Monday, 20 July 2009

When brown is not brown is not brown...

Okay, so maybe I got out of the wrong side of bed this morning. Or maybe I'm just a hard taskmaster. Or even a perpetual grump. Or all of the above. Does that surprise you? If you've been dropping by regularly, are you here because of the rants or because of the pretty pics? Be honest now...

And to be fair, negativism on its own, without any means of redemption, is just one big let-down. May as well watch the evening news. So where I can offer what I believe to be a light at the end of a tunnel, I will do so. Beats watching the Beeb, right? Must be worth more than what we pay for our TV licence anyway.

That out of the way, let's get on with the gripes.

In a previous post, I talked about what I'd look for when deciding whether or not one of my trees would be good enough to put out on show. This post is all about the opposite - what I so do not want to see in a bonsai display.

Having been to several international shows for at least the past 8 years and local club shows for even longer than that, there are some things that have started to wear me down, making me more and more fastidious (AKA bloody nit-pickety) in my appreciation of bonsai display. So here I come to my BIG PET PEEVES when it comes to presentation of trees. No holds barred, OK? Tune out now if you are of a tender disposition.

Putting out an unfinished product. Unless we are dealing with a display which shows bonsai under development, I really don't believe trees with obvious signs of 'Work In Progress' should be put on show, especially when the show is about the best you have to offer. Defoliated branches sticking out, guy-wires big enough to support a cathedral, enough wire to deter even Houdini... you get the picture, right? My answer to this is: leave the poor tree at home to get on with the business of growing. Have enough trees so that you can rotate those that need a holiday with those that are primped within an inch of their lives. Then do vice versa next year.

Messy, dirty-looking topdressing. This merits a big I HATE YOU. Get rid of the weeds, dudes. And unless you can sympathetically marry any adventitious plants into the overall composition, get rid of them too. It's generally obvious when things have self-sown themselves into the soil and you just can't be assed to get rid of the buggers. (OK, I have seen some get lucky - but they are a MINORITY.) And if the soil is looking tired & unhealthy, full of the ugly bubbly algae, bloody do something about that too. Cover with moss. Possibly fine akadama. Or do you need new glasses? Whatever.

Distracting topdressing. As opposed to the above (which is soil that hasn't been primped), this is soil which has been well laid out but screamingly calls attention to itself. The purpose of the display is to make people view the tree as an integrated whole. I've seen bonsai on show where my attention kept being drawn back to the topdressing, either because of colour or texture. Go for something discreet, not the highly colourful stuff. Having pink kitty litter floating around the topsoil is so tacky - integrate it into your soil mix if you must, but do you really want to shout out its presence to the whole world?

Moss plonked on the surface of the soil. Okay, so the diatribe above has made you start reaching for the moss. Please shave off the crud under your moss so that it lies flat. Then please, please, please do not set various bits of moss like individual islands on a sea of soil. That so does not mimic the look of an old, established tree in its natural setting. Again, all the bobbly, moundy moss islands become just as distracting as colourful topdressing (see above). If you have ever actually combined the two effects, I believe we should send some sort of bonsai fashion police out for you.

When the pots and display table do not marry themselves to the image of the tree. Like I said, brown is not brown is not brown. Just because a tree trunk is 'brown', and the pot is 'brown' and the table is 'brown' does not mean they go together. Any colour in real life will run the gamut of warmer to cooler tones, depending on the pigments/glazes/tints/whatever used. But, as with clothes and artwork, using disparate tonal shades together is so unharmonious. And so detracting from the overall image. On top of that, a low/squat tree really needs to be set on a higher display table. Looking into the tree is so much better than looking down on the tree. Bite the bullet and invest in a proper table if you are serious about displaying your tree to perfection. If not, why are you even reading this?

Accent plants not in proportion to the tree. I know there are practically volumes and volumes written on appropriate size ratio of tree to accent, whether flowering accents should /should not be used with a flowering tree, placing of the accent in relation to the bonsai, etc. And I give ratshit about it all, to be more than honest. If there were a way to instill an immediate comprehension of composition (lines, shapes, appreciation of space, rhythm, etc) to bonsai enthusiasts, then I would have gone on a crusade a long time ago. But 4 years of art school have shown me that this is not something that is learned by osmosis. Or by a single club talk. So, the simplest guideline I can give is to remember that the tree takes centre stage. The accent should complement the tree and never steal attention away from it. Too small or too large an accent and the overall effect is incongruous. My solution is to keep accents of all sizes and do a mock-up before putting a bonsai out on show. Yes, you will probably get there by trial and error. Also, remember to stand back when viewing the overall image.

Farking lose the scrolls, OK? Unless you have a decent enough backdrop that will hold the scroll without sagging, and unless you have an environment that immediately calls to mind the intimacy of a REAL tokonoma, forget it. It just screams putting a scroll out for the sake of putting a scroll out. And why in a Western/British/European show we have to try to be Japanese is beyond me. And if you're going to pretend to be Japanese (or perhaps you just want to pay homage to what you believe are bonsai's Asian origins) - then do it bloody right or not at all. In which case, do the research and find out what Japanese tokonoma display is all about. You may decide never to put out a scroll with minimal forethought again after that.

Having gotten this far, someone is bound to tell me that, in nature, some of the above really does happen. Bobbly mounds of moss do happen to lie around mature trees like islands under the sun. And leaf litter and assorted crud like dead squirrels lie around trees on a forest floor. And my answer is this: bonsai is an art form as well as a horticultural undertaking. Consider it as horticultural sculpture in the round. Part of this calls for the principle of perspective. Everyone knows that trees are big buggers and that bonsai are smaller versions of said big buggers, but in pots. As such, viewing a bonsai is a similar experience to viewing a real live tree from a distance. And from this vantage point, fine detail will be lost (e.g. mounds of moss and leaf litter) to the naked eye. No one has vision that good. So the various elements that go into creating the overall image of a tree or group of trees from a certain distance have to work together in harmony. There's a certain amount of conscious visual training that needs to happen before someone can automatically do this sort of mental juggling, which is probably why the detail work behind this is often overlooked.

Another principle is what I'd call artistic licence. Which sort of goes hand in hand with the perspective thing. When creating a landscape painting, for example, the artist can't include into the painting all the things he sees with his naked eye. He has to discard bits that will render his landscape too fussy (thereby ruining the illusion of distance) and include the bits that give his landscape character. The choice of what goes into the landscape and what doesn't is all up to the artist. The same goes for bonsai. To wit, some deadwood work is an idealised version of what happens in the wild, even though it may not be to everyone's taste. We probably have diverging schools of thought as to whether bonsai can be treated as a pure art form or whether it only really works when a tree looks like a tree.

Teacher-san once told me that bonsai is all about illusion and telling a story without words. Viewing a bonsai should paint a situational picture of the tree in the viewer's mind: is it precariously perched atop a mountain gully? Is it standing majestically in the middle of a field? Has the tree been buffeted by wind and storms? Let me tell you that dirty, weedy soil so does not make me think of any of these scenarios. It just makes me think of dirty, weedy soil that someone couldn't be assed to clean up. Oh, was that the story without words you were trying to tell me? My bad.

To be fair, I have seen this in big shows as well as in small club shows. I have seen judges overlook this sort of thing and wondered why. I suppose that is a reflection of what is important to them in a bonsai. Not everyone will share my opinion, I accept that. But the teeny-tiny advantage I have is that I have this blog - and you've been sat there reading it as well :D

Yes, yes - I promised a show report on our club show at Humbees of Marwell last Sunday. It's coming, OK? A bit of patience never hurt anyone.... sheesh. (Har, har har.)


  1. Here I thought we'd become friends, and then you go about ragging on everything me and my clubmates do at our show? ;)

    The post-show new member meeting is tonight, so I'll follow up on that moon pot.

  2. Gawd, I don't know what to say - except blubber incoherently.
    For a full minute I wondered who of the other club people at the show were actually reading my blog.
    Thanks for dropping by - and for being a good sport.

  3. I was at the meeting getting a bit of design advice and a bit of horticulture advice. Everyone was giving me pretty much the same design advice, and every person had different horticulture advice. Design = science, horticulture = art?

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