I’m catching up on some neglected gardening magazines, and it’s interesting to see so many people talking about Wabi-Sabi as a trend for 2018. I remember discovering this Japanese concept when I was an enthusiastic art student nearly twenty years ago, and what an incredible difference it made to me during a time when I was really struggling with my instinct not to let any of my work see the light of day until it was ‘finished’ or ‘perfect’. I’m sure it’s just this instinct which stops most people from expressing their creativity.
One of my favourite works of art of all time was actually one that was destined for deterioration: Eva Hesse’s Contingent, made from latex (a perishing rubber) over cloth, and fibreglass. This is no Waterlilies. It will not hang in the world’s most iconic collections for centuries. But it became extraordinary to me, and was the first time that I began to relate lasting, meaningful ideas to materials, which has been at the very heart of my work and thinking ever since.
Wabi-Sabi and its many related visual and intellectual ideas are something I return to whenever I find myself hesitating to the detriment of my natural productivity. This very blog is likely a reaction to a recent dalliance with creative procrastination. You have to throw yourself at creativity and at making, because if you linger for too long in the foggy precipice of ‘thinking’, you will never find your way back to the path.
Creativity is all about risks, because if it’s not risky or untested, it means it already exists: somebody else already made it. And besides that, I think there are far more valuable considerations to apply to the process of making and creating than whether it is ‘good’ or ‘correct’.
Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken objects with gold. An object’s history adds to its beauty.
A garden is a wonderful teacher about how you define perfection, because if you seek a perfect, finished ideal in a garden, you are in for trouble. Everything you finish needs to be constantly maintained if you really want it to stay as you design it. Hedges must be cut and recut. Plants grow, shape and reseed any way they want, basically. If you want to control that, you have to work constantly. Beds must be redefined every season. Weeds must be cleared if that’s your inclination, and whenever one job is complete, it is never long before a dozen others fall into place in the gap you think you’ve made in your to-do list.
A garden is a living thing, not an ideal. It can be an idea, but it must be a fluid, breathing, dynamic idea, or you may find either it, or your own will, failing.
Green Box by Act Romegialli
But the most wonderful thing about a garden’s imperfections is that there is always beauty to be found – always a reminder that life (sometimes fragile, sometimes bursting into only fleeting beauty) is wonderful and valuable on its own merits. It doesn’t need quantifying or qualifying. Its existence is enough – more than enough. Perfection, if you like.
So, like the Wabi-Sabi artists of Japan who repair their broken vessels with seams of gold, we can celebrate the things which signify uniqueness, singularity, and a very specific moment in time and space which will never come again.
I think it’s a lovely thing to cherish.
Notes for Wabi-Sabi in more depth:
‘In the Wake of Basho: Bestiary in the Rock Garden’ Yury Lobo:
“In one sense wabi-sabi is a training whereby the student of wabi-sabi learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi-sabi can change our perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.”
Writer and designer Margaret Penney beautifully captures Wabi-Sabi:
“Wabi-Sabi actually is a two word combination. Wabi refers to the kind of beauty found in asymmetrical, uneven or unbalanced things. The asymmetry of a ceramic bowl is an example of wabi. Sabi is the beauty of aged things and speaks to the impermanence of life through the passage of time. An example of sabi is the lovely patina found on a rusted old metal wall.”
If you are interested in Japanese creative concepts in general, I can highly recommend The Art of Japanese Living, a BBC series with Dr James Fox.
Other Zen principles, relating to Wabi-Sabi:
Fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity
Koko: basic, weathered
Shizen: without pretense, natural
Yungen: subtly profound grace, not obvious
Datsuzoku: unbounded by convention, free
I will no doubt write in the future about the Enso – as symbol, concept, philosophy and meditative practice, which has been very important to me over the years…