I’m off to New York for a few days. Before I go, I will share some thoughts about simplicity and transcendence. I am probably being drawn to this viewpoint as a way to counteract the commencement of a holiday season that often feels more garish and overstated than heartwarming.
“Translation,” wrote Kakuzo Okakura…”can at best be only the reverse side of the brocade–all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.” Few examples illustrate this better than the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics imperfection, crudescence, an aged and weathered look. Although wabi sabi may embody these qualities, these characteristic are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it. As long as one focuses on the physical, one is doomed to see only the back side of the brocade, while its real beauty remains hidden. In order to see its true essence, one must look beyond the apparent, one must look within.
The term wabi sabi is derived from two characters shared by Japanese and Chinese. Wabi originally means “despondence” and sabi means “loneliness.” These are words for feelings, not for the physical appearance of objects. The term embodies a refined aesthetic sensibility…
[Consider] the haiku by the eighteenth-century Japanese poet Yasano Buson:
From a mountain temple
the sound of a bell struck fumblingly
vanishes in the mist
This poem conveys a deep personal aesthetic consciousness, a bittersweet mix of loneliness and serenity, a sense of dejection buoyed by freedom from material hindrance. This is what wabi sabi feels like. And one can only experience it by turning the focus from outer appearance to look within. No wonder the Japanese struggle to explain wabi sabi; they try to tell how it feels, not just how it looks…
One only needs to look at Walker Evans’ photographs of the interior of an Alabama farmhouse, or Andre Kertesz’s images of shadows cast by empty chairs, or the central courtyard in Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu to recognize a similar aesthetic awareness. These artist speak to the audience through mutual understanding of their private emotions. Such a connection cannot be faked. A common fallacy is to believe an artist can artificially create a resonance with the audience with certain visual cues. Unless the work is a genuine expression of the artist’s feeling, the effect will appear hollow to the perceptive eye.
Wabi sabi is not a style defined by superficial appearance. It is an aesthetic ideal, a quiet and sensitive state of mind, attainable by learning to see the invisible, paring away what is unnecessary, and knowing where to stop.
Tim Wong and Akiko Hirano