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Let’s look at two scenarios, the first one to get your brain gears turning; the second to apply that turning (grinding gears in some cases) to a bonsai context.

Let’s start by scaling up to get the thoughts moving along……….. First question: The universe, how big is it?

One idea is that the universe is infinite and continues indefinitely.

As far as we know, there are some fundamental building blocks making up what we understand of the universe, Atoms, particles, elements etc. all making up the soup of what we can observe, calculate or predict around us.

Now let’s think about ourselves; A 70kg human for example is made up of around 7 X 1027 atoms (that’s a 7 followed by 27 zeros) or seven billion billion billion atoms.  

That is obviously a lot! In an infinite universe however, there are only so many combinations that all those atoms can be assembled into, meaning that if the universe is in fact infinite then there must be, by raw probability alone, the circumstance where not only ourselves but our known reality is perfectly replicated down to the atom.  Meaning somewhere out there in the void, an infinite number of your perfect selves are also reading this strange seemingly un-bonsai related blog post from some guy who has been daydreaming at work and decided to write some thoughts down.

Of course, for every perfect version of what we occupy (which there must be an infinite number of) there must also be an infinite number of alternate combinations, ranging from one atom out of place through to a total reshuffling of everything and of course every possible combination in between.

When I was introduced to that idea it blew my mind and was hard to wrap my head around. It shifted my goal posts and changed what I thought I knew.

It’s much easier to think that the universe is something that is finite, something that has an edge or an end to it.

But then what exists outside of that edge? Interesting things to ponder.  

But how does any of this relate to bonsai? Good question.

You’ve probably thought that this bonsai guy has gone completely mad……. i’ll have what that guy is smoking!

Well kind of; my professional background began in fine art which in turn, led to design, more specifically within Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. Through solving design issues and problems while working on a range of sites and projects I have been able to get a very good understanding of how I see the world, what I am drawn to and what interests me. I’ve begun to understand myself.

I think part of doing anything well is at least starting from a position where you are open to a wide range of ideas and concepts before you hone down to a final position. Once you reach that position I also believe that you should be open to it being challenged and potentially changed from time to time. 

What I have learnt thus far is that it is very easy to begin a task with a whole lot of base assumptions that prevent and exclude capturing opportunities that may have been present but don’t necessarily fit the usual filter. 

The more you understand yourself often the more you have to forget.

The universe is much more than what we know or can ever know, in fact the observable horizon is moving away from us at a faster speed than we could ever approach it so it is unlikely we will ever ‘see’ past what we have already observed. But there is a whole lot more to the universe than what we know or accept as known. I would hazard a guess that the same could be said about how you understand yourself and how you understand you process the world around you. 

Which brings us to bonsai. Bonsai has (particularly in the west) a huge history of base assumptions ranging from form, the limited set of styles we are “allowed” to work within, and the infamous “rules” (right, left , back) of structure and styling.

These are hard things to break or step outside of. But we must. Much like our known universe there is much beyond the horizon of our accepted bonsai traditions.

Which leads me onto the second question: Bonsai, is it art?

“Of course it is!” Is the usual first cries you hear whenever that question is raised.  For the sake of this article, let’s drop that assumption and work through the idea of what bonsai being art actually means.

Firstly, does the fact that we for the most part do not see bonsai being part of fine art museum’s permanent ‘art’ collections not confirm that bonsai is not a clean fit into the fine art world?

Interesting question. Let’s for the sake of argument assume it is fine art.

Collins Dictionary defines art as:

“Art consists of paintings, sculpture, and other pictures or objects which are created for people to look at and admire or think deeply about.”

I think that description sits fairly comfortably with what bonsai is however….

If we look at fine art, subject is not limited. The objects, paintings and performances tackle all gamuts of human existence. Our interaction with emotion, nature, different representation and ideas or expressions all play out in various forms and mediums.

If bonsai is just another medium within an artist’s tool kit then it too should not be limited subjectively. If bonsai is fine art (or even art) then it is fairly unique in that it for the most part is restricted subjectively to representing trees and landscapes in its contemporary forms.

Would bonsai still be bonsai if its forms strayed away from these representations of trees and ideas of natural scenes? Would it still have value?

If bonsai had no relationship to nature in the forms and images it created, would it still be bonsai? Are we as a bonsai community ready to embrace that?

Interesting questions.

If bonsai is to be art, then there are no rules, no limitations, and no guidelines. We have no say in what is acceptable because art by its very nature, validates every expression within it. (The quality of that expression is a whole other discussion).

Can we accept the bonsai version of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal (whatever that might look like expressed through bonsai)? Can we accept the bonsai version of a Mark Rothko abstract colour fields?

Maybe we can? But maybe by doing so we lose what bonsai is?

Perhaps we need to think about it from another perspective? Perhaps bonsai has artistic elements but is not necessarily a pure ‘fine art’?

Collins Dictionary provides a usage of artistic as:

“An artistic design or arrangement is beautiful. …an artistic arrangement of stone paving.”

You will notice now ‘design’ is thrown into the mix. Design is another potential good fit for bonsai but let’s keep that out of our muddied waters for now.

The use of the term ‘artistic’ potentially further clouds things, can stone paving be art? Is all stone paving that has been assembled artistically, fine art? Can anything be artistic by nature and then not be art?

I don’t have any hard and fast answers to the above questions (universe or art wise) but I think they are all interesting concepts to think about and guide what we do.

I hope that by writing this article my role in all of this is to pose these ideas to the wider community and hopefully have people look at and question their own assumptions and or ‘givens’.

Your role in all of this is to question what you do, why you do it and what you hope to achieve. I think ultimately it is your decision as to where you want your bonsai to sit. Art, craft, design, meditative activity, horticultural experiment or frivolous pursuits all hold value and will find different values within different practitioner’s minds.

What I believe is important is that you understand your own motivations and then pursue them. What you produce as a result will find its place in the world one way or another.

As for where I sit in this whole discussion, I think these days I tend to lean towards the infinite universe model and in a lot of ways find it comforting that there may be infinite numbers of ourselves also wondering about how their infinite number of shrunk down potted trees fit into their infinite classifications on their infinite worlds.

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