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.

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