Inspiration from the East: Miniturisation and Philosophy

bonsai2

As an artist who is in the main influenced by contemporary western art it was with great interest that I revisited the ancient Eastern art forms of the well known Japanese Bonsai, the lesser known Chinese Penjing, and Vietnamese Hòn Non Bo. Miniturisation and scale in general has always fascinated me as a sculptor. As this project draws heavily from the microscopic worlds of the tree I was drawn to research these art forms while developing the artwork for the Cherry Blossom in particular.

I was also inspired by how these art forms seek to capture the essence and spirit of nature through contrasts. Penjing specifically are influenced by the principles of Taoism, the concept of Yin and Yang in particular: the idea of the universe as governed by two primal forces, opposing but complementary.

Some of the contrasting concepts used in penjing for example include portrayal of “dominance and subordination, emptiness (void) and substance, denseness and sparseness, highness and lowness, largeness and smallness, life and death, dynamics and statics, roughness and meticulousness, firmness and gentleness, lightness and darkness, straightness and curviness, verticality and horizontality, and lightness and heaviness.

Before I outline some general information about the individual art forms; a little bit of information about the Japanese Bonsai, Bonkei and Saikei, the Vietnamese Hòn Non Bo and some more comprehensive information on the Chinese Penjing; I thought it would be of interest to give a basic outline of the differences between the art forms.

Generally speaking, tree penjing specimens differ from bonsai by allowing a wider range of tree shapes (more “wild-looking”) and by planting them in bright-colored and creatively shaped pots. In contrast, bonsai are more simplified in shape (more “refined” in appearance) with larger-in-proportion trunks, and are planted in unobtrusive, low-sided containers with simple lines and muted colors.

While the Saikei depicts living landscapes in containers, like water and land penjing, it does not use miniatures to decorate the living landscape. In Vietnam the Hòn non bộ focuses on depicting landscapes of islands and mountains, usually in contact with water, and decorated with live trees and other plants. Like water and land penjing, hòn non bộ specimens can feature miniature figures, vehicles, and structures. Distinctions among these traditional forms have been blurred by some practitioners outside of Asia, as enthusiasts explore the potential of local plant and pot materials without strict adherence to traditional styling and display guidelines.

Bonsai as an art form is relatively familiar to westerners so to follow I have just added a little information for context. The Chinese art forms are in fact deemed to originate from much earlier and like the Vietnamese forms are extremely varied and really interesting.

bonsai1

Japanese Bonsai:

Bonsai is a Japanese art form using trees grown in containers. The purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation for the viewer, and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity for the grower.

A bonsai is created beginning with a specimen of source material. This may be a cutting, seedling, or small tree of a species suitable for bonsai development. Bonsai can be created from nearly any perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning. Some species are popular as bonsai material because they have characteristics, such as small leaves or needles, that make them appropriate for the compact visual scope of bonsai.

Historical context:

Although imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan had returned from the mainland with miniature landscape souvenirs since the 6th century, the oldest known depiction of a dwarfed tray landscape in Japan dates from 1309. The fifth of the twenty-scroll Kasuga-gongen-genki masterpiece depicts the household of a wealthy Japanese individual who has an outdoors slatted-workbench holding a shallow wooden tray and ceramic dish of Chinese origin with dwarf trees, grasses, and stones. By this time Chán Buddhism had been developed in Japan as Zen. Its influence of “beauty in severe austerity” led native Japanese dwarf potted landscapes to be distilled into single, ideal trees being representatives of the universe. What is termed bonsai derives from this.

bonkei

Lesser know Japanese Bonkei and Saikei

Bonkei is Japanese for “tray landscape”. A bonkei is a temporary or permanent three-dimensional depiction of a landscape in miniature, portrayed using mainly dry materials like rock, papier-mâché or cement mixtures, and sand in a shallow tray. A bonkei contains no living material, in contrast with related Japanese art forms bonsai and saikei: bonsai contain living trees, and saikei contain living trees and other vegetation.

Its three-dimensional character and permanence distinguish bonkei from bonseki, which is a Japanese form of sand-painting that produces mostly-flat images on a display tray, usually for transient viewing before being erased for a new creation. Although bonkei materials are usually dry, flowing water and seasides are often depicted, with varying colors of gravel or sand making up the land and the water elements. A bonkei may also contain miniature figures of people, animals, buildings, bridges, and other common outdoor items.

The goal of the form is to provide an aesthetically pleasing miniature landscape for display and contemplation. The landscape is depicted in full three dimensions, and contained in a wide, low-sided tray. Raised areas representing river banks, hills, cliffs, or mountains are built up from sculptable materials like ciment fondu, clay, papier mache, or a dried and powdered peat called keto in Japan. These sculpted elements are frequently painted to resemble the natural environment as closely as possible, for example, through painting ice, rock, and vegetation colors onto sculpted mountains. Flat areas representing plains or open water are covered with colored sand or gravel. Real rocks may be embedded in the landscape.

Human and animal figurines and miniature models of structures and vehicles are placed on top of the bonkei’s base landscape to create a fully realized scene. Even model trees and other vegetation may be incorporated, though live plants are not generally considered elements of bonkei. The completed bonkei can be displayed in the home similar to “a bonsai, a painting, or a floral arrangement – at proper height, against an uncluttered background”.

saikei

Saikei

Saikei 2

Saikei

Bonkei is similar in some ways to the Japanese saikei (plant landscape), Chinese penjing, or Vietnamese hon non bo art forms. Robert Behme says that bonkei differs from saikei in that a bonkei “is essentially a dry landscape, and living plants are rarely used; a saikei depends exclusively on living plants for effect.” As a result of this key difference, many bonkei specimens can last a long time with no maintenance, where a saikei requires frequent tending and a favorable environment for growth of the trees and other vegetation it contains.

hòn non bộ

Vietnamese Hòn Non Bộ:

Hòn Non Bộ is the Vietnamese art of making miniature landscapes, imitating the scenery of the islands, mountains and surrounding environment as found in nature. It is a particular local development of the Chinese art of penjing, as was bonsai in Japan.

The phrase Hòn Non Bộ comes from the Vietnamese language : Hòn means Island, Non means Mountain, and Bộ means a combination of water, mountain range and forest, or it can also mean “imitating the way the scenery looks in miniature”.

Honnonbo2

Hòn Non Bộ may be quite large and elaborate or small and simple. It was used to grace the courtyard entrance of the traditional Vietnamese home. Throughout Vietnam history, Hòn Non Bộ have been built for emperors, generals, and other important people as monuments, decorations, personal vistas, and as cultural icons.

Chinese Penjing:

penjing,jpg

A Penjing is a tray landscape, potted scenery, potted landscape, or miniature trees and rockery, is the ancient Chinese art of depicting artistically formed trees, other plants, and landscapes in miniature.

As an art form, penjing is an extension of the garden, since it enables an artist to recreate parts of the natural landscape in miniature. Penjing is often used indoors as part of a garden’s overall design, since it reiterates the landscape features found outside.

Design inspiration is not limited to observation or representation of nature, but is also influenced by Chinese poetry, calligraphy, and other visual arts. Common penjing designs include evocation of dragons and the strokes of well-omened characters. At its highest level, the artistic value of penjing is on par with that of poetry, calligraphy, brush painting and garden art.

Penjing generally fall into one of three categories:

penging 1 tree

Shùmù pénjǐng:

Tree penjing that focuses on the depiction of one or more trees and optionally other plants in a container, with the composition’s dominant elements shaped by the creator through trimming, pruning, and wiring.

penjing 2 rock & small plants

Shānshuǐ pénjǐng:

Landscape penjing that depicts a miniature landscape by carefully selecting and shaping rocks, which are usually placed in a container in contact with water. Small live plants are placed within the composition to complete the depiction. Often, rocks, miniature ceramic structures (like buildings and bridges), and figurines are added to give the proper scales as part of the natural scenery. These miniatures add to the symbolism of a penjing specimen, by providing a social or historical context in which to interpret the overall penjing design. Like the chinese gardens, these miniature landscapes are designed to convey landscapes experienced from various viewpoints – a close-up view, a medium-range view or a panorama.

penjing 3 rocks & trees

Shuǐhàn pénjǐng:

A water and land penjing style that effectively combines the first two, including miniature trees and optionally miniature figures and structures to portray a landscape in detail.

Earliest versions of Penjings:

While there were legends dating from at least the 3rd and 4th centuries of Daoist persons said to have had the power to shrink whole landscapes down to small vessel size, written descriptions of miniature landscapes are not known until Tang Dynasty times. As the information at that point shows a somewhat developed craft, (then called “punsai”) the making of dwarfed tree landscapes had to have been taking place for a while, either in China or possibly based on a form brought in from outside.

The first highly prized trees are believed to have been collected in the wild and were full of twists, knots, and deformities. These were seen as sacred, of no practical profane value for timber or other ordinary purpose. These naturally dwarfed plants were held to be endowed with special concentrated energies due to age and origin away from human influence. The viewpoint of Chán Buddhism would continue to impact the creation of miniature landscapes.

Smaller and younger plants which could be collected closer to civilization but still bore a resemblance to the rugged old treasures from the mountains would also have been chosen. Horticultural techniques to increase the appearance of age by emphasizing trunk, root, and branch size, texture, and shapes would eventually be employed with these specimens.

How they used to create and maintain the creations:

By the first half of the 19th century, according to various Western accounts, air layering was the primary propagation method for penjing, which were then generally between one and two feet in height after two to twenty years of work. Elms were the main specimens used, along with pines, junipers, cypresses, and bamboos; plums were the favored fruit trees, along with peaches and oranges.

bonsai wiring

The branches could be bent and shaped using various forms of bamboo scaffolding, twisted lead strips, and iron or brass wire to hold them in place; they could be also be cut, burnt, or grafted. The bark was sometimes lacerated at places or smeared with sugary substance to induce termites (“white ants”) to roughen it or even to eat the similarly sweetened heartwood. Rocks with moss or lichens were also a frequent feature of these compositions.

More recently:

Established in 1954, the Longhua nursery in Shanghai included the teaching of classical theory and all aspects of the practice of penjing, a process which could take student-gardeners ten years.

As late as the early 1960s, it is reported that some 60 characteristic regional forms of penjing could be distinguished by the expert eye. A few of these forms dated back to at least the 16th century.

Of interest was that during the upheaval of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (May 1966-April 1969), one relatively small effect was that many collections of penjing in Mainland China, especially around Beijing, were damaged or neglected because they were seen as a bourgeois pastime. After their trees were gone, some Chinese penjing masters, men in their sixties and seventies, were forced to do something considered socially redemptive—many were sent to fields to plant rice. However, in other areas of China, especially in eastern and southern China, penjing were collected for safe keeping.

Behind the art works – the Cordyline Palm

cordyline-australis

Before the team and I decided on which trees to include in our project we visited the various trees on the Trinity College campus. Personally I was drawn time and time again to the mesmerising swaying of the flexible tree branches and the soft meditative swishing sound created by the wind rustling through the leaves of the Cordyline Palm. In the end we decided to include the palm tree with it’s multiple branches growing closely together from the base as a counterpoint to the size and stocky nature of the other trees, which have a single trunk and many branches. I knew from very early on that any artwork I would make would have to reference the delicate appearance of this tree while also referencing it’s very specific physiology.

As I thought further and researched more about the palm tree I was reminded of a two week holiday I took in Bali over ten years ago. Each day I encountered numerous offerings left outside houses, on pathways and in the temples by the locals. Each parcel was simple yet beautiful created using banana or palm leaves and filled with rice and colourful flowers.  See images above.

More importantly I was very lucky to be in Bali around the time of the Galungan festival. Galungan marks the beginning of the most important recurring religious ceremonies in Bali. The spirits of deceased relatives who have died and been cremated return to visit their former homes, and the current inhabitants have a responsibility to be hospitable through prayers and offerings. The most obvious sign of the celebrations are the Penjor – bamboo poles with offerings suspended at the end. Every street is lined with Penjors outside each house one more decorative than the next.

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The main material needed to make a Penjor is a long, curved bamboo pole. The pole is then decorated with coconut leaves and various other natural items. At the end of each Penjor a decorative Sampian is hung made with coconut or palm leaves and flowers.

I remember at the time being captivated by the amazing diversity of shape and texture the Balinese could create with such a simple materials.

For the Trinity College Trees project I decided to create a Penjor of sorts to represent the Cordyline palm. Its strength and flexibility alongside it’s delicate appearance is the perfect vessel to embody the nature of this tree.

When I made this initial decision a few months ago I collected a large black bin bag full of fallen Cordyline Palm leaves from Trinity College. I worked with the leaves, curving and shaping them over a few weeks. The colour of the leaves for me was an issue, the natural brown didn’t really fit with the chosen colour aesthetic. I tried painting the leaves with bright neon acrylic paints but the result looked forced.

I abandoned the palm leaves and decided to cover the curved bamboo pole with neon orange ribbon and create my own decorative elements with an electric blue fabric.

The shapes of these elements were chosen based on some of the SEM images of the internal cellular structure of the Palm. David Hackett kindly explained that the Cordyline Palm is a monocot. This didn’t mean much to me initially but now I understand it that a monocot, as the name suggests, has one ‘cot’ or cotyledon. A cotyledon is basically the first leaf that sprouts from a seed. Monocots have one, and dicots have two. Basically some plants have one leaf to start their lives out with, and some have a pair.

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left: monocot, right: dicot

The reason I mention this is that I was interested in how the cellular structure of the Palm (as a monocot) looked and differed functionally to all the other trees in the project, which are dicots. As you can see in the SEM image below of a cross section of the parallel veins of the palm they are laid out in bundles, which are then arranged together to create the internal cellular structure of the branch.

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I used the various shapes from these bundles to create the decorative elements of the Penjor. Imagery from the cross section of the veins in the bundles were recreated by drawing in neon orange acrylic paint on the blue fabric sections. Finally I will draw on imagery of the breathing hole (soma) from the underside of the palm leaf while creating the decorative Sampian at the end of the bamboo pole.  See images below of the work completed on the Penjor to date.  I will post updated images of the work at a later stage. 

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The art works in progress – Hop Hornbeam

Before undertaking the making of the artwork for the Hop Hornbeam tree I had to figure out how to make it. I could not work directly on the tree while shaping and making the ‘corset’. I also realised that it would be virtually impossible to measure accurately all the curves and bends of the 3D shape. I would therefore need to create a rough mould to work with and on. Normally I would have done this using plaster bandage/ silicone etc, materials that were definitely not suitable for working with a crumbly bark surface. After some thought and a chat with my fellow artist and super mould maker Ayelet Lalor we decided that the malleable and un intrusive properties of tinfoil would work best.

So one fine morning about a month ago Ayelet, Clodagh Dooley and I set about making a temporary tinfoil mould of the selected area. We used copious amounts of tinfoil, selotape and support sticks. See image below of Clodagh and Ayelet busy helping me with the large task. Thanks again to both of them. It was quite a fun task to do and of course we got some interesting looks and comments from passers by.

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As the piece to be moulded was so large we created it in three more manageable sections, which I transferred by car to my studio. I quickly backed the reverse of the mould with plaster bandage to preserve the shape and add strength. See image below.

backing of Mould of Hophornbeam lo res

The next step in the process was somehow to get the mould into a similar set up to the real life tree in my studio. Using a mannequin as a central support and substructure I covered it with chicken to roughly simulate the tree trunk. The mould was gently re-attached and adhered to the substructure.  I set to work trying out various ideas on how I would segment the artwork. See images below.

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After deciding which option to go for I made paper patterns for the corset. This was a quite a tricky process as you can see bellow.

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Finally I placed the pattern sections on the fabric and cut out the individual pieces. Each section was then carefully sewn together. See images below.

The time had come to see how the artwork looked and functioned. I pegged the work onto the mould. At this stage I lightly stuck on some of the blue fabric strips onto the lines delineating the different sections. See images below.

Happy with the progress of the piece so far I now had to remove the blue strips and sew an extra channel into each section to allow the support wire to be inserted. At this stage I felt it was important to bring the piece into Trinity to test it’s fit. Before doing this I reattached the piece to the mould to work out some of the kinks with the wiring and fit before doing this.

On a Saturday the 24th of June I brought the work in progress into Trinity and spent many hours stretching and temporarily tying it into place. It was during this time that I had to make some final decisions on where the tying points should be on the corset. Seeing the piece in place also helped me decide on the need to wire and cover all the edges of the corset with the blue fabric. See a selection of images from the installation.

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Lots more work needs to be done to the surface of the corset. I won’t post any more images of it until it has been finally installed in late September 2017.

The exhibition will officially open to the public on Friday 29th of September. The opening will coincide with the Trinity College European Researchers Night 2017 events. During the evening Olivia Hassett will perform alongside the Oregon Maple in the main square twice and there will be also be a guided walk of the eight artworks spread throughout the Trinity College Campus. I will post the eventbrite details to sign up for the guided walk at a later stage.

Behind the art works – the Hop Hornbeam

When researching and developing the artwork for the Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya) I was drawn initially to meaning behind it’s names. The name Ostrya is derived from the Greek word ostrua, “bone-like”, referring to its very hard wood. It is also called Ironwood. These thoughts led me to revisit my collaboration with David Taylor on our exoskeleton project and subsequent two person exhibition in the Parsons Building, Trinity College Dublin in September 2015.

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The trajectory of my own practice since then has included the creation of sculptural elements that took on some of the physical and technical properties of abstracted corsets as exoskeletons.

Images above show the protuberance that I am interested in

The physiology of the tree was also a source of inspiration in particular the lumpy shaped protuberance that snaked around the outside of the tree. It was really interesting to hear from David Hackett that this growth is a direct result of the tree’s reaction to wind factors and it’s environment in general.

My favourite SEM imagery taken from this tree was the microscopic spiky thorn-like structures that were growing on the surface of the branches.   See image below taken by Clodagh Dooley.  Thanks to Daniel Kelly and John Parnell of the TCD Botany Department I now know that they are epidermal hairs, which are only visible on the very young twigs of the Hop Hornbeam.

Hop Horn Beam004 lo res

All these thoughts and inspirations have led me to the decision to create a corset-like protective covering for the large protruding element snaking around the lower trunk. The artwork will be made from bright orange heavy swimsuit-like fabric, cut into various segments and sewn together using corset making techniques. Where normal corsets add boning (a plastic/metal strip inserted into channels sewn in the corset to create of to create structure) I will insert wire between each segment. This will allow the artwork to follow the natural lumps and hollows of the bark. Finally these lines will be accentuated by the addition of electric blue sticky fabric strips and spikes reminiscent of the SEM imagery.

The art of botanical illustrations

During my background research for this project I came across a selection of lovely botanical illustrations of a selection of the trees species included in our project.  I have spread them throughout this piece of text outlining the background and recent renaissance of the art form.

Botanical illustration is the art of depicting the form, color, and details of plant species, frequently in watercolor paintings. They must be scientifically accurate but often also have an artistic component and may be printed with a botanical description in book, magazines, and other media or sold as a work of art. Often composed in consultation with a scientific author, their creation requires an understanding of plant morphology and access to specimens and references.

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Early herbals and pharmacopoeia of many cultures have included the depiction of plants. This was intended to assist identification of a species, usually with some medicinal purpose. The earliest surviving illustrated botanical work is the Codex vindobonensis. It is a copy of Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica, and was made in the year 512 for Juliana Anicia, daughter of the former Western Roman Emperor Olybrius. The problem of accurately describing plants between regions and languages, before the introduction of taxonomy, were potentially hazardous to medicinal preparations. The low quality of printing of early works sometimes presents difficulties in identifying the species depicted.

When systems of botanical nomenclature began to be published, the need for a drawing or painting became optional. However, it was at this time that the profession of botanical illustrator began to emerge. The eighteenth century saw many advances in the printing processes, and the illustrations became more accurate in colour and detail. The increasing interest of amateur botanists, gardeners, and natural historians provided a market for botanical publications; the illustrations increased the appeal and accessibility of these to the general reader. The field guides, Floras, catalogues and magazines produced since this time have continued to include illustrations. The development of photographic plates has not made illustration obsolete, despite the improvements in reproducing photographs in printed materials. A botanical illustrator is able to create a compromise of accuracy, an idealized image from several specimens, and the inclusion of the face and reverse of the features such as leaves. Additionally, details of sections can be given at a magnified scale and included around the margins around the image.

Botanical illustration is a feature of many notable books on plants, a list of these would include:

  • Vienna Dioscurides

  • Flora Graeca

  • The Banksias

  • Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

  • The Cactaceae

Recently a renaissance has been occurring in botanical art and illustration. Organisations devoted to furthering the art form are found in the US (American Society of Botanical Artists), UK (Society of Botanical Artists), Australia (Botanical Art Society of Australia), and South Africa (Botanical Artists Association of South Africa), among others. The reasons for this resurgence are many. In addition to the need for clear scientific illustration, botanical depictions continue to be one of the most popular forms of “wall art”. There is an increasing interest in the changes occurring in the natural world, and in the central role plants play in maintaining healthy ecosystems. A sense of urgency has developed in recording today’s changing plant life for future generations. Working in media long understood provides confidence in the long-term conservation of the drawings, paintings, and etchings. Many artists are drawn to more traditional figurative work, and find plant depiction a perfect fit. Working with scientists, conservationists, horticulturists, and galleries locally and around the world, today’s illustrators and artists are pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally been considered part of the genre.

Mind Map…ongoing

 

Over the last few months of this project I have gathered many images and various points of interest for each of the eight trees.  My mind was starting to overload with all the information so I decided to create a mind map on one of the large walls in my studio.  There I sectioned off an area for each tree, tacked up images, SEM photos, samples and any inspirational notes of I had pertaining to that tree.  I was also able to connect the various overlapping themes of interest by linking them with different coloured string.  See below the progression..it’s starting to look very busy…and not unlike a CSI crime board.  

At this stage in the project I am constantly adding to this wall as I work towards finalising which concepts, material and colour schemes the final art works will take.  

mind map image 1

updated mind map 1 lo res

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The project team met late last week and had a very fruitful meeting.  David Hackett was as ever a mine of knowledge.  I gleaned so much information that was really inspirational that I am still processing it all….the mind map is progressing a pace and I will post another update in another week or so to show you how it looks.  

Medicinal Garden – early artistic inspirations

 

clear spikes on blue fabric lo res

During recent musings on the hairy structure of the sage plant I was reminded of some early experiments I completed with transparent piped silicone.

oj & clear spiky blob on blue fabric lo res

This led me to doing another few spiky experiments (see images above).

I also decided to add some spiky silicone ‘hairs’ to an unrelated experimental piece that I have been working on.  (See the images below).

There were some interesting results from these tests so this is something that I will definitely look into further in the development of this piece.

The other thought that came to me while thinking of the work to be placed in or near the medicinal garden is that I would like to incorporate a more tactile element into this work. I hope that the piece itself or a sample of it will be accessible to the public to touch.

More artistic musing on the sage plant to follow.