I have recently been reading on the Asian aesthetics of wabi-sabi and have found it very interesting and inspiring. Granted it has its origins in philosophy and religion, but I am mostly concerned with its physical and aesthetic application. There is a lifetime of understanding and nuance that I am lacking, but I do not see that as a reason I should not share what I have learned. One of the most difficult aspects of wabi-sabi is the apparent lack of an accurate translation to English language or culture. The most digestible but hardly complete explanation I have found comes from here.
“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all.”
As you might have guessed, wabi-sabi actually comes from two distinct words that convey different thoughts. Both words have a very long and storied etymology, but we will only talk about their modern connotations. Wabi speaks of the humble and the simple; to be content with very little. There is a clear difference in having very little and being content with very little. Though this is quite difficult if not near impossible in our culture, I want to be clear that there is a difference to be noted and valued. This point alone justifies its own post (or book) and would probably digress into some messy spiritual and philosophical discussion that is beyond our scope today. But it is a minimalism that celebrates the human rather than the machine.
Sabi connotes natural progression of time and its effects on objects; oxidation, warping, cracking, etc. Sabi recognizes that our present idea of beauty is fleeting and that pleasure and value can be placed in things that are worn, faded, and well cared for. It is about consciously shifting our view and definition of beauty so that we can find merit and richness in things otherwise overlooked or discarded. It has been said that true sabi can not be acquired (aka distressing); it is a gift of time and loving use.
So in the end, wabi-sabi is a mindful deliberate approach to everyday living; finding beauty and enjoyment in things that are humble, imperfect and impermanent. This notion stands in stark contrast to the prevalent thoughts of Western societies. Stemming from the Greeks and Romans, Western society intrinsically values permanence, symmetry, grandeur, and perfection. I am not arguing one is better that the other, just highlighting that there is a difference. Personally, I find the human scale of wabi-sabi much more approachable, sustainable and attractive. However, I am a romantic and may be enthralled by the idea more than I am with the reality, but I digress.
I am not going to pretend to have the depth of understanding or skill to parse how the effects of these disparate views have effected their respective cultures, but I am finding parallels between this Asian perspective and our approach to our work. We talk about the permanence of concrete, which is not wabi-sabi at all, but is founded in our need for things to be more than expendable. We want to own and create objects that will exist long enough to develop a patina of time, to become their own story and reflect their own use. And this is very wabi-sabi. Life and use should take its toll. Things, people and places should change with time, but this is exactly what our culture does not want. We are told that everything must remain pristine and new and if it is not it needs to be replaced with something that is. Rarely do things develop value through their use; we do not invest ourselves into our possessions so that we are motivated to keep them functioning. It is too easy and cheap to replace them. This could be a matter of convenience and laziness, but not always. Indeed, most often things are no longer manufactured to be maintained. Designed obsolescence thwarts us even when we try to keep things alive and well. This is what we are working against. It is a system of short term strategies and gratification. We as individuals should have the skills, the desire and the satisfaction of maintaining the objects that we live with. Concrete rarely needs maintenance, but through workshops and training classes we invite people to become more self-sufficient and skilled; finding new aplomb to approach their life. Same fight, different process.
The other parallel that is so obvious I almost overlooked is wabi-sabi’s value of the true nature of materials and objects. We talk about the honesty of concrete for a reason. We choose concrete, steel and wood because they are “real”. They have natures. They have strengths and weaknesses that must be considered. Working closely with materials develops appreciation for what can and can’t be done. Respect is borne from experience and practice. We think that the objects we make should function properly, be enjoyable to touch and beautiful to look at. The things we make are to be experienced with all of our senses, not just our pocketbooks. It is not the ownership of things that give us rich lives; it is having eyes that see and hands that feel that enrich our lives. We want our things to make it easier for us to see and feel; whether it is what we make or what we own.
Wabi-sabi encourages the process of paring back our possessions until we only have that which is necessary for their utility or beauty. Again, I am a romantic and this idea lives more in my mind than my life right now, but that’s alright, it’s a process. But, having only those things that I love to use and “resonate with the spirit of their makers’ hands and hearts” sounds pretty great to me. The limited way in which I have applied these ideas has shown me that it is not about a lack of possessions or some social trend of minimalism, but actually honing my vision and palette. This “honing”, I hope, affords me more opportunities for creativity, development and love.
If you have read this far, I thank you and I hope you have found it useful. Here are a few links for further reading if you are so inclined.