While the trees at The Artisans Cup were undoubtedly the core of the show, they were not the only focus for many visitors. You could do no more than glimpse the room from the entrance before you were convinced that you had never seen a show quite like this one, either in America or Asia.
Quoting Peter Warren’s recent Facebook post:
“…it was a genuine redefinition of what is possible, what can and should be done. It was neither throwing the baby out with the bathwater revolutionary, nor was it the same old thing, reissued repackaged and re-evaluated…”
Among the things in the show that were departures from the norm were the location inside an art museum, the entrance, the carpeting, the furniture, the lighting and the backgrounds.
Exploring the Visual Flow of Table Shapes
Perhaps the most dramatic departure from previous display conventions is the use of rectangle, parallelogram and trapezoid table tops in combination. While it’s tempting to dismiss this not as innovation but just as difference, the key to this innovation is that unlike the static nature of a rectangle, both parallelograms and trapezoids create a dynamic feeling. The directionality, rhythm and visual motion that they inject into the exhibit complements the rhythm and directionality of many of the quality bonsai compositions.
Before reading further, if you’ve never heard of visual flow in bonsai, see my previous article here.
In the image above from the Skylab Instagram feed, there are at least four types of tables shown, two parallelogram with thick and thin frames, and two that are either rectangular or nearly rectangular with the same thick and thin frame variation. In addition to these shapes, there were also trapezoids where the runs of tables were interrupted for aisles and at the far ends from the point where this photo was taken.
The visual direction that the table indicates is determined by the sharper point on the front edge of the table as seen from the viewers’ perspective. Thus in the plan view tables 26 and 58 would flow left and right respectively, and away from each other.
In some displays the table directionality matched the directionality of the tree and accent combination while in other displays these conflicted. Where the directionality of the tree/display matched the directionality of the table we see a perfect place to position the accent plant on the table, such as was the case with Konnor Jenson’s white pine cascade (Tree #27) and Scott Elser’s Engelmann spruce (Tree #53). On the other hand, where the directionality of the tree/display do not correspond to the table direction, the companion pieces are somewhat crowded between the light and the stand.
Where aisles cut through from one row to another there were smaller display spaces, in most cases there were smaller scale trees in these spaces that prevented a crowded feeling in the display space.
The directionality of the end-of-row table shapes caused some (although not uniform) conflict with the convention of the bonsai at ends of rows having visual flow into the center of the row. In more than one case the tree directionality disagreed with the shape of the table, this was the case with my own display. It would not be possible to place a tree on these tables and have it both agree with the visual flow of the table and the display convention of directional trees flowing toward the center of the exhibit row.
Dynamic Versus Static Shapes in Styling
The correlation between a statically shaped tree and a statically shaped table may not be readily apparent to beginners without some explanation. Taking the example of a formal upright (see tree “a” below), the tree has a roughly isosceles triangle crown shape which feels visually stable and is basically symmetrical; the same thing is true for a rectangular top table – with symmetry in the table top there is a stable or static feeling. In contrast, when the triangle of foliage is created in the much more dynamic scalene triangle configuration (see tree “b” below) there is a dynamic feeling, and a lack of symmetry. This corresponds well to a table top that is a parallelogram, or trapezoid.
One of the first things I noted when I first discovered TAC co-founder Ryan Neil’s Bonsai Mirai website was the dynamic quality of many of his bonsai compositions. In many cases an artist can choose to make a tree more stable or more dynamic. A static or stable look is accomplished by placing the foliage over or near the base of the trunk and by making the lower line of the foliage pads horizontal to the ground. But, Ryan has been creating a more dynamic feeling by employing the scalene triangle configuration and placing the foliage mass in a more precarious position, the effect of which is to create a composition that is asymmetrical and feels visually tense. In some cases the use of non-horizontal bottoms on the branch pads create such a dynamic quality that the tree looks like it is moving even as it rests.
Did the visual flow of the tables affect the scoring of the trees? Based on images of the tables correlated with the trees, there were 28 trees that did not match the flow of the table and 43 trees that did match the flow. The mean for all trees was 42.80, the mean for trees with flow not matching the table was 42.53. Based on the numbers, it seems that the judges were not concerned with the table shape when scoring. (Rightly so, it’s not mentioned in the rubric.)
Lessons for All
Bonsai organizations all over the world can benefit from the professional design that went into The Artisans Cup; we can utilize the redefined elements and move forward with them to create better displays and better shows. Take a look at the way that the exhibit was arranged and determine if any of the progressive elements might be beneficial for your next bonsai show. The real challenge to using the lessons that the TAC offers is in implementing them in a way that is accessible to many bonsai artists.