal and conform to rules. The tree sculptures in this exhibit tend more towards the naturalistic taste and less towards the Japanese taste.

Since about fifty years the art of bonsai is spreading all over the world. By now it has become very strong in Europe and ares in Asia outside of Japan, like Indonesia, and, of course also in the USA. There is a tendency for the regions to form their own version of bonsai, but most follow the Japanese model more or less and only develop a local dialect of Japanese styling.

Bonsai as the art of living tree sculptures has one most important peculiarity: the process of creation of art is spread over many years, even decades and sometimes even over centuries. While normal pieces of art take some time to process they are finished after some while and that's it then. A new tree as a piece of material that is going to become a tree sculpture will usually not be much after fist styling. It takes several years and constant styling and re-styling until this can be called 'bonsai'. And then it probably is not even art - yet. One can say that usually five years of work on a tree are the minimum before it is acceptable - show able. Well, really even showing after five years is too early. The same tree will be much better in twenty years if in the right hands. And even better again after fifty years. The trees that we see in this exhibit are on average worked on since five years. So this is very early. The best thing would be to postpone this exhibit and we all see each other and the trees in twenty years. This is , of course, only rhetorical. But it is true that in the art of bonsai the time is always too early to show a tree. Knowing about this problem of time this exhibit is even more remarkable as the quality is approaching world class standard according to my opinion.

Many people think that bonsai is a species, a special form of tree. Really any woody plant can be turned into a living sculpture. Most people use trees from nurseries for this. A few use trees from nature. The bonsai which are made out of collected material usually are much more interesting. But is it difficult to style them in a reasonable way. Natural bonsai don't conform to Japanese styling rules, they have a strong character and strange behavior. Too strange for most. But the results, if done well, are much more impressive. It has to do with the inherent natural character of collected trees. If the aim is to produce a living tree sculpture which is supposed to look like an old tree with lots of character then it is a good idea to start with an old tree with lots of character. This sounds so obvious! But fact is that 98 % of all bonsai in the world are mad from simple nursery material. Another fact is that 80 % of the very best trees are made from collected old natural material. So why don't more people use the 'better' material? It is because it is not easily available and too difficult for most. First the horticultural skill, we almost can call it 'art' to first of all find and then to collect a very old tree form nature and keep it alive. While this sounds simple it is a very difficult task, too difficult for the majority of trained gardeners. And then the task to style this raw material so that it looks like what the artist wants it to look like. This takes artistic skill and imagination and a vision from the outset that is beyond most who ever try it. In this exhibit we see very successful creations out of very difficult material.

What is the situation with the art of bonsai in Croatia?

Bonsai is not very common in Croatia yet as active art. Passively, as an art form for viewers it is probably quite popular. There is only a couple dozen of what can be called serious bonsaiists in this country. And only few of them can be called artists. The majority of bonsaiists here follow the Japanese model more or less, aiming at idealistic trees which look like bonsai. Another way would be to make a bonsai look like a real tree - which is what a couple are doing in Croatia.

One can say that in terms of the art of bonsai Croatia is a developing country. But it has a hand full of people who work on a European class level and even on a world class level. Having personally seen what happed here in the past years, seeing the show able results and especially the work in progress I see a great future for the art of bonsai in Croatia. The availability of some of the best material in the world will help this, of course.

Where do Marija and Andrija stand in the overall picture?

Marija Hajdić and Andrija Zokić are working closely as a team and refuse to appoint a certain tree to either one of them. they are definitely artists in my opinion, belonging to a European elite of bonsai artists already. They are specializing in broadleaved trees which they collected themselves for nature in Croatia. This is something special, as 98% of all bonsai artists in the world are specializing in conifers.

Marija and Andrija are collecting the trees themselves from the area around Split. It is not a given that a bonsai artist is also an expert in collecting trees - which is a difficult task by itself to do it successfully. Mariaj and Andrija are trying to make their trees look like real trees in nature. This is called Naturalistic Bonsai Style. While this may sound obvious to most it is not obvious - the overwhelming majority of bonsaiists in the world are trying to make their tree look like a bonsai.

I have been closely working together with the couple since 2007. They started from an amateurish medium level and now are in an international league already. They have received awards and invitations in Europe and are featured in international bonsai magazines around the world. To develop a convincing and very good bonsai from collected raw material takes many years. Therefore it is remarkable that after seven years of serious work with bonsai they have already achieved this level. Knowing what they have in their collection I can foresee that they will become some of the world leading bonsai artist in regard to broadleaved species within the next few years. I am very proud to have been their teacher.

Walter Pall

Diocletian's Palace

Diocletian built the massive palace in preparation for his retirement on 1 May 305 AD. It lies in a bay on the south side of a short peninsula running out from the Dalmatian coast, four miles from Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia Roman province of Dalamtia. 

After the Romans abandoned the site, the Palace remained empty for several centuries. In the 7th century, nearby residents fled to the walled palace in an effort to escape invading Slaves. Since then the palace has been occupied, with residents making their homes and businesses within the palace basement and directly in its walls.[Today many restaurants and shops, and some homes, can still be found within the walls.

This palace is today, with all the most important historical buildings, in the center of the city of Split. Diocletian's Palace far transcends local importance because of its degree of preservation. The Palace is one of the most famous and complete architectural and cultural features on the Croatian Adriatic coast. As the world's most complete remains of a Roman palace, it holds an outstanding place in  European and world heritage.

Here the trees