Bonsai – see a world in a grain of sand

Bonsai is an art form using trees grown in containers. Yihan and I are very interested in this traditional oriental art form and did some research into it.

It has been introduced to the Western World through Japan and it originated in China. Other civilizations besides China have grown container plants since antiquity for similarity functional reasons. Records indicate that the Ancient Greeks and Romans did, as well as the Babylonians, Persians, Hindus, Egyptians and men of ancient Europe.

A classical bonsai often contains arrangements of miniature trees and rockeries. These creations of carefully pruned trees and rocks are small-scale renditions of natural landscapes. They are often referred to as living sculptures or as three-dimensional poetry.

When styling a bonsai, the most crucial part is shaping the trunks and branches, which are the “bones of the bonsai art”. Meanwhile, the shaping of the layers of foliage is very important in styling a bonsai. Chinese traditional bonsai usually keep layers meticulously clipped to create the effect of clouds floating in the air.

#basic shape styles

#group setting 

#clinging to the rock style

Rocks and water are significant to the Chinese as the TAOist philosophy of Nature describes water as the lifeblood of the Earth while mountains and rocks are the bones. The landscape bonsai itself is a living organism, which has its own ecosystem.

The objective of this style is to reproduce the feeling and impression of one of the many spectacular rock landscapes found in Nature. It may be a mountain, a ravine, a sheer cliff or a rocky islet.

#soil and rock


To build a bonsai which looks not “artificial”, looks very natural, usually need more deliberate  and artificial effort into it. To Bonsai artists, each tree represents a symbolical story. It has an individual character and tell us the story of its life while symbolizing human thoughts and emotions. The hand of the artists is hidden from view, so that the tree looks as if it grew that the way without the aid of man – “the end of all method is to seem to have no method” – yet, even so, the spirit and character of the artist is revealed. It’s really “see a world in a grain of sand”.

Reference: Bonsai –its art, science, history and philosophy

The Bonsais in museums got information labels written “in training since”, because Bonsai is like a never finish project. It keeps changing and growing, you need to focus on the tree’s schedule rather than yours. You have to wait and observe it while its growing. Some of the Bonsai lived more than hundreds of years, lived under the care and maintenance of several generations of artists.


artworks related to traditional bonsai that we’ve been looked into:


‘plants on the earth rooted in the soil, under the command of gravity. roots, soil and gravity – by giving up the links to life, what kind of ‘beauty’ shall be born? within the harsh ‘nature’, at an attitude of 30,000 meters and minus 50 degrees celsius, the plants evolve into exbiota (extraterrestrial life). a pine tree confronting the ridge line of the earth. a bouquet of flowers marching towards the sun hit by the intense wind. freed from everything, the plants shall head to the space.’ – azuma makoto

#Shiki1 #Frozen pine


‘Shiki 1’ features a bonsai tree suspended from a metal frame. The tree represents of course nature. It has been manipulated for aesthetic reasons. The steel frame adds a second layer of artificiality, it represents the legal framework within which nature is manipulated, or to which manipulations must comply.

In ‘Frozen Bonsai’, a new work commissioned for the exhibition, Makoto sprays a bonsai pine tree with instant freeze and presents this in a transparent fridge. As the ice slowly drains the colour from the bonsai tree, the tree dies – but its beauty is preserved in optimal conditions.

final project progress

Our group spent the majority of this week doing more thorough research of our problem space: urbanization.  We familiarized ourselves with the different aspects of urbanization – infrastructure, basic services, transportation, violence & hazards, and connectivity – and did further research into these fields by finding related articles online.  Throughout the process, we’ve been referring back to a PDF sent to us by Tanya, written by UNICEF, that provides a comprehensive overview of urbanization and its many facets.  After research and review, our group naturally gravitated toward the issue of connectivity, highlighted in the UNICEF handbook as a relevant concern, and used the article’s “statement of need” and “prompts” as a framework for our work going forward.

Our problem: Representation.

We are deciding to focus on accurately representing slum-dwellers in data that is used to plan for the future and having them actively represented in government so that they may participate in the planning of their cities and futures.


  1. Articles that we’ve shared and read together over the week:
    Street violence and exploitation in slums:
    Poor disaster preparedness:
    Indoor & outdoor air pollution:



Reading + Whitney Biennial

Reading  -“Notes in Justification of Putting the Audience Through a Difficult Evening”

This article written by Wallace Shawn was in response to how people feel after watching his play Aunt Dan and Lemon, in which a sick woman called Lemon, who supported Nazism, told the audience about the overwhelming influence in her life of her parents’ friend “Aunt Dan,” an eccentric, passionate professor whose stories and seductive opinions enthrall Lemon from the time she is a young girl.

Shawn pointed out that a lot of us like to watch films about evil historical figures because we feel superior to people from that time. He challenged this kind of over-confidence and wrote the play to give people”an opportunity to look objectively at a group of people, to assess them, to react to them, and to measure oneself against them, to ask, ‘Am I like that?’

He also said “Intellectual clarity seems to be a very important weapon in the fight against evil, although ‘clarity’ is of course a very difficult concept to define.” I feel troubling on how can we own that “intellectual clarity” when we were put into a world which is on going and controversial instead of a known historical scenario? We judge historical figures according to the good/bad they already committed, which is so different from a present on going issue. I’m not sure intellectual clarity would 100% prevail. Moreover, how to define “evil” when there are media and close friends who could influence our thinking? Einstein discuss relativity in terms of space and time, while in real world, we live in relativity everyday. I don’t have any answer to this. But the first step might be like what Shawn said in the article “I think staying awake rather than falling asleep when people are talking to you is an important component of the definition of clarity.”


Whitney Biennale

We took a visit to Whitney Biennale last Thursday and I was deeply impressed by some of the pieces.

Matt Brownings untitled wood pieces

The wood grids looked almost the same until I observed it really closely. Living in the mass production world, it’s hard for us to tell if a product/piece is made by hand or machine. This piece reminds me of the beauty of imperfectness and nature. If a machine need 10 steps of procedure to make one grid, it could simply repeat the steps over and over again to make tons of them. While for Matt, every single carve on the wood was a combination of art,  technique, time and deliberation.

Jordan Wolfson’s “Real violence”

I’m not a fan of horror or splatter films. The fight scenes in Logan are my limits.  And when Jordan Wolfson put a look-so-real violence into a VR experience, I almost keeping looking at another direction during the whole three-minute assault. I have to say it’s so smart of him to make the piece in VR as it’s a scenario that we could hardly run away, the constrain of it forced us to have mental or physical activities – like look up or other ways or stare at the fight – and it did make the piece solid and strong.

Pacific Red II

A installation by Larry Bell, placed on the 5th floor terrace of Whitney. I observed it from top view last time during my last visit, and it looked like some plain red squares lying on a grid ground. While this time by observing it quite closely, I got different perspectives. It was really interesting to see the city view via these transparent boxes with different shades of red.

Samara Golden’s “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes”

It’s a fantastic piece. We started discuss which part of room were reflected by which piece of mirror immediately after we saw it. I’ve seen her piece “The Flat Side of the Knife” in Shanghai before, which was a bit similar, but what“The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes” fascinated me most was that the whole piece was placed at big window of the balcony. By doing so, everything outside became part of the piece. The echo of  a dynamic outside view and the static inside scene made the whole piece more vivid and the scene in rooms, although in toy size, look like real in our real world.

week 9

Final project thinkings

Collaborator – Yuqiao Q

We are interested in creating an illusion of time/relative rest by using people’s insensitiveness, and make the whole experience relatively slow (need time to figure out what’s going on). 

Related topics/references we are looking into:

relative movement/inertia/distortion of time and space

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (

“There is a place where time stands still. Raindrops hang motionless in air. Pendulums of clocks float mid-swing. Dogs raise their muzzles in silent howls. Pedestrians are frozen on the dusty streets, their legs cocked as if held by strings. The aromas of dates, mangoes, coriander, cumin are suspended in space.

As a traveler approaches this place from any direction, he moves more and more slowly. His heartbeats grow farther apart, his breathing slackens, his temperature drops, his thoughts diminish, until he reaches dead center and stops. For this is the center of time. From this place, time travels outward in concentric circles—at rest at the center, slowly picking up speed at greater diameters. 

And at the place where time stands still, one sees lovers kissing in the shadows of buildings, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The loved one will never take his arms from where they are now, will never give back the bracelet of memories, will never journey far from his lover, will never place himself in danger in self-sacrifice, will never fail to show his love, will never become jealous, will never fall in love with someone else, will never lose the passion of this instant in time One must consider that these statues are illuminated by only the most feeble red light, for light is diminished almost to nothing at the center of time, its vibrations slowed to echoes in vast canyons, its intensity reduced to the faint glow of fireflies.

Those not quite at dead center do in- deed move, but at the pace of glaciers. A brush of the hair might take a year, a kiss might take a thousand. While a smile is returned, seasons pass in the outer world. While a child is hugged, bridges rise. While a goodbye is said, cities crumble and are forgotten.


Concepts in Human Geography by Michael R. Curry , Part 1 – On Spacial Practice