A Surprising New Traditional Old Art Form

Japan has enough forms of traditional culture that, as an outsider, you eventually begin to simply get used to being exposed to entirely new fields you had never heard of. It’s another thing entirely to come across something that, apparently, even most Japanese people have never seen nor heard of.

Bonseki is a traditional art that I only found out about entirely by coincidence — an exhibition was being held in downtown Kyoto and I happened to walk by a rather striking display of white-on-black monochrome art.

The window display

The name bonseki literally means “tray stones,” and the name is apt — it uses lacquered trays as a base, upon which landscapes and other images are created using stones of every size, from fine sand sprinkled on and brushed around with feathers to large rocks placed by hand.

A demonstration of bonseki

According to the explanations given by the ladies present, who were showing off the art form and many examples of it, bonseki began as a way of producing drafts for Japanese rock gardens, using sand to represent raked gravel and larger rocks to represent the types of larger boulders often found in these rock gardens.

A dramatic use of larger stones for a sense of depth and realism

The techniques live on in relative obscurity — after all, how often do most of us design and plan rock gardens? — but the group continues to hold meetings with lessons like any other traditional art form, and the styles used and the works created with it have continued to evolve somewhat, though they are still ordinarily used for landscapes of various types.

Water made of sand, crashing up on rocks made of… rocks

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these works of art came when I found myself asking, out of curiosity, whether any of them were for sale. I was told that, beyond merely being hard to maintain properly, it is, in fact, considered conventional to make no attempt whatsoever to preserve bonseki art for very long; rather, the norm is to simply brush away the sand and collect the rocks, much like their apparent cousin, the sand mandala.

A more contemporary sort of image

For that moment while they’re around, though, they certainly are spectacular.

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