The Time Dimension of Bonsai

Bonsai are recognized as three-dimensional art objects. When one views a bonsai, as at a bonsai exhibit, one is presented with a front view of the tree with a preferred viewpoint, typically not too far away and about two thirds the way up the trunk. But a well executed bonsai will also look good from all directions because the bonsaist treats it as a three-dimensional art object. But in reality, there is also a fourth dimension, time, to the bonsai, and this is a dimension that only the bonsaist interacts with.

A bonsai spends many years in training, so the day or two it spends on display, perhaps each year, is just a snapshot of the tree’s existence. The bonsaist may have known the tree for quite a long time, perhaps from when it was a seedling or just starting out as a cutting, or perhaps he had collected it himself from the wild many years ago. He (or she) may “work” on the tree only infrequently as in pruning, or wiring, every six months or so or repotting every several years. But the bonsaist observes the tree daily when checking his trees for their needs and during daily watering. He is intimately connected to the time dimension of bonsai.

Part of the art is in communicating this otherwise unseen time dimension to the casual viewer. The appearance of age in the tree is deliberate, enhanced by venerable nebari (rootage), significant taper to the trunk, roughness of or lichen on the bark, jin (deadwood) or shari (scarring of the trunk), and fine ramification of and lowering of the branches.

When one walks into a fine bonsai exhibit, one is struck by the serenity and nobility communicated by the trees, and, I think, an important aspect of that may be the (possibly unconscious) sense of time the bonsai communicate to the aficionado.

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Last updated February 12, 2018, by Rick Wagner. Copyright © 2018, all rights reserved.