Often described as indefinable, wabi-sabi is how Japanese people see and experience their surroundings, art, literature etc.
Wabi – simplifying, incomplete, impermanence, transience, ‘the misery of living alone in nature’, a way of life#
Sabi – An awareness of mortality, ‘withered’. For example: a person is the same person throughout their life despite ageing and changes over time. From the word sabishii which means sad, lonely, melancholy, desolate. A Japanese man gives an example of ‘Sabi’ as the contrast between the shiny and dull areas on a pottery plate. It refers to material objects, art and literature#.
Wabi-sabi is an attitude and way of being in the world. It acknowledges the futility of human existence and an acceptance of death. Some words and phrases recur when people try to define the term: imperfect, sad, incomplete, dark, asymmetry, rustic simplicity, imperfection, serenity, simple forms, natural materials, earthiness – a simple, organic elegance.
Wabi-sabi is a way of seeing beyond the value of things, with a preference for ordinary, rustic, simple, untouched, imperfect, old and withered objects. This is in direct opposition to the focus on luxury, perfection, and empty reputation often found in Western society.
Marcel Theroux, in his 2011 documentary “In Search of Wabi-Sabi” visited Japan to find out what wabi-sabi is. He asked Japanese people what they understand by the term. They found it hard to define, but variously described it as:-
- the ideal of beauty
- a fundamental part of the Japanese identity
- Japanese heart
- enjoy a quiet and simple life
- in our soul
- attentiveness to others
- if it could be defined it wouldn’t be wabi-sabi – feelings are more important
Japanese taste turned away from the elaborate towards the rustic and simple, finding its greatest expression in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This stems from Sen no Rikyu, in 16th century Japan. He was the first to experiment with the simply crafted, rustic pottery, serving tea in small, basic huts. However, he met with an unfortunate end, of forced ritual suicide, as his emperor did not share his views. The preparation and serving of tea was gradually refined by removing the unnecessary, (based on Rikyu’s teachings) creating a space in which beauty can be appreciated. Feelings between the host and tea drinker are shared without speech in simple, austere surroundings. The performance is now so ritualised, following a set of rules, that it may no longer be wabi-sabi#.
Haiku, Japanese poems, are another example of wabi-sabi with their reverence of nature and the seasons, pared down observations, whose incompleteness evokes a strong response, both intellectual and emotional, from the reader.
Don’t weep, insects –
Lovers, stars themselves,
An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
My life, –
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
Theroux speaks to monks and experiences the Zen Buddhist way of life as part of his journey. One monk describes gardening, for example, as a spiritual practise with a complete concentration on the task that is in hand, which reminds me of the focus on ‘mindfulness’ and ‘living in the moment’ that has now become popular in the West. The monk also describes the need for an appreciation of what is important in life and the elimination of everything that is inessential. He says that the goal of the Tea Ceremony and Zen are the same.
Theroux speculates that there is an appreciation of the passing of time and of the seasons worldwide.
The meaning of wabi-sabi speaks of evanescence, transience, purification and approaching death and has a link to Zen Buddhism, as early practitioners were tea masters, monks and priests.
The Zen monks eat rice porridge (a typically ‘wabi’ food) which is lowly and simple, for breakfast. There is a great deal of discipline and ritual in their lifestyle. They own a few bowls and their clothing, nothing more. They must learn to act on intuition and experience, free from ego, living in the moment. During four periods of daily meditation, they learn to open their subconscious to the vast emptiness known as ku.
The Abbot says that we should not aspire to fame, profit or glory, but instead do what is good for others, for yourself and for everyone, for that path leads to wabi-sabi. His parting gift to Theroux is a view of a mountain – the epitome of wabi-sabi.
In her TED Talk “Wabi-Sabi: The Magnificence of Imperfection” Cheryl Hunter describes a terrible event in her life, which changed her forever. Years later, she learns about the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi which includes an appreciation of flaws, damage and ruin – a designed in mixture of perfection and imperfection, and decides that she is a wabi-sabi person. She comes to accept herself and move on with her life.
Marie Kondo’s two books about tidying seem to me to come from the wabi-sabi mindset. The author attributes feelings to objects, and her method of de-cluttering is to hold the item in your hand and feel whether it ‘sparks joy’ in your heart, before deciding whether or not to keep the item. This simplification of possessions by the feelings they evoke is very ‘wabi-sabi’ – learning to appreciate our belongings by reconsidering what an object means to us.
The Japanese ‘Boro’ practice of repairing clothing and household textiles over generations, of patching and stitching was common in the 20th century and has now been adopted by designers and artists. The tradition shows a wabi-sabi appreciation of simple and imperfect objects.
Rie Shibata’s thesis “Geishagraphy” proposes a relationship of passing time, between wabi-sabi impermanence and Ichaigo-ichie (a moment in time snapshot, never to be repeated). Such things exist in the flow of life, but are easily ignored. A new perspective on a mundane life can become appreciation. Shibata’s artwork takes the form of photographs of ‘everyday’ objects from unusual angles that will “…reveal the object’s history and experiences, thus uncovering the unnoticed beauty that we often ignore.” When viewing a broken or damaged object, we may start to construct a narrative based on our own experience to account for its condition, thus a new interaction forms a new memory for the viewer.
This brought to mind Rothko’s black paintings in the Rothko Chapel. Their almost complete blackness leads the viewer to use their own imagination to think about the artist’s meaning: life is what you make of it? there is nothing after death? the viewer creates their own religion? etc
Michael Brennand-Wood’s selection of Japanese Artists for a 1991 exhibition includes the work of several artists who are inspired by nature. One such is Machiko Agano
The artist says that she can “feel the power of something unseen and all-encompassing of which I am a part.” And “… my pieces should be unfinished, so as to allow all the elements of my work to breathe their own reality into my concept.” Both statements could be taken as coming from a wabi-sabi way of thinking.
Leonard Koren in his book on wabi-sabi speaks of a link with modern anti-aesthetic movements, such as punk and grunge. He advises people wishing to do things in a wabi-sabi way, to “Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize.” He recommends that artists and designers use a limited palette of materials, and few conspicuous features, without removing all that makes a piece interesting.
I don’t think that the Japanese are alone in admiring imperfection, transience, the cycles of nature and life, mindfulness and appreciation of small details. French people admire the imperfect, described by the phrase ‘jolie laide’ (meaning something like a “good-looking ugly woman”, but often applied to objects, and meaning “pretty-ugly”); or the “Shabby Chic”, “Minimalist” or “Rustic” look of modern interiors in the UK. The simple lives of the Amish people in the United States – their functional, but beautiful homes and furnishings, and their uncomplicated lifestyles are another example that come to mind. Perhaps it is a more widespread and deep-seated appreciation in Japanese people than elsewhere. I think that this may derive from the links with Zen Buddhism (the paring down of the unnecessary; simplicity; ritual); reverence for ancestors and the wish to do what is best for society as well as the individual.
Thinking of the textiles I have studied (rag rug, quilt, pullover), I feel that they are certainly items that could be classed as wabi-sabi: they are all humble items, two of them hand-made from old textiles (cottons, wool, linen, jute), the pullover (although machine made) knitted from natural wool. The rug and quilt use recycled textiles, similar to the boro tradition in Japan. I think that they could all be described as rustic, earthy and simple – made for domestic use. Although patterned, they could not be described as ostentatious. The wear and imperfections on the pieces evokes stories of their makers, their owners, and their histories. The ‘incompleteness’ is supplied by the fact that they are no longer fulfilling their original purposes, and are now ownerless. They are still beautiful and evocative despite their flaws.
I had not heard the phrase wabi-sabi before carrying out this research, but it definitely resonates with my understanding of the world and of my place in it. I am drawn to simple, functional, handmade objects, the natural world and natural materials. My artwork is often influenced by the seasons and nature, and I embrace imperfection and randomness when making art. I admire the textile artist Janet Bolton, whose own work could be described as wabi-sabi, having an ‘incomplete’, pared down look and feel, and using humble, yet emotionally-charged materials (although she uses figurative representations which are not part of the wabi-sabi aesthetic). It seems to be an evolving term in Japan, and perhaps each individual can take what they find useful from the concept and apply it to their own lives.
Shibata, Rie Geishagraphy (2010) Thesis/dissertation submitted to Auckland University of Technology. Accessed via base-search.net and researchgateway.ac.nz on 24/06/16
Warde-Aldam, G Boro: A Practice Born Out of Necessity (2016) in Selvedge, Issue 70, p13
* Brennand-Wood, M (selector) Restless Shadows: Japanese Fibreworks (1991) Goldsmiths’ Gallery, London
Kondo, M The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever (2014) Vermilion, London
Kondo, M Spark Joy: An Illustrated Guide to the Japanese Art of Tidying (2016) Vermilion, London
# Koren, L Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (2008) Imperfect Publishing, California
http://www.haiku-poetry.org/famous-haiku.html consulted 21/07/16
http://www.markrothko.org/rothko-chapel/ consulted 22/07/16
Cheryl Hunter’s TED Talk May 2012, Santamonica, USA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1gxziZwmkc consulted 19/07/6
A Japanese [man] explains the meaning of Wabi-Sabi
Marcel Theroux’s documentary is available on You Tube