Research: Wabi-Sabi

Looking closely at my archive pieces, I have found myself drawn to the signs of wear and repairs as interesting areas to sketch. This fits well with the next concept we have been asked to research, ‘wabi sabi’.

Wabi sabi is a Japanese concept that embraces imperfection as a source of beauty. Wabi sabi also emphasises economy of form but this does not necessarily mean austere shapes. Anthony Merino (2015) reviews a series of works by Shigemasa Higashida and explains that ‘[w]abi-sabi developed out of a Zen embrace of a metaphysical kinetic austerity’ explaining that ‘Buddhism casts [the sublime] in movement’. My interpretation of this is that instead of attempting to find a ‘perfect’ form (ie the ideal bowl shape) wabi-sabi  attempts to capture a ‘perfect’ movement and so the hand of the maker will be apparent as in his Kiseto Vase #15 pictured below.

Credit: Kiseto Vase #15 by Shigemasa Higashida. Stoneware, 15.4 x 11.4 x 11.4in

Merino describes Higashida’s work as ‘a crescendo of imperfection’ explaining how he uses glaze pools, puddles and drips ‘to document the force applied to the drying clay in order to shape it’. This echoes the sentiment of Buddhist Priest Yoshida Kenkō who said that what an object has been and what it will become are as beautiful as the object itself. There is something deeply philosophical about this line of thought. Often we can look back on earlier times in our lives and think they were better or worry if things are going well that ‘everything is bound to go wrong’. Perhaps life is less like the difference between flying and falling and more like the beating of a wing; there are ups and downs but there is grace and beauty at every point.

Merino also points out that this reference to time, patina and wear has resonances with the Western idea of momento-mori which means “remember  you must die” in Latin. There is an appeal to works that remind us of our own impermanence and the fragility of human life. Ceramic is often seen as a fragile material however Higashida’s works have a solidity perhaps reminding us that there is strength in acceptance?

Owen Dearing (2014) outlines his interpretation of wabi-sabi in his article on Inayoshi Osamu as ‘[nurturing] all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect’. Dearing describes Osamu’s work as ‘feather light’ and describes how

you can’t put it down until you’ve been able to drink in the subtle, joyful nuance of lightness, glaze and texture that are conveyed to youthrough both senses of touch and vision. Osamu has connected with you through this pot.

In our current world of primarily digital connections, there is a void which can certainly be filled with these connections with makers. Perhaps this is why there has been a resurgence of craft and valuing the handmade?

Osamu turned to pottery when his grandfather passed away and he saw that he was buried in a factory made urn. He vowed that his parents would not spend eternity in something mass produced and enrolled on a pottery course. This decision is reminiscent of an artist I met at The Knitting and Stitching Show called Clare Bullock who works with families to create personal funeral urns for loved ones from felt. Osamu uses an usual technique of texturing lumps of clay with natural objects before cutting them in half (for cups and bowls) and after they have hardened overnight he removes the interior. When he is happy with his design he fires the ceramics between and three to eight times (the usual number is twice).

This simplicity does not have to be boring. Artists such as Catherine Martin take Japanese processes such as Kumihimo (braiding) and reinvents them in a new material (platinum).

Library 2008 11 28 5598 2.600px

Credit: Catherine Martin


Dearing, O. Inayoshi Osamu: A Wasi-Sabi Approach Ceramics Monthly 1 September 2014

Merino, A Wabi Sabi Shigemasa Higashida. A Review by Anthony Merino Ceramics: Art & Perception 1 September 2015

Tate Momento Mori

[All links accessed on 19/10/18]

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