Wednesday, September 8, 2010

WP: Tradition in bonsai

I just found this. I must have written it in 2002.

Walter Pall

I have an ambiguous relationship with bonsai tradition.

First, it is the foundation on which we all build. It is where bonsai as we see it today comes from. To many it is bonsai; there just is no other way to do bonsai for them. We owe it to tradition that we can see bonsai as fine art which is spread all over the world now.

I believe that every bonsai enthusiast must learn as much about the bonsai tradition as possible, it is indispensable. I think what is called "classical bonsai" is by and large what shows our tradition. There are traditional, classical forms (usually called styles) which are designed in the classical style. It is a style that works toward building the ideal tree; an abstraction that shows the ultimate tree. Every bonsai designer must learn how to style trees in the traditional forms with the classical spirit.

Besides the styling of trees there is a whole bundle of other traditions in bonsai. It is the pots and the way of potting, the display in a tokonoma, with stand, accent object and scroll and a lot more. In the spirit of Asian art it is absolutely acceptable and expected that others try to copy the well known masterpieces and all aspects of the tradition. Every divergence from this path is questionable.

The other side of the coin is that this is just not my tradition. It is an Asian tradition, mainly a Japanese tradition. While I have the highest respect for it, I wonder whether bonsai in my part of the world is about rigidly following a foreign tradition and, if it is, whether it is then worth my time. Well, I don't really wonder, I just refuse to accept this. I believe that the Asian tradition can be used as a great starting point, and then we go from there. As long as westerners try to copy Japanese masterpieces, bonsai is not a universal art form at all. Copying is not considered art in the western tradition. An artist must be creative and that goes beyond copying. We must find our own ways, which might become tradition eventually. One starting point would be to question the underlying philosophy of traditional bonsai; of creating and ideal tree. I am well aware that this opens the door for all sorts of nonsense and atrocious creations. I am also well aware that this notion is not helpful for the average bonsai enthusiast who looks for help and reassurance. But it opens the door at least and enables us to create art and not just copies. One must, however, always keep the deep respect for one's teachers.