Wabi-Sabi

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I’ve thought about some of the issues and ideas raised in this book before, though not within the specific context of wabi-sabi. I found this book to be a really succinct, effective, encapsulation of the aesthetic and philosophical principles it explored. Particularly, I found it incredibly effective how the book aesthetically embodied the principles its content explored. Koren mentions in the book the fact that, if asked to define wabi-sabi, many Japanese people will not be able to articulate the concept in words. Though I consider myself quite a verbal person, who enjoys reading and writing (I was an English major, after all) and is fascinated by linguistics, the mechanics, embedded meanings, history and mechanics of language, I still deeply believe there are some things that fall outside the realm of language. So, the fact that Koren used both visual and textual information to convey the principles of wabi-sabi I found to be incredibly effective and powerful.

I was interested by the comparisons/contrasts Koren drew between the wabi-sabi aesthetic/world view and modernism. It was a very helpful frame for me in terms of conceptualizing wabi-sabi. The philosophical element of wabi-sabi I think can be hard to accept or come to terms with for those of us raised in a more Western aesthetic and philosophical traditions. Precepts like “get rid of all that is unnecessary”, “accept the inevitable”, and “Greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details” (40) fly in the face of much of what we are taught, or learn by osmosis in our capitalist-driven culture of excess, self-obsession, and constant expansion and development. The idea of the smallness and relative insignificance of each person in a larger scheme flies in the face of the values of individualism we have been fed since birth.

In terms of myself, I find that I’m a strange mix of two extremes—on the one hand, I’m an awful collector and hoarder, who has a very hard time throwing things away and often ends up with stacks and overall clutter in my living spaces as a result. I’m a person whose mantra when packing for a trip, even if I’ll only be gone for two days is “Well, I might need it. I’ll bring it just in case.” On the other hand, I’m someone who aesthetically is often drawn to a more scaled back simplicity and minimalism. While sometimes this translates more into the direction of modern art, I’m also very drawn to the more naturalistic, basic aesthetic of the kind described in wabi-sabi. Having grown up on a farm with two parents with degrees in plant science (my father works for the Department of Agriculture in Maryland, and my mother, a retired teacher, spends a great deal of her time working in her huge garden) I think I’ve grown up with an ingrained awareness and an appreciation of nature and the cycles of life and death in the natural world. I still feel the urge, even the need, sometimes, to leave the city and go home, even just for a few days to be recharged and decompress in the woods and fields of the farm and to eat my mother’s meals, made entirely out of food she harvested from the garden.

I am not as rustically (to take Koren’s word) oriented as my parents, though—there is certainly also a part of me that loves the bustle and flow of the city, that loves sleek modern furniture and the stark beauty of urban landscapes. Navigating this balance in my life and in the work and the art I create always presents interesting challenges and surprising points of synthesis.

In reading about tea ceremonies as a traditionally central component of the practice of wabi-sabi, I was reminded with a laugh (and an eye roll) of an episode of America’s Next Top Model I’d seen where the models travel to Japan and participate in a “traditional” tea ceremony. I’m a bit embarrassed to even own up to having seen the show, but I couldn’t resist posting it here, as I think it’s a great and humorous illustration of what Koren was perhaps referring to when he wrote “Wabi-sabi is no longer the true ideological or spiritual linchpin of tea, even though things that sound like wabi-sabi and look like wabi-sabi—the correct words and the stylized forms—are still trotted out” (35-36):

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Finally, as I looked at some of the images interspersed with the text, I could not help but think of a couple of photographs I took on a trip several years ago to Ireland. It was the first and only trip I have taken alone—besides a few visits with friends, I traveled alone around Ireland for a month. I think there is something about the experience of that much aloneness in a place as (for the most part) sparsely populated and rural as Ireland which inspires feelings and thoughts very much connected with some of the principles of wabi-sabi. In several places in particular, I would go on a hike or a walk along a coast line, through fields, or in the hills, and not see another person for more or less the whole day, and there was often something simultaneously exhilarating, liberating, lonely, and terrifying about the experience. I think in a lot of ways Ireland is a great place to practice wabi-sabi, firstly because as I mentioned, it is still very much a rural and sparsely populated country, and also because of the underlying strain of a kind of pervasive, subtle sadness that underlies the culture and history of the country. Then again, I could be totally off base. Here are a few of the photos from that trip…not exactly wabi-sabi but at least resembling some of the qualities, as I understood them:

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