Putting Nature Into Perspective: The Photographs of Norbert Schoerner

It is often said that a deep and abiding respect for nature is a fundamental part of the Japanese psyche. Yet, Japan is also well known for its attempts to bend and control nature, for example through intense shaping of the landscape for purposes of agriculture, flood control or protection from tsunami and landslides.

One of the more artistic aspects of this Japanese penchant for bending nature is bonsai, the art of cultivating miniature trees in a flat planter known as a “bon” (hence the name). The roots are controlled to dwarf the tree and the branches of the tree are also pruned and encouraged into desired shapes.

Some bonsai trees live for centuries, passed down through generations of gardeners who diligently care for them.

The Museum Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Arts) in Frankfurt, Germany, is currently hosting a particularly intriguing exhibition of photographs by German photographer Norbert Schoerner featuring bonsai trees. The exhibition is entitled “The Nature of Nature” and runs through 18 September 2022.

The bonsai Schoerner has photographed have been cultivated by three generations of the Abe family who live in the Azuma mountains of Fukushima (just south and west of Fukushima city). The grandfather, Kurakichi, raised his trees, mostly pines, from seeds of trees native to the particular volcanic soil of this area. His son, Kenichi, and grandson, Daiki, have joined him in tending to the tiny trees.

But as we see in the exhibition, in front of Schoerner’s lens, the trees take on an entirely different persona, appearing enormous in the foreground of their native landscape, the Azuma mountains.

The photos are composites. Schoerner hiked into the Azuma mountains to photograph various landscapes and then positioned his photos of the Abe bonsai into those landscapes. He is generous enough not to conceal the trick he is playing. In most photos, close examination reveals the edge of the “bon” that contains the tree occupying the foreground of the photo.

These photos are, perhaps, exercises in irony: tiny trees made to appear enormous. In a further irony, the photos of the exhibition are, themselves, gigantic, often covering an entire wall. Some subjects are so large that they are portrayed across multiple framed photos.

In the final gallery of the exhibition, a short video shot after dark in infrared shows wildlife and feral animals in the wilderness of the “no-go” area of eastern Fukushima prefecture left by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011, perhaps a further ironic reminder that humans cannot always bend nature to their will.

The remainder of the Museum Angewandte Kunst contains other fine examples of applied arts across time and place, often in intriguing arrangements of interconnectivity. Needless to say, various items originating in Japan feature in the collection. One could make finding them into a fun scavenger hunt project for children.

There is also a special corner called “meet Asian art”, containing various fragments of larger pieces, the point being that even parts of a larger whole contain utilitarian art. Among these items from across the Asian region is a lovely little collection of tsuba, shields for Japanese sword handles.

The museum itself is housed in a 1980s building of glass and geometry, another fine example of applied art. The building is surrounded by tall trees, many predating the building, which was designed to preserve them. Emerging to these park-like surroundings after looking at gigantic photos of tiny trees provides a curious yet satisfying sense of dissonance.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer. Photographs in the exhibition are, of course, the copyrighted work of Norbert Schoerner.
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