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Sunday, November 3, 2013


Interview with Wagner Ribeiro from Brazil

1 - What are the aesthetics elements that make bonsai a piece of art and not only a tree planted in a pot?

A tree in a pot is a tree in a pot; it becomes a bonsai when it speaks to your soul. This will NOT happen just by following the 'rules' which only speak abut form. Form alone is just the framework and not the end. The end is a tree in a pot which creates a strong reaction with the viewer. It depends on the education and experience and expectation of the viewer.
2 – Why bonsai could be qualify as a form of art? And what is art in your opinion?

Bonsai by and large is treated as a craft around the world. This is especially true of Japan where the overwhelming number of bonsai is produced for commercial reasons. It is somewhat ironical that there are many more folks who do bonsai as an art in the West. One can but one does not have to qualify bonsai as an art. Some bonsai speak to you and are probably art. All art is creating an illusion. If the illusion is done well and better than reality then it can be called art. It is very difficult to impossible to give a description of what art is but it is easy to know it when you see it - if you have a trained eye.
3 - I´ve been accompanied Masashi Hirao´s career by internet and, principally, his trip around the world as Japanese cultural envoy to promote bonsai. He has ideas to integrate bonsai with other forms of art, like music, sculpture, paint etc. Walter, do you believe that bonsai can be integrated and establish dialogue with others arts forms? If yes, how it could be done?

Bonsai can clearly be integrated with other art forms. But this is not a big surprise. One can have a gallery of paintings and good music with it, it could well be a bonsai exhibit with music. Or paintings and sculpture and bonsai. But this does not make bonsai an art form immediately. Often bonsai is just seen as decoration. Is the decoration art? I am often astounded and amused when I see a drawing or painting of bonsai on the net and people speak about this as art. It is obvious to everyone, that a painting of bonsai is art or at least can be art. So why is the bonsai itself not art? Roy Lichtenstein once did a painting of a bonsai. It recently sold for 14 million US$ or so I hear. The bonsai on the painting is lousy, it sucks. I wonder whether this was intentional. It makes us thinking anyway,
4 - You traveled to several countries and knew bonsai of various nationalities. Do you believe the cultural characteristics of each people influences the form of styling bonsai?

I have visited around 5o different countries on six continents and watched with great interest how bonsai is practiced and seen in different  cultures. Is is clear that a local culture decides how people style bonsai. Some try to practice Japanese bonsai wherever they are and misunderstand the art in my opinion. Bonsai is about reflecting how you see YOUR real trees in YOUR environment. Soem cultures stress creativity, some stress following of strict rules. It shwos in the bonsai that they create.
5 - In your opinion, where are the greatest innovations happening and why there?
Clearly by now most innovations are done in the western part of the world. The Japanese culture is not good for innovators, it is very good for traditionalist. The best artist is the one that can copy the best. In the West this would be called craft and is seen widely as inferior to originality. In Japan a person who wants to innovate in bonsai is seen as 'rocking the boat' and this is not done. In the West an artist is seen as rebel in the best meaning of the word. An artist must innovate, otherwise he is not an artist.
6 - The naturalistic style aims to create bonsai that makes people believe that he was found in nature like that. In this sense, the artist tries to recreate the expression of nature and not of himself, right? In bonsai, there are someway to the artist express your feelings? Or he is expressing himself in the act of recreating the natural?
It is called 'naturalistic' because it is not natural, otherwise it would be called 'natural style'. It is super-natural, better than nature, but being felt as the essence of nature in a realistic way. All good bonsai are trying to create some essence of nature, most are doing this in an abstract way. The naturalistic style does this in a realistic way. The naturalistic style can be described as impressionistic while the traditional style and especially the modern style are expressionistic. Meaning that in the modern style there is no attempt to make something that looks like a real tree, rather from the inner view of the artist a sculpture is made that vaguely reminds us of something like a tree on another planet. The naturalistic tree reminds us more of a tree in our real world. When standing in front of a naturalistic tree one wonders about the greatness of nature. When standing in front of a modern bonsai one wonders about the greatness of the artist. When standing in front of a traditional bonsai one wonders about the greatness of zen-Buddhism. When standing in front of a 'western traditional' bonsai one wonders about the great results that evolve when one really follows the rules. Note how I use the word tree vs. bonsai.

7 - Is possible the bonsai artist express the urban setting instead of natural? How?

Sure it is. One can express anything with art. In bonsai many more thing can be done than there are in the text book. In the end someone has to like it; often you are the only one to like it. That's fine if it is art. If you want to sell or win awards you better do what pleases the taste of your customers of the judges. One could create a bonsai that is reminiscent of a tree in the city which is mutilated by man and the urban environment for example.
8 - You came to Brazil in 2008. I read an interview where you said you did not think that you'd find traditional bonsai in Brazil. And you thought that we had a revolutionary way of doing bonsai. Could you explain more? And do you think this is positive or negative?
There are lots of folks who do 'traditional' bonsai in Brazil. They try to make something that looks much like a Japanese bonsai. I think this is fine if one is in a learning phase. But sooner or later this should be over. Then I believe one should start to create bonsai that are reminiscent of you own trees in nature. It happens that the typical, standard 'bonsai shape' is an ideal pine tree and a tree which is formed by a cold climate with lots of snow. It is most ironic in my view that in a tropical country like Brazil many folks try to copy this. Brazil has no conifers by and large and no snow. So why are bonsai shaped in conifer style? Even broadleaved trees in Japan are often styled to look like a conifer which is formed by snow. The best examples of tropical bonsai are found in Taiwan and Indonesia. I do not think that Brazil has a revolutionary way yet. The contrary - there is much copying cold climate bonsai. I can however see a new generation coming up which gets away from this path radically. This is true around the world.

9 - Do you believe that there is a tendency that the bonsai artists abandon increasingly the traditional styles and reinvent the criation process constantly?
Sure and this is why bonsai can be called an art form and not only a craft. The history of art in general consists of a constant battle of new creations vs. traditional. Soon the new creation becomes mainstream which is  traditional and traditional becomes old-fashioned. The new is not better, it is only new. and human nature wants change - sooner or later.
10 – Would you like to add something to this interview which is especially important for the Brazilian reader?
Learn to work with traditional forms and then forget them. When you master the form try hard to get soul into your tree. Don't try to make your little tree look like a bonsai, try to make your bonsai look like a tree - as John Naka said.Go on to learn about Brazilian trees and work with your indigenous material to create bonsai that reflect your Brazilian nature. Don't look and try to copy what the masters have created. Look at what they were searching for when they created and find your own way.

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