Aquarium landscaping—or Aquascaping—is more than a hobby. Founded by Japanese wildlife photographer Takashi Amano in the 90s, the idea is for competitors to recreate fully-fledged large and small scale underwater universes from plants and fish. Takashi had spent time photographing the rainforests South America, Borneo and West Africa, and the virgin forests of his Japanese homeland, and the aesthetic of his underwater kingdoms was most informed by the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi (with its embracing acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, derived from the noble truths of the Buddha) and traditional principles of stone-arranging in the Zen garden.
Competitors who plant these submerged paradises take inspiration from real-life natural environments, and creating the whole world in micro-format: mosses become floating islands in the sky, aged bark is reimagined into soaring tropical trees, schools of small fish drift away towards the infinite sky. Really, it’s quite transcendent.
As a competitive sport, the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest is actually more complicated that you’d think. A quick read-up on its points-scoring system reveals a complex, spider-web scoring matrix attributing a hundred points in total across six separate criteria: recreation of natural habitat for fish; long-term maintenance of layout work; creator’s technical skills; originality and impression of layout work; presentation of natural atmosphere in layout work; and overall composition and planting balance.
There are also stringent laws surrounding the ‘game’: entrants will have points deducted if they’re found re-jigging one of their old underwater motifs, or thieving ideas from past winners. You’re also forbidden to include plants that wouldn’t really survive long under water (cause that’s cheating), and judges submit a detailed written assessment of each high-placing entrant that details composition, the balance of light and dark, the levels of technical virtuosity, and so on.
Before his death, Takashi opened the largest-ever nature aquarium as an exhibit at the Oceanário de Lisboa. It’s some 40-metres long and is a wondrous monument to his ideas. Today, his company Aqua Design Amano continues to run the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest. In the 2015 competition, held last week, there were 2,545 entries in total, including nine from the United Kingdom, 13 from the United States, and 661 from Japan; each was judged by a singular photograph as it’d be impossible to bring all these fragile aquariums together into the same space. So at heart, it is a virtual competition of make-believe worlds. All seven winners have just been announced, and here they are in reverse order.
7. Mysterious World by Yong Liu, China
The judges were especially taken by representations of the sort of magical forests one might associate with anime productions.
6. A Hunting Ground by Josh Sim, Malaysia
One of several ominously titled entries, here we are brought down into the thick undergrowth of the forest floor.
5. Metempsychosis by Yi Ye, China
Metempsychosis is a philosophical term referring to “the transmigration of the soul, especially the passage of the soul after death from a human or animal to some other human or animal body.” It is also a recurring motif in James Joyce’s Ulysses.
4. Deep Nature by Paulo Pacheco, Brazil
The only award-winning entry from outside of Asia, and the only one that isn’t a representation of a forest. Rather, it is a bright, rocky valley leading back towards the horizon.
3. Follow In by Yufan Yang, China
Follow In suggests a path through very ancient, very tall woods.
2. Hidden Land by Bowen Fan, China
“A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince. “It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces… ‘Children,’ I say plainly, ‘watch out for the baobabs!’” Rather than fading away to a single perspectival point like the others, this aquascape (my own personal favourite) is dominated by a sprawling, baobab-like monster of a tree. If these aquascapes were paintings, this and Metempsychosis would be the most abstract and modern.
1. Longing by Takayuki Fukada, Japan
This year’s Grand Prize goes to an unusually weighty underwater scene, one suffused with hanging forms and downward movements. That might be interpreted as melancholic. Its title seems more a fitting tribute to Takashi Amano – may he rest in peace.