Installation at Japan House
By Peter Warren
A wild piece of natural beauty in a modern architectural space. British Bonsai meets Japan House, on High Street Kensington
After many weeks of discussions and last minute changes of plan, on Monday morning the first of four trees was installed at the soon to be opened Japan House building on Kensington High Street. Designed to showcase modern Japanese design, craftsmanship and art, the building will house exhibitions, a superb restaurant, events, a library as well as selling high quality Japanese goods. The aesthetic is modern and simple, with the internationally renowned designer Hara Kenya, as the Chief Creative Designer and the interior design by the equally as famous Katayama Masamichi.
Being asked to be part of the project was an honour and I decided to try as hard as possible to put a British and distinctly Saruyama spin on the proceedings. As a result, the first tree to be displayed is this Japanese Larch, which is one of my favourite trees here. What is so British about that you say? Well, despite being originally a Japanese species, it was originally a forestry tree, or self seeded from a forestry tree up in the wilderness of Northumberland. It was collected by Peter Snart of Willowbog bonsai, who regular viewers will know is a friend, colleague and hero to me, and he started it on it’s path to becoming a bonsai. Originally it was found growing in a frost pocket or similar harsh micro environment whereby each year the growth was stunted, meaning it never reached full height like it’s brothers and sisters around it.
I saw it up at Willowbog many times, staring up into the heavy top section where multiple branches were growing up trying to form the apex, and where inverse taper was apparent. I looked at the weaker lower branches that grew out sideways and were being shaded by the growth above. The tree was captivating but my mind had been programmed to reject those points as being flaws. Struggling with those ideas, I drove back through the countryside where I saw Larch with multiple branches in the top, with weak lower branches growing out horizontally but with a wildness that reflected the landscape.
Seeing those trees through the seasons, the bare winter structure, the light vibrant elongating summer foliage and autumnal needles, I came to the slow realisation that this bonsai tree represented those trees I saw growing around me in so many ways and should be celebrated as such rather than be discarded because it did not fit into the rigid criteria that we can be guilty of enforcing on material. Rather than bending the tree to my will, I was allowing my way of thinking to be bent to accept, accommodate and appreciate this tree for the character it had.
After twisting Peter’s arm to let me have it, it came down to the garden and I did almost nothing for two years, apart from just letting it grow see what it wanted to do, get to know the tree, make sure that I wasn’t making a mistake and allow my thinking to mature and catch up. I allowed it to flower and set cones last year, although I did thin them out, and then again this year, thinning out the flowers as soon as possible as it did weaken the tree a little last year. After Japan House asked me to display trees, it seemed only right that this be a part of it at some point, and then when seeing the first space the trees were to be displayed in, it had to be this
Preparing the tree meant a little bit of styling, some branch removal, a little pruning and cone removal and cleaning of the trunk and dead wood. Before doing so I sat in front of the tree for a good ten minutes, just looking at it and noting down what made it so natural looking, and what made it look too dirty. It would have been so easy to take the water jet to the dead wood, clean it down to the same level over the whole thing, then paint lime sulphur on to homogenise it. Equally as easy to brush the callus tissue to lose the crust of sap and become bright red. Finding the balance point between retaining natural character and being dirty was difficult to find. The same can be said for the lengths of the fresh shoots, all growing out of shape and seemingly randomly out of the silhouette. Aesthetic design concepts such as balance, movement and definition had to be considered on one hand, but an equally important consideration was to ensure that the summer vibrancy of that growth was not lost as it made this seemingly ancient looking tree, in both bark and branching style characteristics, look young and alive.
Holding back the desire to achieve easy to understand clean lines and highly organised foliage pads was hard and a process that I have been trying to achieve. As I have previously mentioned, this is a completely different concept to ripping up the conventions and just doing it freestyle with hedge clippers, this is a deliberate and conscious thought process to remove that which is stopping the tree from looking natural, which in itself is a paradoxical statement because the most natural appearance is to do nothing; but I digress. With this tree, I hope that it has been achieved and whilst many people in the bonsai community will look at it and point out the faults on the tree, say that it needs wiring and that I am making up all of this nonsense to cover up the fact that I cannot style a tree, to them I will say that I am more than happy with the tree looking just as it does, natural, wild and seemingly without the influence of man, despite taking over twelve hours of preparation to make it look that way.
Installing the tree in the space, which is a big glass cube, I was able to play with the lighting to achieve certain effects of highlighting the light green foliage, the dead wood in the upper left and creating some lovely shadows on the plinth. Throughout the installation process, the amazing Shinichi Adachi was filming and he made this short video. It features me looking as though I hadn’t had any sleep for about 30 hours, and quite a lot of shots of me looking sweaty or moody, so apologies for that. He also took some incredible still shots. Here is the tree before the lighting was arranged.
And here it is after. Hopefully, you can see the difference. Apologies for the reflections on the glass, but it is kept in a glass cage.
And here is the video.
The Larch will be on display from the opening on Friday 22nd June until Sunday 24th, when it will be replaced with another tree. Four trees will be on display in total over the month, culminating in a small two hour demonstration type talk on bonsai, taking place on the 14th of July.
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