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.

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.

Reading – Einstein’s Dreams

The dreams Einstein dreamt are such beautiful hypotheses on time, in which I didn’t see physics or theory of relativity, I saw ourselves. When I travelled through different worlds of time with Einstein, the people I encountered were ourselves – there were people who didn’t want to say goodbye, people who were afraid of death, people who were exiled by time, people who came from the past.


“14 APRIL 1905

Suppose time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”

What happened would happen again, what were doomed to be happened would never be avoided. The world is a stage on which the play is iterating over and over again. We are the tireless robotic actors, saying our lines without mistakes. How would people live if they were told their future was doomed and repeated? In Einstein’s dream, people live in this time circle without notice, which might be a fortune.

“16 APRIL 1905

In this world, time is like a flow of water, occasionally displaced by a bit of debris, a passing breeze. Now and then, some cosmic disturbance will cause a rivulet of time to turn away from the mainstream, to make connection backstream. When this happens, birds, soil, people caught in the branching tributary find themselves suddenly carried to the past.”

In Einstein’s dream, the people being carried back to the past are like the exiles of time. They showed reverence to time and lived like a ghost, tried hard not to disturb anything in the past. If we could travel back to past I wonder how many of us could be that cautious and thoughtful since we are only human. Human who live with regrets and desires.


19 APRIL 1905

These three chains of events all indeed happen, simultaneously. For in this world, time has three dimensions, like space. Just as an object may move in three perpendicular directions, corresponding to horizontal, vertical, and longitudinal, so an object may participate in three perpendicular futures. Each future moves in a different direction of time. Each future is real.”

Life is made up of choices. If time could have three dimensions or more, nothing would be impossible. The hypothesis of parallel universe is so popular among storytellers because we never really fully satisfy with our choices. What if? What if not? How brave we could be if we were told that in another dimension of time, we could have made thousands of  totally different choices.

26 APRIL 1905

In this world, it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains. At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more slowly the farther from the center of earth. The effect is minuscule, but it can be measured with extremely sensitive instruments. Once the phenomenon was known, a few people, anxious to stay young, moved to the mountains. Now all houses are built on Dom, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and other high ground. It is impossible to sell living quarters elsewhere.”

Let all beautiful things last forever. In his dream on May 14, he dreamt of a center of the world where time is still.

“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.”


3 MAY 1905      

Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first. Or perhaps cause lies forever in the past while effect in the future, but future and past are entwined.

It is a world in which every word spoken speaks just to that moment, every glance given has only one meaning, each touch has no past or no future, each kiss is a kiss of immediacy. “