Video Shitakusa

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Video Shitakusa

Post  Robert J. Baran on Wed Nov 18, 2009 1:19 am

On Thurs Nov 12 I gave a slightly more than one hour talk as part of a three-hour class on video shitakusa or accent plants. The art instructor at Colorado College here had seen a display last year at the New York Botanical Garden which featured traditional accent plants. After the Pikes Peak Bonsai Society's fall show this past September, the topic came up and he was eventually referred to me. I was intrigued by the theoretical concept of video accent plants but had no idea how this would be pulled off. What – have a little 5” TV screen off to one side?

We e-mailed back-and-forth a bit about the program approaching the class date and so I ended up giving a talk to nine students. Because of the massive distilled amount of information about traditional Japanese aesthetics and keido display I needed to cover -- neither the teacher nor I knew what the students would do -- I used a six-page hand-out which was essentially my verbatim talk. The Pikes Peak club supplied five good-sized bonsai compositions for the students to choose from to employ. The trees were also digitally photographed so that the students could reference these primary display facets after we left. Two of the students came up with off-the-cuff videos then which showed me the untapped potential of video accents.

We brought the trees back on Tues Nov 17 for a second three-hour class in which the final videos were presented. Most of the videos were projected on the wall either behind or to the appropriate side of the table-top presented bonsai. Due to the fact that some of the students' works included copyrighted material from a number of sources I cannot show them here. However, please take a look at these textual summaries I've put together. (I've taken the liberty here of editing what was seen to focus on the accent portion. And, yes, few of the videos were strictly only in the accent plant role.)

- A large pine bonsai, a hanging bamboo scroll, and a close-up video projected on the wall below and to the side showing a blossom-laden plum tree branch being drawn in sumi ink in traditional Japanese style. The "Three Friends of Winter." (There was also some stop-motion animated origami of various Japanese objects...)

- A front-projection video loop of a mountain skyline shown above, and a smaller second scene looking down at a waterfall from a neighboring peak shown to the side, with the actual bonsai's shadow contributing to the composition.

- Video of the student on a busy street, which then changes to that student walking against a changing series of backdrops of different environments to get to a meditative calm spot with the living large pine bonsai to the side representing that isolated forest of calm.

- A lengthy video (shown next to a tree) which explored scales of size, myth, and reality. The most intriguing part, I thought, was some microvideography of the goings-on inside plant cells, a way of looking at our trees I hadn't explored much.

- A twin-trunk spruce bonsai in a fairly deep drum pot had a video loop of two small climbers projected onto the front of the pot. The faster climber on the left was coming up to the larger trunk, disappearing over the pot's lip. The slower climber (representing and approaching the son/daughter/child/student tree) seemed to have a little more difficult time keeping up. The audio track was simple but subtly changing so the experience was not boring.

- To the side of a large informal upright pine was a video, the central segment of which was a view from the side of the knees of two persons sitting facing each other. The two took turns adding a line to a stick drawing of an accent plant with similar movement as the bonsai and showing the drawing while the other person added a line to his slightly different accent plant drawing. (There was also opening and closing segments about peace/non-war which showed scenes from post WWII Europe with a German-accented speaker narrating. As I commented to the class afterward, images from post-bomb Hiroshima would be expected here but they would be too obvious next to the bonsai. There had also been tremendous devastation in Europe and the bonsai used here connected the results of war on both continents.)

- A video whose main image showed part of the side of a typically rural American red barn. The large informal-upright jaboticaba bonsai in this display had its distinct shadow also seen against the barn. Slightly up and to the side and acting as the hanging scroll was a not-too-large vertical window on the barn. Through the window we saw a progression of natural scenes: sunrise, clouds passing by, large bird taking flight, moonrise, lightning storm, etc.

- Under the foliage of a medium-sized full-cascade pine was a laptop computer tipped over so that its screen was like the reflecting surface of a pool. The silver frame of the laptop did not distract from the video showing drops falling onto the water creating ripples moving outward. This display was designed to be appreciated from above.

- A large slanting-style pine in a traditional somber, non-assuming rectangular pot with a larger projected slow-motion video to the side. This showed a dancer holding a similar pose as the branches. The dancer wore a simple plum branch-decorated dress and was supported by a nude partner facing away from the camera and laying across her feet who supported her legs so she could lean similarly as the tree. The video started with a close-up of the dancer's arm and dress, slowly zooming out to the full scene in which the dancer had dropped her arms and then brought them back up to the pose, then slowly zoomed back into the dress pattern.

Providing some critiques of the videos also was a sculpting teacher at Colorado College who had given a talk a few years earlier in North Carolina on the topic of Chinese scholar stones and was familiar with some of the displays of them in New York...

One additional area that was briefly discussed was the use of mini-spotlights/theatre lighting/play with shadows. This is another area of display/presentation which I don't believe has ever really been addressed.

Yes, video shitakusa are very cutting edge (as I mentioned to the freshmen to senior students) and they are not in any tradition. Yet. Traditional Japanese tokonoma or American-Japanese seki-kazari tabletop displays are good and proper. But as long as we have been locally exploring the potential of our plants and pots, what about the presentation aspect also?

I feel we will see more of these in the future. (For all I know, a few Japanese enthusiasts might already be showing animé videos specifically made as some of their off-the-wall [!] accents.) I've seen what a few technologically-savvy general public members with a very brief synopsis of Asian display values can do. True, some students prefer to create mini-movies rather than a more focused vision, their use of metaphor and symbol can be jarring, and it is very difficult to "nail" a nontraditional thought with a video image. (I give the talk again this February for another class block.) What can skilled bonsai enthusiasts with more background and experience in aesthetics start to create for some our displays?

Robert J. Baran
Bonsai Researcher and Historian

Robert J. Baran

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