KUSAMONO (María Rosa Bonet)
Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Maria Rosa is a long-time friend, since we met at the end of ‘80s in a European Convention EBA – ESA. I still remember all four walking bookshops in Amsterdam trying to find books on Japanese stones that were displayed with bonsai; I guess they were referred as suiseki. And, surprisingly, we found a copy of Yoshimura-Covello’s. Needles to say, Maria Rosa is one of the pioneer persons in Spain in the art of viewing stones. Other one was the former Teresa Aguilera, and the third was I. A few years later, we knew there was another petromaniac, isolated in the Basque Country, but what wonderful stones he had!: Rafa Monje. Four persons, in three different zones of Spain, separated by hundreds of kilometres.

Maria Rosa is a non-stop person. Hence, for years she has shared bonsai and suiseki, hobby and business. And even more, some years ago she is promoting other art expression of Japanese inspiration: kusamono. I am convinced that the arrow impact has been even stronger for kusamono than for bonsai and suiseki, maybe because it perfectly fits her knowledge of plants, her love for nature, her inclination to small and manageable things, her appreciation of colour and her insightful perception.

In the just closed Nishikiten Congress, held in Barcelona, Maria Rosa has performed several activities in order to promote kusamono, mainly some lectures and demos and an exhibition. I recommend you to pay a visit to the webpage, where you will view and admire a gallery of photos of this exhibition.

I have to declare that the exhibition perfectly reflects the fresh and young spirit of Maria Rosa and her refined aesthetic sense. I am going to be sincere: not all exhibits fit the traditional Japanese rules for kusamono, but they all undoubtedly emanate a Japanese flavour: a cared simplicity, a clean look, a seemingly spontaneity. Many of them would look great as main elements. in a tokonoma or shoin.

I likely am a bit more conservative and so, I would be inclined to open more space in some exhibits or to stress more the element to be considered principal. But, would it improve the aesthetic achievement?: I am not sure. Everyone possesses his/her own perception and the key point is to be able of performing it. And it is immediately perceived that Maria Rosa has succeeded.



Monday, October 28, 2013

¿Wysinwis? What is that? Some of you have probably already guessed what it does mean, but most will be a bit intrigued about it. Anyway, refrain your nerves and let me a little introduction about Richard Ota.

I have not been lucky enough to know him personally, but only through the frequent references to him by Larry Ragle. I think a concise and clear reference to Ota-san and ‘wysinwis’ is contained in California Aiseki Kai, vol.27 issue 5 page 1 (May-2009)

‘If there was a contest for the no.1 Japanese philosopher in the Western world of stone appreciation, Richard Ota would win, hands down. Mr. Ota is a scholar, a bunjin guy. For starters, he is the “anonymous” author of the article, Sui-Seki, that appeared in Bonsai in California, Vol.1, 1967. (I say “anonymous” because no author was credited on the page or in the table of contents). It is there that he authored the quintaessential phrase that I quote repeatedly, What you see is not what I see” describing the mystery and the ambiguity inherent in suiseki appreciation in the deepest sense. Further, in his article Ota also identifies the subjective, personal nature of suiseki by saying, “No two stones are alike. The impression a person receives from a stone is singular, to him and him alone”.’

If you take the initial underlined letters in the Ota’s statement, you will get the acronym “wysinwis”.

This said, you will wonder why I am introducing it today. Some days ago, when sailing in the always troubled waters of Internet, I found a comment of a friendly controversy on the suggested scene of a stone display. And yesterday, while attending a suiseki exhibition in Pamplona, Spain (I undertake to write a post on it in a few days) and stressing about the importance of prepare a proper composition to produce or reinforce the suggestion, the other person pointed: “But it may happen the viewer does not perceive the same suggested scene, will that imply I have failed in arranging the display?”

In situations like these, I always invoke “wysinwis’ in my help. First I must remark that Ota-san statement is expressed in the context of a display, so it does not only refer to the stone, but to the composition as a whole. I personally consider that the composition is to tell a story in a coherent way, though the story is more hinted than explained, and its target is to create a “conversation” between the host (exhibitor) and the guest (viewer): the “conversation” will be fully successful when the guest “listens’ first to the host, by perceiving the suggested scene/story and then ‘proposes’ and alternate perception, as just another possibility, never as a rejection.

Of course, the untrained public visiting an exhibition will get initially amazed of how just a piece of rock is able to replicate a landscape, a person, an animal, etc. and not on how the preparation of the stone and his proper display are responsible for most of this impression. This will be the first level of perception and kind assistance and explanation will also help.

But in the more restrained microcosm of stone lovers or friends, a second level of perception arises. Within this microcosm, the importance of the elements used in the presentation (stand/tray, table, auxiliary elements, …) is known and noted. And the chance of controversy is unavoidable; and the borderline between suggestion and rejection becomes diffused and subjective.

Wysinwis assumption takes a capital role in this context. No one should take a position of supremacy. When I have to perform as spokesperson or requested for an opinion, I must remark first the positive points I perceive in the composition,  and only then I may suggest alternatives that could lead to improve or to a better understanding of it, starting at the main element and ending with the overall impact. Very often, it is advisable to ask previously which is the suggested scene, especially if there is no assignation of poetic name. But I must always to assist the colleague, not to demonstrate how much more I know.

On the side of the exhibitor, wysinwis assumption implies that, even if I do not fully agree to the lecturer or critique, I must not enter into a public debate that will likely disappoint and/or confuse the audience. At the end, the spokesperson has been chosen  assuming he/she is experienced and versed and holds personal criteria that may be or not shared by others, including me; but he/she is the leader of the session and this position should not be contested.

Anyway, lecturer or attendant, we do not hold a cent per cent of knowledge, understanding, nor artistic, cultural and philosophical perception. So, we should reflect at home about the suggestions and critiques we have made and/or received, for sure, we shall very often find points for improving.





Tracking back the talking topics with friends of suiseki world during these last months, I guess one of the most common has been about the use of suiban. Last time that this happened has been along and after the 2013 Congress of AIAS (Associazione Italiana Amotori Suiseki), held in Pescia, Tuscany, on 21/22-September. If desired, the debate may be followed in:


This interesting debate and previous discussions have lead me to get the following aspects, posed as questions:

- Which is the most suitable way for display: daiza or suiban?
- Should suiban be only used in summertime?
- Is it true that Japanese use mainly suiban?
- Why is suiban so scarcely used in the West (and particularly in Europe)?
- How should accompanying elements be used?


Needless to say that it is not possible to attempt using a blog for a detailled comment; it would require a book, or at least a wide part of a book, and just know I do not have anough knowledge and time for it. But I can not ressist to expres some personal considerations.


As I see it, the first thing is to make it clear which is the present situation of bonsai and suiseki as art activities:

-                      It is mainly performed through public events (congresses, exhibitions, demonstrations, lectures) in wide spaces.

-                      Exhibitions gather objects from diverse owners, displayed on large tables or benches; they are more in the side of tana-kazari (table display) than in the side of toko-kazari (alcove display).

-                      Most congresses and exhibitions are held in the same season within the year.

-                      Top-level collectionists usually are of high economic level as well and their attitudes often match more those of any art collectionist than those of an art practioneer.

-                      The collectionists tend to acquire artworks in the phases of finished or mantainance, while the practioneer tends to get the objects in an initial moment and to follow through the successive phases of development until the objects gets it maturity.


Daiza versus suiban


Historically, cabinet stones (as opposite to garden rocks) were displayed on the top of the table or furniture, directly or on a dish, bol, or incense burner. In the time of Tang dinasty (VIIIc) stands/tables from wood/stone start to be used; the utilization of wood stands expands during Song dinasty (X/XIc) and it becomes a common practice during Ming dinasty (XV/XVIIc); In the times of Qing dinasty (XVII/XIXc) the use of wood stands may be considered of absolute predominance. In Japan we indeed know that the characterization of suiseki receives an almost definitive impulse from Rai Sanyo (1781/1832); as far as I know, Ray Sanyo favoured the use stands (daiza) for his stones. The present guidelines for suiban design arise from the closing of XIX century, within the circle of top-level collectionists and merchants.


For a top-level collectionist, his interest after acquiring any artwork was to immediately enjoy it, private of in public,: provided no money restriction, suiban is the fastest way, it is immediately available; conversely, an actual daiza, handmade by a skilled artisan, requires to lend him the stone and wait for several months until the finished work is received. Furthermore, the same suiban may be used for different stones, whereas the daiza is custom-fitted for a single stone.


I consider that option between daiza and suiban can not be based on economic considerations, statistics, or immediate availability, but on artistic quality; for suiseki, it comes from the display as a whole, considering suggestion, balance, asymetry and unpretentious. Remembering the aesthetics principles of the tea ceremony, each display is a different artwork, even when the objects were used, individually or jointly, in previous occasions.


Anyway, as a practioneer of the art of viewing stones, I find very useful and rewarding to make its daiza for the stone; it is an unique opportunity to ‘share life’ with the stone and to know it in depth; this way, it will possible to display it afterwards in a way that its beauty be fully expressed, even when a suiban is used.


When to use a suiban


Western hobbyists often are inclined to think that Oriental art of miniature trees (bonsai) or of viewing stones (suiseki) or even that of proper display of artworks are to be performed according to a single set of rules. This is an absolute wrong perception. Articles by Wil Lautenschlager on Japanese suiseki exhibitions published in the newsletter of California Aiseki Kai make this perfectly clear. Regarding the use of suiban, there are groups that use it


On other side, this question is related to the ‘seasonalitiy’ aspect. Following the tradition of wabi-tea ceremony, the rules/principles of composition (primarilly set for private displays in tokonoma) point that composition must to refer to season, not so much to the present one but to that just arriving (customarilly within the following 15 days); i.e. there would be 25 seasons (about 2 per month, plus new year) within a year.


The rigid adherence to this request about seasonality would lead to empoverish display choices, considering that contemplation of these objets of art is presently executed through public events and most events (so in the West as in the East) usually are held in the same period year after year. As an example, If an exhibition is always held in Autumn, it should not be possible to display winter scenes (or barely) and never summer or spring scenes, nor ‘out-of-time’ scenes.


Hence, I consider that in public events it should be ‘allowed’ to display scenes not referred to the  precise moment (season) of the exhibition, provided the scene is coherent in its suggestion. For instance, a stone suggesting snow would not be likely matched by a summer flower; but it would be possibbly coherent a last summer flower with just a few fallen dry leaves.


Use of suiban en Japan and West


This aspect has been already previously treated, at least in part, but it perhaps may be completed when reformuled this way: Why suiban are more often used in Japan compared to the West?


Assuming Meihinten is the exhibition that characterizes top-level Japanese collectionists, when we look at the catalogue of an exhibition randomly chosen, we shall realize that most suiseki are displayed on daiza. Also, we shall realized that the use of doban (tray of copper/bronze) es extremelly reduced and that not all suiban are of the highest quality, though it is clear that the level is undoubtedly high.


It is clear that the use of suiban/doban is less extended in Europe, and I think that in USA as well. I consider that it is due to a mix of circumstances:

-                      In the West, most viewing stones lovers are practioneers, more than collectionists; if it is true, I believe so, that collectionists are more inclined to use trays, it will be logical that there will be less tray presentations in the West.

-                      In the West it is more difficult and expensive to get trays /suiban/doban of an acceptable quality at affordable prices. And for a practioneer the visible cost of a stand (daiza) tends to be a bit more than that of the wood to be used.

-                      In the West it is perceived as more difficult to arrange a proper composition on a tray than on a stand, partly due to the seemingly contradictory guidelines on stone placement, significance and utilization of sand and water, and doubts about seasonality and tray colours.


Perhaps we should remember that the art of display, as many other human activities, consists in obtaining the best possible result considering the resources available.


Utilization of accompanying elements


Once again the seasonality factor comes to scene. My attitude on seasonality has been stated before. So, in order not to extend longer this post, I shall only point some considerations related to composition.



-                      Do not become obssesionate on sand signification. Depending on the whole composition and the theme it is about it may suggest vacuum, sea, dessert or earth.

-                      It is not always required to use sand: particularly, an enamel tray inside should be usually used without sand.

-                      Doban and not enamel suiban should be always filled with sand.

-                      When wet sand is used, this will likely suggest a waterscape.

-                      As a general rule, sand should not be white, black or bright.



-                      It is only used for house shaped stone, due to tradition that seems to be originated in penjing.

-                      When moss is not used, house shaped stones should not be displayed on tray.



-                      When placed inside the suiban (on the stone or not) it conditions the perception and size of the suggested scene.

-                      As a general rule, tenpais should not be placed on the stone; it will diminish the attention to the stone.

-                      The scene is enlarged according to the distance from the stone to the tenpai.


Horizontal complement

-                      Horizontal complement and tray colour usually provide the indication of seasonality. When doban is used, it is only the horizontal complement that may provide such indication; so, a plant will be used most times.

-                      The heigth of the table and the horizontal complement must match, considering the suggested scene.

-                      When a tenpai has been placed inside the tray, no other tenpai must be used as horizontal complement.

-                      The colour and shape ot the table for the stone and for the horizontal complement must not be the same.


You will note that many other aspects have not been treated (placement of the stone, size and shape of the table, etc.), but it not so bad approach for a first entry. Is it?


Suiseki Tokonoma in Castellon de la Plana (Spain)

16-September- 2013

From 13th to 15th, September I National Congress of Nippon Bonsai Sakka Kyokai (NBSK) has been held in Castellon. NBSK  is an Association promoted by Japanese masters, in order to improve the practice according to traditional japanese principles to be applied to bonsai and suiseki displays. This time the Japanese honor guest was Isao Fukita, disciple of Kobayashi.

Thanks to the invitation by Xavier Redón, I have enjoyed the chance to participate and even to arrange one tokokonoma from the the five tokonoma in the exhibition, under the supervision by the sensei, who expressed his satisfaction with the final result. Some of you are aware of my insistence about composition matters and this experience has stressed the point.

Tokonoma displays is not a common practice in Spain, even less by using suiseki as main element, and even less within an exhibition not exclusively devoted to suiseki. Anyway it is a good opportunity to check the main aspects involved in a tokonoma arrangement: triangularity, assimetry, season, vacuum, complementarity.

First thing to be noted is that the proposed tokonoma did not completely fit to the traditional model: its floor was not close to the hall level, but it was placed about 50 cm higher. The reason is that in traditional mode, the viewers are almost kneeling, while in present public exhibition the viewers are usually standing. As the total heigth is not modified, there is a problem about kakemono/kakejiku, to be discussed later.


Prior to arrange the composition, I discussed  with Fukita-san about kakemono. I had three chances: a morning glory, a grape bunch, and two falling leaves. I was in favour of morning glory, in order to present a humble tribute to Rikyu (the tale on this to be referred in a further day): a tribute is out-of-time and anyway morning glory is a summer flower and we were still in summer. Fukita-san preferred to reinforce the season aspect and this lead to refer to a coming season time; thus, I opted for the grape bunch.


I placed kakemone first, closed to the center of tokonoma. In order to set the proper heigth, I considered it should not go too down as to reach the suiseki level and that scroll could be viewed completely at first glance. In traditional tokonoma the display space used to be 1,80 x 2,00 x 0,90 metters (m) or larger: under these circumstances, kakemono tends to be from 1,50 to 1,80 m long. However, raised tokonoma tend to be 1,50/1,80 x 1,50/1,80 x 0,60/0,90 m long; in Castellon, it was 1,90 x 1,80 x 0,85 metters. If we take also into consideration the importance of ‘vacuum’ (it is told 4/5 of the space should be empty) it is necessary to use smaller scrolls, not longer than 1,50 m; thus it advisable to use paintings in the types of shikishi or tanzaku, and so it happened this time.


Second, I placed the table trying to leave more space at front and less at rear and not to invade the space of kakemono; this way the sensation of space and emptiness is favoured. Table was about twice as long as the stone; on the other side, the supporting sides (it did not posessed true feet) were recessed, as to be hidden within the shadow and so the top level is remarked.

Third, I placed the stone on the table, centered in both directions. The stone is a classic toyama (distant mountain), from Fujigawa (Japan), that was held more than 50 years by its previous owner. As prescribed, the stone flows towards the kakemono.


Finally, I place the horizontal complement. My initial thought was to use a little bronze teapot (in reference to Rikyu) on a small informal wood slab. As the theme of kakemona had changed, Fukita-san suggested to use instead a similar-in-size shitakusa, providing so freshness and lightness to the composition. It is to be noted that shitakusa is also place towards the suiseki and in a lower level.


When you look now at the finished whole display, you will appreciate that the overall tone of the composition is sober and subdued, in autumn colors. The eye attends first to the brightest part: the kakemono, where the attraction comes from the unpainted (the white backboard). Immediately after, the perception of the coming season (the grape harvest) becomes evident. Afterwards, the eyes moves down through and from the grape bunch to the distant mountain that appears as a ‘borrowed landscape’, over and beyond the walls symbiolized by the table. Then the journey ends with a scarcely visible plant that brings all the display closer to the viewer that is looking at all from a veranda or window. The vanishing and the permanent become fused. The importance of vacuum becomes evident as well.