Western observers have often remarked on the sense of emptiness in Japanese design (Hara 2014).
Whether it be space within a plain ceramic vessel, a sparse ikebana flower arrangement, the chanoyu tea ceremony, austere architecture and interiors, karesansui raked gardens, haiku poetry, music, the space within ukiyo-e prints or a byanobu painted folding Japanese screen, a void, a pause, or area of spatial
emptiness can be discerned.
This emptiness is far from
a Western sense of nothingness, rather it can be traced back to a primordial Shinto belief in the essence
of ‘gods dwelling in nature, who were impossible to touch … because empty equals the possibility of being filled, the gods may then find it and enter’ (Hara 2014, 14).
The ancient Japanese devised a mechanism to make some point of contact with the gods by creating a demarcated space which could be a hedge, rope or fence, a square of emptiness called shiro. When a roof is added, the structure becomes a yashiro or basic Shinto shrine (Hara 2014) and the gods may now enter the emptiness and bring their benevolence.
This emptiness is seen as a space of potentiality; nature itself is seen as a dynamic whole, never complete
or permanent, an always changing force that is to be admired and appreciated.
The concept of empty space was already a firm tenet of Japanese culture when in the mid-fifteenth century the ruling shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa further cultivated the unostentatious, subdued and meditative aspects of Zen Buddhism into his aristocratic example. During Yoshimasa's reign his court actively supported the growth of the Higashiyama culture, famous for tea ceremony (chanoyu or sado), flower arrangement (kado or ikebana), Noh drama, and Indian ink painting. His reign stimulated further
development of the sensibility of beauty in plainness, rusticity and natural grace or wabi and sabi. These
terms are perhaps the most well-known Japanese aesthetic terms in the West and are often conjoined
into one term wabi-sabi.
Wabi is the Zen Buddhist principle of an austere beauty; a serene accepting of the vicissitudes of an
impermanent life, of finding a beauty in poverty and bleakness, even loneliness and sadness. Sabi refers to the patina of age and a lyric melancholy of dwindling beauty. Donald Keene quotes observations from the poet-priest Ton’a (1289-1372) that ‘only after the silk wrapper has frayed at the top and the bottom does the scroll look beautiful’ and from the essayist Yoshida Kenko (1283-1340) that ‘if man were never
to fade away … but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us. The most precious thing in life is uncertainty’ (Keene, quoted in Richie 2007, 21). Wabi and sabi both point to the transience of life and the beauty of things in passing, so the short-lived cherry blossom and the old cracked tea bowl have become the oft-cited emblems of this aesthetic phenomenon. Within Zen philosophy, wabi-sabi also refers to a mindful approach to everyday life. To achieve the wabi-sabi ideal,
the seeker must search for fukinsei (asymmetry, irregularity), kanso, (simplicity), koko (basic, weathered), shizen (without pretense, natural), yugen (subtly profound grace, not obvious, an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses that are too deep and mysterious for words), datsuzoku
(unbounded by convention free), and seijaku (tranquillity) (Carter 2008).
That so much can be implied by two short words reflects the depth of meaning in many of the terms within Japanese aesthetic philosophy. Most categories have sub-categories and further sub-categories to describe even the most intangible and elusive sensation. For example, yugen, which is a category within wabi-sabi is a concept so rich that it inspired many of the nation’s most venerated poets, artists and philosophers over many centuries. Although yugen shares all the same characteristics of sabi of an aged, imperfect tranquillity, it also denotes a very subtle ‘beauty of gentle gracefulness’ (Tsubaki 1971, 1). The following description comes from Japanese scholar Daisetz T. Suzuki:
"Yugen is a compound word, each part yu and gen, meaning “cloudy impenetrability” and the combination meaning “obscurity”, “unknowability”, “mystery”, “beyond intellectual calcuability” [sic] but not “utter darkness”. An object so designated is not subject to dialectical analysis or to a clear cut definition … It is something we feel within ourselves … It is hidden in
the clouds, but not entirely out of sight, for we feel its presence, its secret message being transmitted through the darkness." (Suzuki, quoted in Tsubaki 1971, 56)
Andrew Tsubaki argued in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism that yugen ‘is strictly speaking an untranslatable word’ (1971, 57). He explains that the most commonly rendered word in English that could describe yugen would be ‘elegance’ or ‘grace’, but that these words do not adequately outline yugen’s fathomless sentiment. Other English words that are relevant to understanding yugen are understatement, intimation, aristocratic grace, composure, equilibrium, serenity and quietism. The very nature of many Japanese aesthetic terms as unknowable, unattainable and diffuse are in a sense part of the philosophy itself.
The grasp of many of its conventions are made intuitively and perceptively
rather than rationally and logically. For example, aware, which means something that provokes an emotional response – ‘the aspects of nature (or life, or art) that move a susceptible individual to an awareness of the ephemeral beauty of a world in which change is the only constant’ (Richie 2007, 71) –can be seen as a type of nostalgia that can be considered alongside yugen’s sense of the mysterious quiescence beneath all things.
These notions, sitting underneath or alongside the philosophies of wabi-sabi’s cultivated aesthetic of a beauty found in rusticity and deterioration provide a rich ground which I have explored in my creative production over many artforms.
Dr. Kelsey Ashe
Excerpt from 'Imaginary Aesthetic Territories' , PhD Thesis, 2018.