As we are moving deeper into the aesthetic of blackwater aquariums, with their deep brown color, decomposing botanicals, and rich, textured look, I am occasionally asked by fellow fish geeks what it is that influences my taste in aquascaping.
And of course, I just share with them pics of the wild habitats which I find so alluring, leaving no doubts as to what inspires my 'scapes.
And of course, they want to know why I'm so fascinated with leaves, wood, seed pods, and stuff. Just what is it that is so alluring to me?
I explain to them that it's really a desire to "reconnect" with nature in some way. Yeah, I personally kind of think that hobbyists in general tend to over-complicate things a bit and sort of "polish" out the true beauty of nature. It's not that we "ruin" stuff- it's just that many of us seem married to an interpretation of nature that is unyielding and bound up by a lot of "rules" in pursuit of a "natural" look.
As you might imagine, I am not fond of rules in aquascaping.
There are no rules in rediscovering the unfiltered "art" that exists naturally beneath the surface.
The only "rules" that exist in our interpretation of aquascaping are those which nature creates to dictate how materials accumulate, interact with, and decompose in water.
My peers in the reef keeping world ask me why I "gave up" the splashy and exotic color palette that accompanies the reef aquarium for the organic, earth-tone-influenced world of natural freshwater aquascaping, particularly "blackwater" environments.
I found it amusing, because I didn't "give up" anything. I love both. However, to some of my reef keeping acquaintances who were sort of set in their ways, seeing me evolve a different path was disconcerting, frightening, or just plain confusing. And that's okay. I have my own tastes- as everyone should- and they encompass a variety of things. I poke my head out of the bubble from time to time. We all should.
And yeah, I do see this same kind of "resistance to change" in the freshwater world in which I operate now. Although it's sad to see hostility to different ways of thinking, I can't help but feel that it's changing a bit.
Slowly, but it's changing.
Yet, you still see a lot of attitudes out there which make you scratch your head sometimes...
Some of the most telling aquascaping advice I've ever received was also some of the worst: "Copy an existing work that you like- exactly. Work with it for a long time and gain confidence with it before moving on to a design of your own"
I mean, I suppose it could be interpreted as good because we all aspire to create stuff that pleases us, and if you need to copy others' work because you love it, so be it.
Nothing wrong with that.
And of course, for many hobbyists, that might mean recreating an aquascape that we saw online, at the LFS, a fellow hobbyist's tank, or one of those international competitions. Gaining inspiration from the work of others is great...It gives us a "guideline", so to speak, for creating our own version of the word.
Artists have been doing it for centuries- drawing inspiration from others, then sort of "tweaking" their own versions. Nothing inherently wrong with this.
When it starts becoming a "paint by numbers" thing, with everyone trying to create an aquascape that meets someone else's rigid "formula" for theme, layout, composition, stocking, etc., it's "unhealthy", in my opinion. Like, this typically gets me lambasted throughout the competitive aquascaping world, but I, for one, am a bit tired of aquscapes that contain sand waterfalls, floating cities, "beach scenes", "enchanted forests", etc.
I mean, it seems to me that to place highly in one of those contests, an aquarium has to look like something out of "Lord of The Rings" -some weird fantasy with an underwater twist. 'Scapes that employ these things are studied, analyzed- revered as THE way to 'scape. Anything that seems to deviate from this is just sort of shrugged off as a "nice try", "niche'y", or something equally dismissive. If you look at this objectively, I'm kind of right...
It need not be this way.
From the outside- especially to someone like me who comes from the reef aquarium world, which has went through similar "Copy this exactly in order to have a successful attractive tank..." periods, its all too familiar- and all too disappointing.
I suppose that it's even kind of funny, too.
A sort of "paint by numbers" approach to 'scaping, quantifying, and looking at the aquatic world. Trying to be exactly what we see elsewhere; what others "approve" of. Perhaps not even what we feel in our hearts. That can't be a "positive" for the hobby and art of aquascaping.
Look, I have no problem with different styles of aquascaping. If you're into floating forests and stuff, Mazel Tov. Good for you. Keep doing them. Because you love them.
Where I have problems is when we (and I mean it generically and collectively) are resistant to any deviation from what we as a group feel is "the way."
Now, again, just because I'm advocating utilizing materials and adopting an interpretation of nature as it really appears in some areas, doesn't mean that every other way sucks. Although I'm not the only one who thinks this way, I always hear from at least one or two persons, who, after reading a piece like this, will tell me that I'm doing the same thing as those I question, and am nothing but a hypocrite.
No. No I'm not. Read this again.
All I'm saying is that no one should "hijack" the art of aquascaping and dictate what is the accepted "style" and what isn't. Trust me, I'm well aware that many people find the "style" and interpretation we advocate here as aesthetically ugly, "dirty", messy, etc.
And that's okay. Opinions- and tastes- vary.
I just can't help but wonder why so many aquascapers worldwide seem to be "held hostage" by a mindset that proffers that you have to do it like everyone else in order for your work to be taken seriously, and how it arose. What is the reason for this attitude?
To be "cool?" To belong? Because we want so badly to be like the great aquascapers that we'll forcibly subscribe to some rigid style to appease the masses? Would the great Takashi Amano want this? I don't think so.
His greatest works were those that embraced the concept of "wabi-sabi", in which nature guided them. Scapes which evolved over time. Scapes in which nature herself dictated the way this occurred, and how they look. There are no "floating cities", "floating forests" and underwater waterfalls in nature. So how did all of this stuff become the accepted norm? Where did the "aquascaping hegemony" decide to take this weird turn?
I have no idea.
I merely suggest that we consider the absurdity of this close-minded thinking when choosing to precisely replicate the work of others- no matter where they are from or who they are. And you know what? I am pretty confident that most of the creators of these beautiful 'scapes will be flattered that others are inspired by their work, but they'll be the first to tell you that you should not feel that you have to exactly replicate their work in order for it to be considered "great."
Don't get me wrong.
There is enormous discipline and talent that goes into the creation and maintenance of these fantasy-inspired aquascaping works, and many are achingly beautiful. I wish I had 1/10th the talent of some of these people. That's not the problem! The problem, as I see it, is that many of the high-placing and winning aquascapes in these competitions are crushingly "formulaic"- simply trying to "one up" or play off of the creations of others, and not really forging truly new paths- and this directly influences the larger aquascaping world.
I suppose that, to some extent, this is how inspiration and "movements" work, but its the sort of closed mindset and shitty attitudes which often accompany it that sort of concerns me. There is some downright nastiness that runs in some of these circles. It stifles creative thought, IMHO. I hate stuff that stifles creativity or discourages innovation outside a given set of "rules" that others arbitrarily set.
This is supposed to be fun.
Again, there's nothing "wrong" at all with the brilliant work that people are doing in the big international aquascaping competitions.
Funny, but if it was viewed in the same fashion that we view concept cars at auto shows- you know, the absurdly futuristically styled ones with glass domes, hologram instrument panels, etc.- stuff that might eventually "trickle down" to production vehicles in terms of style or technology- then I totally get it.
But it's not that way. The message sent is that in order to be taken seriously as an "aquascape artist", you need to do it THIS way.
Why do I find this so problematic?
It's just that, well- it all starts looking the same after a while, and we continue to force ourselves to view every single one of these derivative works as "aspirational", as if our own stuff is just sort of..there.
There are talented aquascapers all over the world who do amazing work, with their own sense of style, without the influence of others- simply based on what pleases them- what's in their heads, or based on what they see in the natural world.
The natural world. Blemishes, chaos, and all. Cool.
Since starting Tannin, we've been blessed to have struck a chord with hobbyists who are looking for a slightly different direction.
It's fun to see people take the botanicals we offer and run with them, so to speak- creating aquascapes and aquariums that speak to their own tastes. A new palette of materials for a hungry, extremely talented aquascaping crowd eager to try something a bit different. We're honored to offer something a bit different to play with.
There is no "right or wrong" in expressing aquatic creativity. Only in the attitude which accompanies it.
Ok, deep breath, Scott.
The big takeaway of this op-ed today?
Just be yourself. No matter what anyone says. No matter what everyone else thinks is "the way."
There are lots of "ways." None of them "wrong."
I leave you with what I think is one of the greatest, most inspiring advertising passages ever written, the famous Apple "Think Different." passage- a narrative which perhaps speaks to this very school of thought:
"Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."
It's hard to imagine this said any better than that.
Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay true to yourself. Stay supportive of others. Stay bold. Stay innovative...
And Stay Wet.