Aquascaping Philosophy 101

Aquascaping Philosophy 101

By: Steven Chong

First Published: Sep 17 2006

The following article is the work of Steven Chong and has been re-published with his permission. It remains unchanged since being originally published with the exception of some minor layout and grammar changes.

Birth of an Art Form

Only thousands of years ago, man had little outlet in the means of expressing his creativity outside of making pictures on cave-walls with mud or by using a rock as a chisel. Our drawings could become more sophisticated only as the dyes became better and the media became more refined. How easy it is to forget the invention of paper, the invention of ink. Ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement only became possible with the invention of ceramics. Sculptors emerged with the refinement of chisels and mallets. The painter as we know him only emerged with the invention of the canvas. Two hundred years ago there were no professional photographers and fifty years ago there were no computer graphic artists.

Aquascaping also, is just one more in a series of creative paths (I’ll use “creative path” and “art form” interchangeably throughout this article) that has made itself available to people with the advancement of technology. Technology gave us the mass-produced glass tank, powerful artificial light, CO2 injection and the airplanes that allow us access to the soils, stones, wood and living things around the world. I believe there are many people in the world of fishkeeping who do not see Aquascaping as an art at all, but just another way of keeping fish. They think this way because they see the aquarium for only its traditional use of keeping fish and do not see it as the vessel of a new art form. Thinking this way is like thinking that ikebana is not an art form because the pot’s traditional use is storing water. Though the individual technologies that have made Aquascaping possible may not all be the most cutting edge in principle, it is only recently that these technologies have really come together to be used as an art form. Even if the individual technologies are not very new and have a traditional purpose (basically keeping fish alive for us to enjoy watching) once they are used for a creative path, they have a different purpose. A tank can be used for its original purpose but it can also be used for a different purpose and the purpose of Aquascaping is like the purpose of other art forms: That is, the search to create beauty. People follow creative paths for a number of reasons but the most basic one is to create beauty and as technology progresses there will continue to be more paths opened to them for this purpose.


Why do we need so many art forms?

And more specifically, why Aquascaping?

It is true that it seems strange that there should need to be so many art forms when many have very similar goals in mind. A landscape photo or a landscape painting - they both exist for capturing the beauty of nature and yet people still have a love for more than one form and the artists in them seek different forms. That is because each form has its own weaknesses and strengths, requires different skill-sets and gives a slightly different feeling. Photography is stronger than painting at accurate rendition and detail but painting is not limited to objects that are real. Pixel-based computer graphics are good at detail and can draw anything the mind can imagine but it is limited to the colors of your computer screen and printer (not to mention the available memory of your computer).

Aquascaping, like photography, has its limits as to what it can render. In terms of subject matter, it is even more limited than photography. After all, alongside not being able to render giant robots, fairies and unicorns, it is not even able to capture airplanes, city streets or the everyday moments of suburban life.

Aquascaping is pretty limited to just nature and even then, it’s not able to super accurately render real places but more of a metaphorical-representation or otherwise sheer fantasy of nature. Bottom line is Aquascaping is a pretty limited art form in many ways.

With that said accuracy and flexibility are just two of many aspects. Many people feel that painting has a better “human aspect” than photography - the very fact that paintings are imperfect in rendering, lends them a better glance of human emotions, thoughts and the struggle with our limitations. This “human aspect” is very important to people.

Aquascaping, more so than painting, photography or almost any other art-form carries a strong “living aspect.” This incredible “living aspect” comes from the simple fact that Aquascapes are alive. People have strong connections to life and nature because they are alive and part of nature - they can see it as beautiful. People paint landscapes because of a love for this beauty. People invented aquariums because they wanted to admire the living things they could keep inside them. Aquascaping actually uses the original purpose of fish keeping, as one of its tools to increase one of its facets: The “Living Aspect.”


Aquascaping is an art that draws strength from its “living aspect” combined with its unique ability for metaphorical-representation, which was the original purpose of painting and has its limits not from human limits but from nature’s limits.


Those limits are mostly concerned with what organisms and materials are usable inside the aquarium. Remember that limits are not always a bad thing - like painting the limitations of Aquascaping in some ways makes it stronger, they enhance its “living aspect.” Combine these features together and you get an art form that possesses incredible intensity. Whether it’s a small desk tank or Amano-sensei’s house aquarium, a well done Aquascape pulses with life so strongly that it’s hard not to be captivated, hard to move one’s eyes away.

Aquascapes are hypnotizing

Please take a look at the illustration below:

Aquasketch Hawaii Coast 1 By Steven Chong

This is an illustration I did last year (~2005). I had it printed on a canvas sheet and framed. I have some skill at computer graphics, so it is a nice work and some people who have seen this and works like it have told me to go into professional painting or illustration. However, here is the interesting thing:

A drawing this good, gets no attention at all when hung in the same room as my aquarium.

Both my aquarium and this painting are by the right wall of my dorm room. I have oriented my bed to double as a sofa for people to sit on and relax when they visit me. It’s also oriented so they will look at the painting and the aquarium. Do they notice this painting? Not at all - everyone just sits and is completely mesmerized by the aquarium. The painting would never be noticed if I did not point it out. I almost never look at it and sometimes forget it is even there. I am sure the majority of Aquascape owners have seen this as well, when someone walks into the room all they can look at is the Aquascape. It’s like the whole room revolves around it.

That’s because more than painting, photography, computer graphics or almost any other standing art form, Aquascaping has intensity. This intensity, this sheer eye-catching brute strength, is what makes Aquascaping a great art form despite all its other limitations.


Alright, so the “Living Aspect” is incredible, but why freshwater planted?

I have heard this question many times, particularly in comparing planted tanks to saltwater tanks. When people think of a “hard core aquarium” they generally think of salt-water. Just the other day, a friend of mine who was walking to my room with me to see my aquarium said, “Oh, it is fresh-water? So that means you’re a pansy right?” Well, she said that before we got to my room.

A salt-water aquarium does have huge visual intensity, just like planted tanks. Another point raised is that salt-water has fish that are often more incredible and colorful than freshwater fish. It’s crazy to see and people go to full scale aquariums (the kind with seals, dolphins and biotope exhibits) in order to see these creatures. However, this visual power is also what gives saltwater its weakness, it’s too over-the-top.

If there’s a lionfish in the tank, no one thinks “Wow, what a beautiful tank.” They think, “Wow, what an amazing fish!” Power is good, but it’s no good if it totally takes the creative aspect out of the work. If you take out the creative aspect, you no longer are on a “creative path.”

Perhaps an even greater weakness to salt-water and this weakness applies to biotopes as well, is that the metaphorical-representation capability, that was half of Aquascaping’s strength, is basically gone. People are almost completely incapable of seeing saltwater corals and fish as anything but what they are: corals and fish. This same weakness applies to salt water “planted” tanks with seaweed and algae: People don’t think “mountain,” they think “mound of seaweed.” Without metaphorical representation, you almost completely lose the creative aspect, and fall off the “creative path.” Basically, you end up back where we started with the traditional purpose of aquariums: Enjoying fish.

When people dive into the ocean, they feel like they’ve “entered another world.” Even those who spend a great amount of their time snorkeling. I also spent my childhood in Hawaii, but when I swim with the sea life, I feel like I’m just a visitor. Human instincts are not wired to think of the sea as their home. We cannot see it as anything but what it is, and it is always something amazing - but also something that is alien.

Freshwater tanks use angiosperms, ferns and bryophytes - these are plants not so different from the ones that are a part of our terrestrial existence. When we see freshwater Aquascapes we can think “mountain” or “meadow,” “forest” or “shore.” These places and things are part of our deepest instincts and memories, and places that we can call home or long to live in or go to. Because of this, freshwater planted tanks are capable of metaphorical representation and therefore have a way to a “creative path.”

Using the power and intensity of “Life Aspect” and combining with the creative aspect of “Metaphorical Representation” one is able to open a new creative path: Aquascaping.

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