Living Art of Bonsai: Principles of Design



of an Exhibit

by Michael Liang

Published on June 02, 2019

  • Description:

    Are principles of design universal? If so, are the origins found in nature or crafted by human hands? In “Living Art of Bonsai: Principles of Design”, currently on display at the Pacific Bonsai Museum, the answer appears to be both. Line, movement, form, color, and space are all explored and expressed through carefully selected bonsai from their 150 specimen collection. Exhibit panels explain how each design principle appears in art, in trees, and in bonsai (deftly making the argument that art+nature=bonsai).

    I have long spied the signs for the bonsai collection while driving between Seattle and Tacoma on I-5. As a former art student, park ranger, and gardener, I have always been fascinated by the beauty of miniature trees. Awe is not limited to nature’s grand cathedrals; the precise attention to detail, especially for living objects that outlive their makers, can equally inspire wonderment.

    The museum is outdoors, yet contains the architectural elements of indoor exhibitions: gallery walls, reader rails, exhibit panels, and objects on pedestals. Exposed to the elements, there is a slight patina that forms on all surfaces, which makes the museum feel part of the surrounding wooded area. Birds chirp and there is a pleasant crunch of gravel when walking through the exhibition. I only wish that the traffic from the nearby interstate was not so obvious, a distraction from more peaceful contemplation.

    There’s a formula to the design of “Living Art of Bonsai.” Each two-sided gallery explores a design principle with three or four bonsai displayed as living examples. One is first drawn to the trees themselves, presented simply against neutral backdrops. Then, reading the interpretive panel, one learns about the design principle (paragraph 1), how it appears in art (paragraph 2), in trees (paragraph 3), and in bonsai (paragraph 4). An image and caption accompany each paragraph. Exhibit labels on the reader rail provide the natural and cultural history about each bonsai, a bit more informational than the opening panels. A small exhibit label on the end of the reader rail serves as punctuation to conclude each section, posing questions like, “Which of these bonsai has the most natural-looking trunk line? What feelings do these trunk lines evoke for you?” This exhibit design approach is repeated in more than a dozen spaces. On the one hand, this consistent structure makes it easy to compare and contrast the principles of design; on the other hand, its predictability made it less exciting to read by the end of the exhibition.

    I finished my visit to the Pacific Bonsai Museum with a better understanding of the classification of bonsai and reminder that bonsai is an art form, perhaps started in nature, but very much finished by humans. I came to “Living Art of Bonsai” with prior knowledge of design principles, but had not thought to apply them to the shape of trees. Now, as I sit in my backroom, gazing at a cherry tree in the backyard, I find myself looking at the negative space between the branches, the repetition of its leaves, and the overgrown limbs that need pruning. The scale of my tree may be different than bonsai, but the principles are the same.

Latest Comments (1)

Nice approach

by Kathleen Mclean - June 04, 2019

Your review format is very helpful: first an overview and description of sections, then a focus on some particular elements, and then reflection of how the exhibition influenced your personal experience after returning home. Your critique of the formulaic nature of the exhibit section labels makes me wonder how they could have used a similar format, but could have avoided predictability by including unexpected or counter-intuitive information..

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