Harnessing time

Bonsai = Art + time

There are many ways to think about time and art. We spend time or take time to contemplate a painting or a sculpture. Some art unfolds over time such as music, movies or video. But there are also artworks that incorporate the idea of time, that include time as subject matter. Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory is one example. (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1 Salvador Dali, “Persistence of Memory,” 1931, oil on canvas, 24 cm × 33 cm (9.5 in × 13 in), Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Melting clocks may represent the malleability of time in a dream state, while an orange clock covered in ants may represent decay. In fact, works made of organic matter (e.g. fruit, vegetables), which is then allowed to rot, have been used by many different artists to reflect the passage of time, impermanence and mortality. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2 Rotten apples by Kovik @kovik

Music is based on time. Musicians keep time when playing. John Cage composed a work, 4’33’’, one of the main features of which is time ( https://youtu.be/JTEFKFiXSx4, accessed 2/1/2023). In another work composed for the organ, Organ2ASLSP, Cage included the tempo marking ASLSP, meaning “as slow as possible”. At St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, a performance of this work began in 2001 that is due to end in 2640. [For those who are interested, the most recent chord change occurred on May 2, 2022 (see YouTube, warning it’s a 23 minute video,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iFmaATli4Q , accessed 2/02/2023). The next note will be played on February 5, 2024 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/As_Slow_as_Possible, accessed 2/3/2023). This work is an extreme example of the effect that time has on art and on the way in which we interact with an artwork.

Time also plays an important role in the art of bonsai. One of the most common ways that time is discussed in relation to bonsai is when we refer to the age of a tree. People encountering their first ever bonsai commonly ask, “how old is that tree…?”. Of course, they are asking because they are amazed that an old tree could remain so small and live in a pot with so little soil. As bonsai artists, we value aged trees for having survived for a long time and for the signs of age that they display (e.g., thick trunk, flaky bark, well-developed nebari, highly ramified canopies), which generally take years to develop. Time therefore affects our appreciation of a bonsai.

With time there is accumulation, but there is also loss. For many, recreating the image of an ancient tree struggling to survive in a harsh environment is an important aesthetic goal. Old trees in nature, reflecting the effects of natural processes over time, serve as models. Age (or time) can therefore provide inspiration to a bonsai artist. Bleached and cracked deadwood, dead branches, or dead portions of the trunk are incorporated into the designs of their bonsai, reflecting heroic struggle and eventual decay, another result of time.

While the features discussed above occur over long stretches of time, bonsai of course change on a shorter time scale, with the seasons, or even daily. Buds swell late in winter, in anticipation of spring. Flowers bloom and new green growth occurs in spring, leaves change color in fall then drop, conifers can take on a brownish color over winter. Brazilian raintree leaves close at night and reopen the next day. Soil may change color when it becomes dry. Such time-related changes guide the bonsai artist with respect to tasks that must be performed, indicating when it is appropriate to take certain actions, or even when and how to display trees.

Bonsai artists use time to create their art. Time is an element of their art in the same way that line, shape, form, proportion, balance/asymmetry, color, rhythm, space, contrast, movement, and texture are. Bonsai artists collaborate with nature and natural processes. Bonsai artists harness time. They may decide to “give” a tree more time to recover, to wait for time to heal a wound, to repot a tree now rather than later, to anticipate how a freshly pruned tree or foliage pad will look given time.  They combine their awareness of time with an understanding of natural processes, using horticultural skill and knowledge of bonsai cultural techniques to create living art. (Figs. 3 , 4)

Figs. 3 and 4. Ezo spruce by Saburo Kato as it originally appeared in an early Kokufu exhibit and as it appeared recently. (photos: William Valavanis).

Because bonsai are alive, they are always changing, a bonsai is never finished until it dies. A monument, a piece of 3-D art designed for a different purpose, is ideally unchanging. A monument is meant to be outside the flow of time, whereas a bonsai is driven by time. The bonsai artist and the tree develop a relationship, a partnership. However, a bonsai can outlive the artist, and its care and further development must eventually be entrusted to another. Time transforms both the tree and the artist.

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copyright 2023, Walter J. Scott

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