Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, written by Andrew Juniper, is an introduction to a traditional Japanese aesthetic, which, I’m just gonna say it, is better than modern Western aesthetic.
Have you ever noticed how the perfect vinyl siding on the outside of a house can become dated pretty quickly, while slowly crumbing brick covered in leafy vines pretty much always looks good? Or, how about how beautiful an unkept field of wildflowers looks compared to a manicured flower bed that’s gone unattended for a few weeks?
Humans in Japan and other eastern countries have spent centuries contemplating their end, while those of us in the west prize our ability to pretend like we’ll be here forever. We make transient objects, like spoons and bowls and rugs and houses out of materials resilient enough to far outlast their aesthetic appeal; we come to hate them. Meanwhile, others have historically used materials that break down over time becoming only more cherished with each passing year.
Wabi Sabi is that breaking down. It’s the beauty in knowing things end, and more specifically, seeing beauty in the evidence of their march toward demise. A cracked ceramic pitcher is more beautiful than a perfect one directly from the manufacturer because the crack contains wisdom of experience and a reminder that the only time to live is now. “Wabi Sabi seeks the purity of natural imperfection”. It “embodies the Zen nihilist cosmic view and seeks beauty in the imperfections found as all things, in a constant state of flux, evolve from nothing and devolve back to nothing.”
Wabi and Sabi are not words that translate easily in English. Wabi used to refer to something like the loneliness one would feel living alone out in nature, and Sabi referred to “bending” or “withering”. It had a pretty melancholy connotation until several hundred years ago when it took on a more positive tone.
The Art of Impermanence spends a good deal of time discussing where this aesthetic sensibility came from. First China, and Zen Buddhism, and then later a more distinctly Japanese phenomenon. It grew up and got legs through the Japanese tea ceremony, which before reading this book, seemed like a strangely dogmatic way of drinking tea (In my family, we drink a lot of tea unceremoniously). After reading, however, it makes a great deal more sense. Both the ceremony, and the Wabi Sabi that came out of it.
The Japanese tea ceremony, at one time, was a pretentious display of opulence, reserved mostly for nobility. Until one day a monk, Ikkyu, “pushed the focus of the tea ceremony away from ostentatious shows of wealth and toward the spiritual communion of two or more people who, in a state of calm and controlled abandon, could meditate on the beauty and transience of life.” In the place of expensive, fine utensils, common utensils were commissioned to look and feel common. In the place of high end textiles and professionally arranged gardens, decorative elements were made out of routine materials and nature’s sense of balance was used to select stones and building materials. The ceremony was shifted away from the ego of the host, into a meditative practice for humans who will one day die.
The Art of Impermanence goes into rich detail about the history of the tea ceremony and the design aesthetics and art mediums that flowed from it. In addition to the spiritual aspects of choosing a style that reminds one that they’re temporary, the book also makes a strong practical case for Wabi Sabi as a stylistic choice. Have you ever walked out onto an old pier? How about a brand new pier? Which one did you like more? Right, the old one.
Objects grow old. Wood darkens. Stone smooths. Pottery and clay crack and chip. They take on a personality all their own, a personality made up of human experiences which help us feel connected to our own lives and to the experiences we’ve shared with others. They also don’t go out of style quite the same (think that vine covered brick, compared to the pristine vinyl siding).
Wabi Sabi also beckons artists to abandon the intention in their art—something I wholeheartedly disagree with—instead, making art carelessly, trusting nature itself to provide the balance and design appeal. The author tells a story of a friend who hung a beautiful piece of natural driftwood on their wall. It had tremendous wabi sabi appeal. Then one day, they put some paint on it, ruining what made it such a beautiful object in the first place.
Wabi sabi, whether you follow the spiritual aspects of the aesthetic or not, brings value. In fact, many of us in the West already practice wabi sabi in some respect. In some ways, I live my whole life with an unconscious Western brand of the ideology. When I go through my personal routines in the morning, I do so with a masterful precision. I keep calm as I watch things fall apart, and a I put them back together carefully and lovingly. Is this wabi sabi? Kind of. It’s no tea ceremony, but it counts for me.
A lot is covered in this book, though everything is broken into chapters that keep it from getting too boring. Though, be warned, it is boring. Perhaps by design. Perhaps its boring for the same reason a piece of drift wood on the wall is boring—because there’s something eminently better than being actively amused all the time. It also reads a bit like Juniper might be an interior designer who really likes to design with a wabi sabi sensibility. I don’t know though, I didn’t read the preface.
Needless to say, if you’re an artist or a designer, you should read about wabi sabi. Maybe this is a good book for that. Wabi sabi is an aesthetic you may be using already, whether you know it or not. And, contrary to wabi sabi’s own prescriptions, if you’re an artist who is going to use it, you should know how, and why.