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The Art of Bonsai

Words:

Edd Norval
December 13, 2018

There is a lot of art in nature and a lot of nature in art. It's not just about inspired artists painting landscapes, but about the way the two are seamlessly a part of each other. If you gaze upon a colourful reef, it's hard to say that isn't art. Likewise, when we look at certain textile designs, the rich hues are amazingly all derived from nature. The Japanese art of bonsai though, may be the ultimate blend.

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Bonsai is captivating. It's great to see miniature models of things that are lifelike, but these minute trees are life itself. Their similarities to real trees is truly striking. Looking at them individually is itself one of nature's unique miracles, but when sculpted into a forest or unique shape, they begin to seem less like nature and more like a form of art.


Masahiko Kimura is considered a bonsai master. Like all 'masters' the title is earned through time and a great deal of patience. It means he knows all of the intricacies of the form and the best species, the way to shape them in a most aesthetically pleasing manner. Still, he's always learning.


In a sense, he is a sculptor. Although, he's not in the business of sculpting things that are life-like as much as he is a conductor of life, he manipulates the trees into incredibly intricate miniature forests. They're other worlds that exist inside ours.

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This art-form is a generational process that is passed down. It's not only the skills, but the trees themselves. Just like the larger tress that inhabit the world's forests, these little ones can also live for hundreds of years. Incredibly, the oldest ones in the world are over 800 years-old.


The trees, in their natural state and depending on the species, can grow up to many metres in height. It's the age-old techniques of bonsai masters that are able to modify their growth patterns and heights, into a slow art form that can be ruled over.


In one of Kimura's pieces, the tree's body is shaped like a dragon. In another, it's a wooded reflection of his country's dramatic landscape. His technique of cultivation is innovative. He calls it the 'new bonsai' and by that he means he is adapting the traditional ways of working to appeal to more contemporary tastes. Like any true master, he learned the book and then re-wrote it. His techniques are seen as controversial at times, but nonetheless they help him stand out and, importantly, introduce a more exciting brand of the ancient art to a new audience.

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In Japan, the relationship between nature and the built environment is crucial. One rarely comes without the other. As such, bonsai is a way for Japanese people to have something organic with them, wherever they are. The price-tag on some of his trees let you know that they're more than plants, trees, regular bonsai. They're unquestionably works of art and are owned and treated as such.


Where you'd expect bonsai to be fully organic though, and to elaborate on his willingness to break from convention mentioned earlier, Kimura will sculpt deadwood to interact with the live aspect of the tree. This results in a two-tone creation that snake around each other in a symbolic interplay of nature, art, life and death. This technique makes him the master-artist of the tradition.


Many of his students have become masters themselves and their spread around Europe and the US has guaranteed new generations of interest in countries all over the world. This rare and enigmatic art-form is still largely contained to specialist communities directly interested in this, certainly outside of Japan. It seems though, that it won't be long until these creations begin to appear in more galleries and exhibitions around the world. In time, we will be seeing a lot more of these little forests.

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