Thought you knew bonsai art? That diddy little tree you buy from a garden centre, neglect to tend properly and then witness shrivelling on your window sill, wondering what went wrong? Think again. Takanori Aiba takes this traditional Japanese art to the next level, creating Borrower-sized worlds of intrigue that evoke the geeky minutiae of Warhammer fanatics alongside the expansive fantasy of Tolkien. We talk to him about ant farms, Disney and seeing the world through ‘Lilliput eyes'.
Lighthouse-A © Tokyo Good Idea Development Institute Co. Ltd.
Hi Takanori. We are interested in your background in textile design and illustration and were wondering if you could tell us more about your artistic background?
My artistic background began way before I acquired any formal art training. When I was a child I enjoyed playing around with bonsai trees and also railway models – I loved anything miniature and intricate. At this point my imagination developed what I like to call my ‘Lilliput eyes’, relating to the island in Swifts’ Gullivers Travels.
Whilst playing with bonsai and railway models my imagination was weaving tiny stories, and make-believe worlds around the objects; these early experiences expanded what I am capable of as an artist.
My mother later trained me in classical methods of textile design and cloth dying and this helped me to cultivate the rich colour sensations which are traditional for Japanese artisans.
At 20 I was struggling to find ways to express my artistic vision. Still fascinated by the miniscule I used to keep ants in a glass case and photograph them in the process of building communities. Looking at the pictures I had the idea of using these patterns to transform well known art, giving it multiple meanings. From here I became a maze illustrator and my work was serialized in the men’s fashion magazine POPEYE.
Mona Lisa's Smile ©Tokyo Good Idea Development Institute Co. Ltd.
I then became the concept and artistic director for themed restaurants which fuse food with entertainment, working on places such as the Chinese Noodle Museum, Gust, Ninja Akaska and Musee Du Petit Prince De Saint Exupery. Making the functional more sensory and intriguing is something that has stayed with me from this period.
In 2003 I met civil engineer Kazuya Murakami whose technical expertise allowed me to realize the complex and organic ideas you see in my work today.
Your creations are intensely elaborate and intricate. We imagine the process of making them must be highly meticulous, please tell us more about your technique?
I design the concept of the pieces through extensive drawings to capture their three dimensionality. Then I have intense discussions about the direction of the work with Kazuya Murakami my technician who goes on to make them.
His tools are surprisingly basic, he simply uses a XACT knife and glue. He experiments with many forms of non-perishable materials including clay, plastic, wood, steel, resin and plaster and is always on the hunt for new materials with which to realise my designs.
The level of detail must make it very time consuming, how long does each piece take?
It takes a very long time. Anything from three months for a simpler piece to an entire year for the really complex and larger works like The Rock Island and Ice Cream Package Towers.
Ice Cream Packages Tower ©Tokyo Good Idea Development Institute Co. Ltd.
How does what you do build on classical bonsai art and how does it depart from it?
The style of Japanese classical bonsai art originally sought to portray the beauty and grandeur of nature in miniature. Cultivation techniques are used to create a tree that replicates a full sized one, and thus allows the viewer to contemplate the natural world from an urban or domestic setting.
My work builds on this, attempting to portray the beauty of the spiritual union between humanity and the natural environment. It speaks of the human aspiration to live amongst and in tune with nature, which led people to create bonsais in the first place.
Aside from the influence of Japanese traditional art forms, what inspires your work?
I am obsessed with the world of Walt Disney. Walt Disney and those subsequently creating in his name are masters of making imaginary, fantasy worlds and have had a huge influence on me. If you think about it, many Disney stories relate to nature and man’s interface and this is also what motivates my art.
Bonsai-A ©Tokyo Good Idea Development Institute Co. Ltd.
Its interesting to know that it was Disney who inspired you to create such fantastical worlds. How do you find the balance between portraying what comes from your imagination, and what you see in everyday life?
Earlier I mentioned the ‘Lilliput eyes’ I developed as a child and this is always the starting point for my creativity. I look at the factual existence of the bonsai as though I were a tiny citizen of Lilliput. Suddenly a branch is transformed into a giant tree and a rock becomes an island. In this sense my work begins from the real and then my imagination takes flight.
Equally the work is dictated by each individual plant’s physiology but the density of decoration implies rich stories which are the fruits of my mind.
Which is your favourite bonsai and could you tell us a bit more about its conception and creation.
It’s hard for me to choose a favourite as they were all born in my imagination and subsequently I love all eight of them. If I had to choose a favourite I’d go for Hotel de Michelin because I love to picture the world’s surprise and joy if this were to be built to scale in the centre of Paris.
During my time as an artistic director [of the themed restaurants] I was requested to design a Michelin Cafe but it was never realised. Bibendum, commonly referred to as the Michelin Man has a rich heritage and is one of the world’s most recognised mascots. I equated this to the experience of seeing the 24 meter high Buddha statue in Ofuna City, Yokohama in my youth which I remember giving me a very strange feeling and the resulting work is a product of these ideas.
Hotel de Michelin ©Tokyo Good Idea Development Institute Co. Ltd.
Finally, what can we expect from you in the future?
I will continue to bring themes from my imagination to life in my bonsai pieces. I have plenty of fresh ideas in that realm. I also plan to expand into other mediums, from different types of models and even to movies; the medium is unimportant, it is simply an expression of my imagination. My ultimate goal would be to build a theme park like Walt Disney did!
To see more of Takanori Aiba's fascinating work head over to his website