The Bonsai Vision of Aarin Packard
“A thousand years from now, what will Bonsai be? I guess I would say if it looked the same as it does today, I’ll be very disappointed.”- Aarin Packard
I spoke with Aarin Packard at the inaugural Pacific Bonsai Exhibition held at the Bridgeyard in Oakland, California October 2022. Aarin is perhaps best known to people in the bonsai world as curator of the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way, Washington. In addition to maintaining and directing the bonsai collection, his role includes educator and innovator. He has put together important exhibits with associated publications such as World War Bonsai tracing the cultural history of bonsai in wartime Japan and the US, as well as Natives featuring native North American trees with displays connecting them to their native habitats, to name just two. Packard was also the facilitator for the multi-year experiment known as the LAB (Living Art of Bonsai) project, a collaborative effort involving stand maker Austin Heitzman, ceramic artist Ron Lang, bonsai artist Ryan Neil, Packard himself and many other supporters. This effort explored the effect of altering the traditional bonsai > pot > stand sequence of creating bonsai art.
One of the resulting LAB compositions was on display as a stand-alone special exhibit at the Pacific Bonsai Expo. This featured a Limber pine styled by Neil, in a ceramic pot by Lang that looked like it was made of metal, on top of a cast concrete table by Heitzman with a wood-patterned surface. Titled Bonsai Deconstructed, the installation at the Bridgeyard included the work of two additional Seattle-area artists, Courtney Branam, a glass artist whose large blown glass element filled the space underneath the table, and visual artist Tahiti Person’s hand-cut, detailed paper sculpture which serves to define the space for the artwork and diffuses light, creating unique patterns throughout the day.
Bonsai Deconstructed at the Pacific Bonsai Expo 2022, Oblique view. For better views see links at the end of the article to Aarinpackard@pacificbonsai.
WS: Tell me about your thoughts behind Bonsai Deconstructed?
AP: This piece is a continuation of the LAB project by adding the additional elements to the display by other visual, non-bonsai artists. A bonsai display is a collaboration consisting of all these different components made by a variety of artisans…and an individual, who functions as a curator, bringing the different elements together to present a story or a feeling or a thought. Seattle is one of the glass art meccas outside of Italy, and I have been talking with Courtney Branam about ways to use glass in bonsai display. I thought it would be cool to fill the negative space under the table with this large glass bubble, in contrast to the visual weight of the composition. Ideally the glass bubble would appear more bulging as though it were being compressed. The LAB project was also interested in architecture as a theme, and that composition has concrete, wood, and the pot looks like metal and then glass is another building material. The backdrop is an additional piece that helps to define the display in this large space, almost as a room divider. Continuing with the architectural theme, the paper backdrop could also be seen to reference traditional Japanese Shoji screen room dividers. The light paper also contrasts with the heavier material of the trees.
WS: What is the LAB project going to do next?
AP: We filmed the process and have talked about making a documentary. But beyond that I would like to see a new iteration of the LAB, where we have actual non-bonsai visual artists making works in lieu of a traditional container, having a sculptor make a sculpture and then planting the tree on it.
WS: Similar to Nick Lenz?
AP: …Along those lines, but planting trees on sculptures specifically designed for that purpose.
WS: Do you have an art background?
AP: Well not really. My undergraduate degree is in cultural anthropology, I wanted to be a curator of a cultural art museum, managing and maintaining cultural artworks.
WS: I came across a quote a couple of years ago in an article about Ikebana from the New York Times Magazine, and I’d like to hear your thoughts about it and how it applies to bonsai. The writer said something to the effect that, “Like all great artistic traditions, [the survival of Ikebana] relies not only on people who can look past the cliches and Orientalist fantasies of what they think it is, but [on] those able to move the art forward.”
AP: Regarding the idea of “de-orientalizing” bonsai, there’s the reverence to Japanese Americans but also the idea of cultural appropriation, we also know that Bonsai was in China before it was in Japan. In my opinion there is a difference between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. I think [all of us here] are appreciators of Japanese [bonsai] culture, but I think we’re also looking to take that, and America being a melting pot of culture, to change and adapt it and give it our own spin and make it relevant to ourselves as individual presenters.
That’s essentially what I’m doing here [with the installation]. It was a recontextualizing of what’s already there, the tree, the scroll-like element, an accent but underneath the table. I wanted to focus on the materiality of the components rather than on the objects themselves, since the pot and stand are just simple shapes. Materials were acting as or pretending to be something else (similar to the idea that Bonsai act like something else, for example a young tree looks like an old tree); the table is concrete but looks like wood, the pot is ceramic but looks like metal, there is a glass element and that can look like water. Playing with materials and how you use them in ways other than how they are intended to be used or to give a different impression. It’s this gradual moving the needle to a place where displays will be totally foreign to what we’re seeing [here at the Expo]. Imagine displays without dividers and not as three-point displays. That to me is more evocative. Imagine there are no dividers but just a variety of installations throughout the space, in more of a gallery-style. Presenting bonsai in more of a modern art gallery style than a bonsai exhibition style. But you need to slowly move people that way, to show them what is possible, [to say] “this is what you could do…”
WS: I have been fascinated by the AI-generated images that you have posted on Instagram. Tell me about the ideas behind those – the cyberpunk aesthetic.
AP: I like the dystopian, science fiction aesthetic seen in Blade Runner, Star Wars, Ridley Scott and Alien. The idea of science fiction and technology but not super-shiny. A thousand years from now, what will Bonsai be? I guess I would say if it looked the same as it does today, I’ll be very disappointed. The cyberpunk aesthetic of a dirty, urban environment with graffiti; the contrast with bonsai is very interesting to me.
If you think about it, bonsai is associated with science fiction as set dressing. There were bonsai in the original Blade Runner, and more recently in Dune and even Star Wars. And yet the bonsai in the films look just like traditional Japanese bonsai. What do bonsai represent in these settings? Austerity, wealth, not broadly accessible to the public? I think that part of the goal (now) is to show other non-bonsai people that they can enjoy doing something with these trees that does not fall into the traditional model.
WS: Thank you for your time and thank you for sharing your vision.