“The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends."
- Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows
There is a certain charm or quite beauty to a simple object that has been used for many years. Think about the warm delight of holding a wooden spoon used for decades, or of examining the intricacy of cracks which adorn weathered tree bark.
Wabi-Sabi is a concept which names this appreciation for the imperfect.
In recent years Wabi-Sabi has become a buzzword for minimalist and lifestyle trends, but the history of Wabi-Sabi and its preservation in Japanese culture has a lot more to offer.
First and foremost, Wabi-Sabi is a philosophy and a way of living. Even though it is most commonly known as a Japanese approach, Wabi-Sabi actually originated from Chinese Buddhist tradition. The influences of the Dhammapada, a canonical Buddhist text containing sayings of the Buddha, can be seen as foundational in Wabi-Sabi’s philosophy.
Three marks of existence
To understand Wabi-Sabi you should know a little bit about the Buddhist belief of the three marks of existence. More of a philosophy than a belief, the three marks of existence express three truths of all life and living things. The three marks are annica, the impermanence and cyclical nature of life, dukkha, the impossibility of desire or the persistence of suffering, and anatta, the fact that there is no “soul” or constant self.
Buddhists believe that greater pain comes from the ignorance of these three marks. We must be aware of and accept these conditions of life. Wabi-Sabi is a way of seeing which acknowledges, and furthermore, finds appreciation of these marks aesthetically.
The Wabi-Sabi philosophy not only acknowledges the marks, but sees beauty as the thing which expresses these conditions. The Wabi-Sabi object revells and sits within the awareness of the three marks, expressing to the viewer a sense of melancholy and ephemerality. Japanese author Jun'ichirō Tanizaki evokes Wabi-Sabi in his aesthetic essay, In Praise of the Shadows. He writes,
“If light is scarce then light is scarce;
we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty.”
Tanizaki expresses both a melancholy and a hope here; its takes the realities and life and finds true beauty within. This reality of “the darkness” results in a necessary imperfection of life (note the connections to annica and dukkha). In Wabi-Sabi, imperfection is a necessary condition for beauty. We find solace in Wabi-Sabi objects because they come to terms with the imperfection of existence, and posit them in a beautiful matter. A perfect object would not be beautiful because it would not be expressing this condition of life.
Wabi-Sabi can be expressed in endless forms
Many traditional Japanese art forms fall under the aesthetic category of Wabi-Sabi. Ikebana, the Japanese art of floral arrangement is shaped by ideas of preservation and nature, and Kintsugi, the practice of highlighting the repairs of broken pottery, evoke the sense of Wabi-Sabi. These artforms, and many more, embrace that sense of imperfection and impermanence.
Another way to uncover the meaning of Wabi-Sabi is to look at the actual meanings of the words Wabi and Sabi.
Wabi refers to the simplicity and natural aspects of an object. This could mean its rough texture, uneven coloring, or it’s modest, unornamented shape. Wabi is different than minimalism because it values the specificity and uniqueness of the object. A Wabi object is always unique unto its own, because it is shaped by natural and changing elements.
The word Sabi more refers to the being of the object. Sabi is the life and wear of the object, it is the visible cracks, worn edges, or the evident durability of a thing. These aesthetic features represent the history and ephemerality of art, as well as life. Sabi evokes annica, the beauty of being reminded of passing and transitory time.
The Wabi-Sabi Artists of YŌNOBI
For this ceramic artist, inspiration comes in many forms. But the Japanese of Wabi-Sabi has had great influence on the work of Louise Egedal. When creating new artwork, one of Louise Egedals goals is to achieve “a rustic and vivid expression”.
Combining her Scandinavian heritage with Japanese tradition, her artwork expresses what she calls “Nordic Wabi-Sabi”.
Experience the ceramic collection of Louise Egedal.
The evidence of Wabi-Sabi is all around us. Just look around.
By considering the tilted, bare tree which lies outside your window and resiliently lives on through each winter, or the precious detail of imperfection that a Japanese tea cup offers, we can be reminded of the gift of impermanence.
In the face of imperfection, Wabi-Sabi allows us to reframe our ideals of beauty. Whether aesthetically, or spiritually, we can all adopt the quiet hope of this Japanese philosophy.