A Primer on Bonsai Display

Smoke

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Bonsai Display
For the exhibit year of 2010 we had some really great displays. Probably had the best year so far for the caliber of trees. While I have been studying very hard about the subtlies of bonsai display in a formal Tokonoma, many that come to this exhibit still consider this a "tree" competition. That idea could not be further from the truth. Tokonoma display is not so much about any one component, but rather about the sum total of each article chosen to tell the story.

The Scroll
The idea here is to assemble small articles of art into a cohesive story that can be instantly read by the viewer and deciphered with out hesitation. The idea is to tell the story through artistic depiction using a scroll, and secondary articles. I mention the scroll first because that is the heart of the display. I am very fortunate in the fact that since beginning in 2008 I began purchasing tea ceremony scroll and have assembled quite a collection of scroll suitable for Tokonoma display in the venues we use. I have over 40 pieces now and all are quite simple in arrangement and allow the scroll to easily tell the season of feeling while not overpowering the display.

So many times I see wonderful presentations only to be ruined by the wrong scroll. I might use this time now to talk about the use of Japanese scrolls to display western themed art. Scroll making in Japan is very old, centuries old in fact. And centuries before that China offered tea ceremony scrolls in temples where monks would study sutra written on the scrolls for hours. In Japan, scrolls have always been displayed in the traditional alcove with Ikebana, vase art/ incense burner, and But Sudan. More recently bonsai and Suiseki. These scrolls have always been relied on to help tell the season either in celebration or actual season. The Japanese use the sky, ocean and mountains to tell their story, as well as the moon, birds, animals and insects. The clever use of certain animals or insects, birds and fish tell stories of the seasons as well. In fact those that covet scrolls for display and follow traditional ways of years gone by understand fully the significance of what is depicted on a scroll.

The image of Fuji, a famous and sacred mountain in Japan is celebrated each year at New Years. Fuji can be depicted with snow, clouds, rain, smoke, green trees, leafless trees and so on with each depiction capturing a specific time of year and even the time of day. The same of the moon. Cloudy, half moon, crescent moon, fuzzy moon, hazy moon, crisp moon etc., etc.

No where else on earth is the depiction of nature and its surroundings and mans place in it found on something so special as a well executed scroll. Why not just hang a picture? One could. In fact the entry blank provides for a hanging picture upon entry. Why are they not used? A scroll offers something no framed art can. Soft edges. Carl Bergstrom wrote some years ago about the principle of the steelyard in bonsai display using the Japanese styled scroll. The scroll while long, vertical and displayed separating the tree and the accent goes a long way in balancing each of those elements. The placement of the scroll in relation to the tree, in relation to the accent can make or break a display. The easiest way to keep from having redundant themes in the display is to make sure the scroll is as simple as one can find. Keep the image to a house, an insect, a bird, no trees, or a moon or sun. That way it is easier to tell the story. Too busy a scroll and the message is easy to muddy.

The Tree
While I am writing the piece, hopefully each will understand these are my points of view and surly cannot deemed concrete. I am no expert in the field of Tokonoma Display, but I am placing, and I am "getting it" from the judges perspective. All I can do is offer ideas the way I see them and hopefully some will agree. Having said that, I can now say the tree is secondary to the display. Anyone who thinks the tree is the anchor and the scroll and accent are supporting will never win a prize in Tokonoma display. Being the only person to have won two prizes, second twice, I can tell you I have the least favorite trees in the museum, but this idea is not about how good the trees are, it's about how well you elevate the trees feeling thru story. With the right scroll, the worst tree in the competition can win the whole thing. It's not a tree competition. Kokufu is a tree competition and they are displayed as such. Seki-Kazari. (Table top display)(More about that later) This is Toko-Kazari (Tokonoma display)and has absolutely nothing to do with Seki-Kazari, yet many come to this competition and set up wonderful Seki-Kazari displays with wonderful Kokufu caliber trees and then get all miffed when they don't win.

It is not paramount that a person hold steadfast to making the scroll the star of the show. The scroll and tree are interchangeable in that regard. Either can be chosen first to set the mood of the display, but always keep in mind that no matter what, the scroll is always going to be seen first. That split second will and should sell the season immediately while not always being overtly obvious. When done right the visual speed between objects in lighting fast. When it is, the viewer is captivated and will linger. It is then that subtleties will be recognized and small items are picked up on. When it is not done right the viewer is left confused and boredom is quick. Time to move on and see the rest of the displays. No payday today. Better luck next year.

A tree can be used to depict almost any season any time. The real key is to make sure the tree used fits the theme of the scroll in telling the story or the season. This year was like that. Since it was a late fall, early winter season, I was struck at the lack of deciduous trees. Though here in the valley and the state, many with some of the best winter ready trees do not participate in this competition. Too bad since $2500.00 dollars in on the line. This year I also learned something very important. I was always under the impression that since we use such large scrolls, in many cases over 7 feet long, the tree had to be large. This year a very small juniper was displayed with a very large scroll and the composition really worked well. In fact so well I am working on a display for 2013 with a much smaller tree than I would normally use.

Trees should be healthy and in peak condition. Wire should be held to a minimum or devoid of wire entirely. Lime sulpher should have been applied months before so as to age and look natural. Deadwood should be dressed and brushed of loose scaly bark. leaves should be shiny, healthy and free from lime scale. Tree should also be pest free. In our case we are bringing trees into a museum that houses baskets, scrolls and shoji screen in some cases a thousand years old. The archive of scrolls there is the largest outside of Japan and in fact has art pieces that are no longer found in Japan. A small pest can devasate all this paper and silk really fast. We prepare the trees for entry into the museum by placing modeling clay into the drainage holes to keep anything from crawling out. The soil surface should be well groomed and moss should be applied preferably a few months or at least a few weeks before so as to look natural. The edges of moss pieced together like a puzzle should no be apparent. Any gaps in the moss should be dressed with a dark color uniform sized sifted stone. Wet Akadama looks good here as well as black lava or red lava. In fact a mixture of red and black lava with Akadama added is wonderful.

The Table
The table plays a very important part in the overall feeling of the presentation. A person will begin to put together the pieces of the display sometimes over a year in advance. I know I do. It is at this time that a stand should be commissioned for the bonsai and pot so they fit well together. In our kazari we have no rules about ownership, and one that wishes to embark in display should seek out others with the pieces needed to complete a good display composition.

The stand should always be dark in color. Being dark, it does not draw attention to itself. Lighter stands seem distracting and the viewer is left feeling "what's wrong". The stand should have ample legs or feet to carry the weight of the tree being displayed on it. The blade (top of the stand) should be large enough to adequately hold the entire pot in its center board. No part of the pot should creep over the framing edge. Tables when possible should be of a taller elevation to keep the tree reverent. Trees look more regal when displayed at a taller level than is normally seen.

When using a table to display the main object on, the accent piece will be displayed on a Jitta or burl slice. The tree and accent piece should never both be displayed on a burl slice at the same time in a display. It would be appropriate to show a Bunjin tree on a burl slice and exhibit the Kusa on a black or dark colored ceramic disk. These disks from Japan or "lacquer ware" can cost hundreds of dollars for one piece 8" around. They can be made at home with thin wood, paint and many coats of lacquer and wax. Jim Gremel many years ago made them from ceramic and glazed and fired them. They were pretty nice and held up well to pots, whereas the lacquer does scratch easily.

Tables should be cleaned well and waxed or oiled before use. Dust can show up in photo's and can be seen by people that are on the lookout for that sort of thing...like judges.


The Accent
This is probably where the most work needs to be done. In spring flowers should be held to one or two blooms and the rest in buds. Toko Kazari is about subtlety. The size of the stand under the accent. Is a flowering plant used, should it be a stone or a carving? In the end this last item is really very important. In fact it may so important that the best course of action is to leave it out. In Keido display, formally introduced by Takeyama and then taught to Kobayashi, Kimura and Sudo, the accent is left out and only a tree and scroll are displayed. Why? Sometimes that is all that is needed to encapsulate the perfect feeling. Don't schlock it up.

More often than not a Kusa in a Keido display will contain only one species of plant within the pot. This is just keeping the display on the simple side. Mixed species Kusa become distracting as the eye is constantly being drawn to the wonderful array of species growing in the pot. Save the mixed species for Ikebana. When using flowering plants for display, keep in mind the time of the season. Is it early spring, late Spring, early summer, late summer, etc.,etc. In early spring keep flowers to one blossom maybe two at the most. The species can also have a couple blossoms as to kindle the emergence of more flowers to come, but not just yet. That is story telling. A late summer display may contain more flowers and no buds, but maybe an empty calyx depicting it is getting ready for summer and no flowers. light colored pots in the pastel range of blues , yellows and greens will work for spring and summer. Pots of the Kusa can be more ornamental than the main object. This is where you get to show that small piece of creativity in about 6 square inches.

Fall can be shown with dried grasses turning brown or tall flat leaved stems with burnt ends and edges from the summer just passed. Small leaved succulents with reddish leaves are also good here and can depict most any season since they look much the same all year long unless blooming. Dark color pots are appropriate here, dark blues and rusty colored pots as well as unglazed pots look good in fall and winter.

This is just a general primer about what the main objects should look like. There is much, much more to display than just having a scroll, a tree and a kusa.
Where does the scroll go?
Where do I place the tree on the Tatami?
Where do I place the accent in relation to the tree and scroll?
Does the accent go in front of the trees front edge or behind the trees back edge?
Is the accent too big or too small?
I my stand too small or too large?
Do I have redundant themes in my composition?

One will only know when you put your display together and open it up to judging or criticism. Hopefully the skin has thickened considerably or one should be ready for disappointment.
 
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jk_lewis

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Good explanation of the Japanese idea of bonsai display.

However, few Westerners have tokonoma available to them in which to create the "traditional" 3-point display. Few shows do, either, though a few clubs have made them -- with more or less clumsiness.

Isn't it time for us to develop a Western scheme of bonsai display, both for home display and for formal display elsewhere?
 

Smoke

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Good explanation of the Japanese idea of bonsai display.

However, few Westerners have tokonoma available to them in which to create the "traditional" 3-point display. Few shows do, either, though a few clubs have made them -- with more or less clumsiness.

Isn't it time for us to develop a Western scheme of bonsai display, both for home display and for formal display elsewhere?

I'll bite....I agree totally with you. How about this, take this back to you club and tell each member that this year they can "display only one tree, and that the total liner footage of display space has room for only 20 trees. What you will have to do is submit a photo of your tree and a selection committe will approve your charge and allow it to be selected as one of the 20 we have space for".

First off, to improve club shows in America stop cramming twenty trees on three tables.
Allow the freedom of each participant to use their space in a pleasing manner.
Quality should trump quanity all the time.
Preserve open space.

Do these things and displays will be better. Continue with the usual club method and displays will always lack reverence.

There is nothing special about these displays below. For the most part it is just a tree and accent or two complementing trees. The difference being is that there is enough room for the display to breath. Looking at something shoehorned onto a table is distracting in the first place. Cut the entries and open them up. Instant improvement.
 

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rich415

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Smoke,

thanks for granting my request and starting this thread. A couple questions:

1. What part does locality play in the display? You mentioned dry grass as a accent, in the other thread (I think you did), representing winter. But as you know, here in California, dry grass means mid-late summer. I'm sure there are many other examples as well. Does it depend on the knowledge of the viewer or are the Japanese seasons all we have to work with?

2. I get certain seasonal references (i.e. dragon flys = summer) but the moon scrolls baffle me. Can you break down what season they represent? Such as a cloudy moon versus a bright full moon. I am beginning to purchase some cheaper scrolls from ebay and would like to know what seasons they represent before puchasing.

Thanks for all you input. I'm only two years into the hobby but I really enjoy the possiblities of storytelling through the Toko-Kazari.


Rich
 

Smoke

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Smoke,

thanks for granting my request and starting this thread. A couple questions:

1. What part does locality play in the display?

I think this is a good question. I used to think about the USA as being one locality. Japan as one locality. I figured that Japan has calligraphy on scrolls that I can'r read, so what may work for them certainly won't work for me. Then I really started to get into understanding more about this process and found out that the USA is a big place. I now think that the US can devided into about five regions. There things that people understand living in the gulf, that they won't understand out here in California, and so it goes with all the regions in the US.

Small copper insects and birds are found in Japan used for Ikabana and bonsai too. Crabs in Japan as well as turtles are very popular, but why not a crayfish for someone displaying in the gulf area. My best friend won the display this year with an American Elk as his accent piece. This was very encouraging for me as this was a signal that America can move in a direction more suitable for us as a people and not be so tied with the Japanese tradition. ( Had the Ragles been there judging, he probably would not have won, this strayed too much from tradition).

You mentioned dry grass as a accent, in the other thread (I think you did), representing winter. But as you know, here in California, dry grass means mid-late summer. I'm sure there are many other examples as well.

Grasses are either dead or dying or they are green. Grass as an accent is easy in spring and summer. New grass is easy to see as spring and green grass fully formed is summer. Grass starting to turn brown is suitable for fall and brown dead grass would work for winter. There are certain plants that bloom at certain times of the year, like crocus and forsythia, Japanese quinces, persimmon, irises, narcissis and things like that. A small pot with any kind of bulb (no one is gonna see the flower or the plant so species does not matter, just time it correctly for effect) showing some cracked soil on top with the green emergence of something barely exposed in the cracks.

Think of your accent plant as a beautiful woman. I would much rather see a beautiful woman in very sexy lingerie leaving much to the imagination, then to just see some raw porn and ruin the excitement of using my brain. Don't sell your viewer short. They will get it very fast if you package it correctly, they are not stupid. You just have to use some imagination to come up with the right story with what you have to work with.

Does it depend on the knowledge of the viewer or are the Japanese seasons all we have to work with?

We are not locked into a Japanese season. Keep in mind that the country of Japan is a very small place. For centuries this small Island Nation has been crowded and bringing a small piece of nature indoors goes along way into keeping ones sanity. The Asin people are very in tune with nature all around them. We in the West are not.

Do you know what time of the year swallows return to San Juan Capistrano?

What time of the year do the monarch butterflies come back to Monterey California?

What time of the year is a pomagranite ripe?

When do we pick persimmons?

Do white egrets migrate?

These are things our Mcdonald's mocha in 45 seconds crowd could not care about concearning themselves with. So if we did a display of a monterey cypress with a scroll of a butterfly and spring grass it would not resonate well with those that know the monarch butterflies come back to Monterey in Oct. Of course there will be those that love it because they know nothing of butterfly migration and just love it cause it has a butterfly and green grass as an accent. In japan if you make a faux pas like that, most asians are very keen on their nature surroundings and so this would be talked about standing in front of the display while you hang your head in shame or go to the bathroom with the hara-kiri sword to do yourself in. Keep in mind that younger generations of asians are not so tuned in to this thinking as they were 100 years ago.


2. I get certain seasonal references (i.e. dragon flys = summer) but the moon scrolls baffle me. Can you break down what season they represent? Such as a cloudy moon versus a bright full moon. I am beginning to purchase some cheaper scrolls from ebay and would like to know what seasons they represent before puchasing.

Thanks for all you input. I'm only two years into the hobby but I really enjoy the possiblities of storytelling through the Toko-Kazari.


Rich

The moon is a complicated thing. The asians have many referances to every aspect of the moon from waning and waxing crescents, a bat flying across the face of the moon. The racoon dog (tanuki) under moonlight, owls and all sorts of ways the moon is depicted. Clouds, rain, misty lightning and dragons. I really am no expert here and so I would be just grazing the surface with what expertise I have. I might suggest trying to find a book on the moon and its meaning to peoples of the world. Surly there must be a book about this if it seems important to you.

Speaking of dragonflies, here is a scroll I recieved from Japan the week before the tsunami.

What season is this?
 

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bonsai barry

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Great discussion and ideas. This is BonsaiNut at its best. Thanks to all those asking the questions I hadn't even thought to asked, and to Smoke for his patience in answering them.
 

Bill S

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Thanks Al, good job again.

My take away from different articles and discussions is locality can come down to elevation as well, the accent/s can be used to help "elevate the tree to it's mountian top view" so to speak, or place it in a bayou situation if appropriate. It also seemed that the total display could represent a range of locations by having the display trees of differing locations, in essence of height, dropping from the stunted cragggy mountain top tree, to a field growing maple.

The Japanese disagree with the do it your way by the way. At a MABS convention a couple years ago one of the trees( pretty decent tree too) was set up with a dream catcher(scroll) and if I remember correctly a bison figure, both accents seemed tastefull and in place( in general our audiance rated it as best of show), but it got a terrible critique by the traveling artists.
 

rich415

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Thanks Al for answering my questions.

I will look into reading more about the moon and its meaning to different cultures. I'm just starting out but would like to create one of these displays sometime in the distant future. What you say about the japanese and their affection for nature is spot on. The Toko Kazari seems to be an extension or close cousin to the Haiku. It is simplistic yet speaks to our emotions and effection for nature, always refers to a season, and shys away from direct language (much like the Japanese do).

Bill,

I agree with you about the locality. I think the familiar speaks more loudly and has a greater effect. it reminds me of that American Express commercial a few year ago where Jerry Seinfeld is doing standup in London but bombs with his American references but goes out and learns London speak and references then goes back to the club and kills. Sometimes things just do not make sense out of context.

Rich
 

tmmason10

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Thanks for another great post. This is the third of yours that I have bookmarked. You are an asset to this site and bonsai in the US.
 

ghues

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I'll bite Al,
"Speaking of dragonflies, here is a scroll I recieved from Japan the week before the tsunami. What season is this?"

My first reaction was summer, for that is the time when they are most abundant in my perrienal garden......this was confirmed by a google'd definition:
"In Japan the dragonfly is associated with early and late summer and early autumn".
Many thanks for taking the time to expand on this topic. I also agree that we in NA could/should reflect on our own back yard nature and combine those elements in such display and to add to your regional differences.....case in point your Monarch Butterfly question....it might be October for you southerners but for us up here above the 49th they mean their arrival in summer.
Cheers G
 

tmmason10

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Speaking of dragonflies, here is a scroll I recieved from Japan the week before the tsunami.

What season is this?
I'll play. When I saw this it reminded me of growing up on the beaches of Cape Cod. Reminds me of the dunes, so I'll guess summer.

On a side note, any tips on where to purchase these kinds of scrolls?
 

monza

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Interesting read. Show's I'm truly a barbarian when it comes to bonsai.

In Japan how much influence does the Tokonoma have over the judging of the tree? Could you have the best display in the world with a very average tree that would be judged higher then a stunning tree with no display?

Is there categories to a show, i.e., tree judging and then Tokonoma judging or it's all the same?
 

Bill S

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Dave thats something Al has hit on before, the display is it, it can include an"inferior" tree.
 

rockm

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"The Asin people are very in tune with nature all around them. We in the West are not.

I find this to be a limiting belief. I know many more westerners and certainly more Americans who love and understand nature in detail. Thinking that the Japanese are somehow more attuned to the natural world than Westerners skews the conversation about what works with bonsai display. Why be chained to Japanese moon scrolls and their inherent seasonal meaning in Japan. That's interesting, but trying to exactly match up a spring moon scroll wit "the correct" tree is nice, but mostly irrelevant to the meaning of a bonsai display at a midwestern bonsai show...

You say that the display with the American Elk got an award. Since there are no bugling elk in Japan, why is that?
 

yenling83

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Al-I really appreciate you taking the time to share some of your knowledge on this subject. I hope to participate in this competition in a few years.
 

jk_lewis

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You say that the display with the American Elk got an award. Since there are no bugling elk in Japan, why is that?

Damned few in the Midwest, either. Probably just our love of Kitsch.

And the Nature the Japanese love is idealized nature. There's not a heckuva lot of raw nature on that tiny island.
 

cquinn

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Elk only bugle in the Fall, the display makes sense since the show was in the fall. What the elk is doing is the seasonal component of the display.
 

Ang3lfir3

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"The Asin people are very in tune with nature all around them. We in the West are not.

I find this to be a limiting belief. I know many more westerners and certainly more Americans who love and understand nature in detail. Thinking that the Japanese are somehow more attuned to the natural world than Westerners skews the conversation about what works with bonsai display. Why be chained to Japanese moon scrolls and their inherent seasonal meaning in Japan. That's interesting, but trying to exactly match up a spring moon scroll wit "the correct" tree is nice, but mostly irrelevant to the meaning of a bonsai display at a midwestern bonsai show...

You say that the display with the American Elk got an award. Since there are no bugling elk in Japan, why is that?

been following this and learned a lot.... but I have to agree with rockm on this one... I think the appropriate sentiment would be to say the Japanese people have a different form of expressing their appreciation for nature... our cultures both appreciate it... it may just be how we choose to express that appreciation is what makes us different... nothing wrong with that... and we can certainly learn from it... and evolve with it ...

I think the display with the elk was a great merging of the two forms of appreciation with design elements and application that were Japanese but a theme that was truly American... works for me... and to be clear... both Kimura and Suzuki have been quoted as saying "use elements that make sense where you live" when talking to their students about display...
 

jk_lewis

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Elk bugle in the fall . . .

That's not all that elk do in the fall . . . the bugling is to call the ladies. Makes you wonder if there was more to that display. :eek:
 

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