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Between Wabi-Sabi and Sony

June 13, 2008

It struck me the other day that the Japanese, with a historical wabi-sabi emphasis on patina on one side and an economy racing into the techno-future on the other, would embrace anything that could connect these disparate cultures.

One possible bridge is Steampunk, with its focus on materiality and victorian pre- assembly-line technology. And sure enough, between Miyazaki’s Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, and devices like the watches of Haruo Suekichia, it’s clear that Steampunk has a hold in Japan.


But I’m sure it’s not the only unlikely sythesis of Sony and the tea ceremony. The modern influence on Meiji Japan was massive and the parallels between the spareness of zen aesthetics and the less-is-more of the Bauhaus were easy to find and implement on both sides of the pacific.

But love of Steampunk is beyond modern, neither clean nor spare. What other combinations of historical Japan and the postmodern are out there?

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Wabi-Sabi as a non-modern form

May 18, 2008


Though often done, common wisdom holds it an act of naïve recklessness to make broad comparisons across cultures. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic with its roots in Song Dynasty China and Heian Japan that rose to great influence in Muromachi and early Edo Japan. To analyze, compare, and apply it across five centuries and, even more questionably, 12,000 km of diverse cultures clearly offends rational sensibilities. But, oddly, naïvite is not out of place here. One of the tenets of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism is that enlightenment comes as a lightning bolt that makes dutiful piety and methodical study irrelevant. The reverence of structure and tradition that lies at the heart of Confucian, Catholic, and contemporary western scientific and academic practice, is suspect, in this thread of Buddhist thought, as a kind of attachment (upādāna, in Sanskrit).

There is a parallel that has been drawn – one that I want to examine at another time – between this rejection of reverence in Zen and the embrace of play in postmodern theory. But for the moment, let’s look at wabi-sabi. The original meanings of the words wabi and sabi are themselves in dispute, with evidence that the words have bent around the aesthetic concepts as much as they originally described them. The focus is on beauty in simplicity and the commonplace. Wabi connotes, among others, sadness, inadequacy, poverty, loneliness, simplicity; sabi, rusticity (or maybe “the rustic” as a class, something that must appear somewhere in William Gilpin or Uvedale Price’s essays on the Picturesque), the serenity of age, and, literally, rust. The aesthetic follows directly from the mono no aware (roughly, the melancholy of things) of the Heian era and the Buddhist tenet of anitya, or impermanence, but also has resonance with aspects of the sublime, the Italian Arte Povera movement, and Epicurean simplicity. It is this last association that has brought wabi-sabi into the popular imagination over the last two decades with the rise of green politics, simple living, slow food, and their broad echoes in upper middle class lifestyle magazines.

While the interest has been in Asian aesthetics generally, wabi-sabi has become the shorthand for a complexity that most would rather allude to than meaningfully engage. Outside the academic journals, there are only a few works that try to explain wabi-sabi to a broader audience in a substantive way. In this post, I want to look at one, Wabi Sabi, the Japanese art of impermanence (by Andrew Juniper, Tuttle, 2003), which comes closest and yet misses most fundamentally.

Juniper, an English designer with years in Japan and a decent grasp on the language behind him, structures his book sensibly, running from overview, though a description of Zen, medieval cultural history, aesthetics, high art, and ending in his personal interest, contemporary craft. He hits all the key figures and concepts with many classic examples from poetry, garden design, and tea ceremony. He diverts from the predictable to share examples that nicely illuminate the form in passages from the life of Ryokan to catch the importance of playfulness, and provides a particularly focused analysis of the materials of wabi-sabi and how they interact with the design aesthetic.

All of this is very convincing to a point. The flaw in his portrayal starts to show as Juniper complains that the contemporary Japanese “seem to be abandoning their religious heritage for the material hedonism preached by the west” and “it is a lamentable but undeniable truth that the artistic and spiritual peaks reached in days gone by are far more difficult to find in modern Japan”. It’s quite clear that the problem is change. Now, it’s far from uncommon amongst historians to hear a tone of longing for the period they study, but even as they describe their moment, it’s with an awareness of its development. For Juniper, wabi-sabi doesn’t develop, it is discovered. He sees it as a timeless aesthetic concept, much as Kant sees the sublime – indeed, one of the chapters is titled “The Universal Spirit of Wabi-Sabi”. This leads him to address precursor forms like mono no aware in only a few lines, as “a close relative of wabi-sabi”, and to make no distinction between wabi-sabi as practiced in the 17th century, the 19th century, or the present. Still more ironic is that wabi-sabi is based on impermanence and that even a cursory reading of the Buddhist and especially the Zen philosophy show that not only things and emotions are subject to anitya, but creative work and ideas also. Poetry and philosophy are as transcient as houses and people. For Zen, even the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is impermanent.

Wabi-sabi, then, is a form, an aesthetic practice with a specific historical and cultural context. The modern and structuralist approach is Juniper’s, to see the form as a universal and thus available to all cultures and times as a revealed truth. This contradicts the very premise of the form, a failing that leaves it quite undigestible by modern analysis. But to transpose wabi-sabi from Edo Japan to contemporary England, is in keeping both with the flexible pragmatism of Zen and the playfulness of postmodernism. The transposition is a new thing that can try to look like the old, as the garden work of Marc Keane, or like something new, as the ephemeral sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy.

Can we say that wabi-sabi is a postmodern form? Perhaps, if you think, with Lyotard, that there is postmodernism present in every age. However, I like seeing the postmodern as roughly succeeding the modern, and though wabi-sabi can be appropriated, more consideration is needed before labeling it so. And does it really profit us to say so? Better and clearer to indicate its separation from the modern altogether and call it non-modern.

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Long Time Gone

May 18, 2008

That was quite a hiatus. During the last four months, I moved to Europe, where I’m teaching on a Fulbright Award, organized and ran part of a conference, juried for two big shows, and ran a long workshop. I have constantly thought of the blog and run up quite a laundry list of post topics, so you should see a flood over the next month. Please stand by.

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Getting Dusty: Brothers Quay’s Street of Crocodiles

January 11, 2008

 puppet peering medium sized

Probably the single greatest influence on my love of decay has been this twenty minute stop action film of decrepit and mysterious puppets in a microcosm of dust and abandonment. It captures a melancholy of incomplete communication that I find deeply compelling.

The Brothers Quay drew thematic and stylistic inspiration for their film (found in their newly released compilation Phantom Museums) from Bruno Schulz’ short story from his collection Cinnamon Shops (titled Street of Crocodiles in the US edition). Of all Schulz’s stories, this moves furthest from the personal, describing a series of scenes in a trashy neighborhood, each in turn revealed as a sham, until even the sensationalism of deceit is itself exposed as a pathetic pretense.

Translating the structure into film, the Quays use quasi-cyrillic fonts, Polish voice-overs, and Lech Jankowski’s chromatic score to bracket the narrative in a conceit of eastern european production as well as setting (the Brothers are really Americans working in London). Within this, they give us an intimate view of the explorations of a lanky puppet amidst glowing dolls, animated screws, dressmakers dummies, and, in an homage to Jan Svankmajer, fresh meat. Still the film is less about fabrication – Schulz’s focus – than memory. Not tidy structured recollections but fragmented communications from the past, surreal because their logic is lost. The puppet searches, but only has his head filled with tissue by these eyeless psychoanalysts.

quay1.jpg

That I can’t accurately remember when I first saw Street of Crocodiles is telling. I want to say it was in the early eighties at the art movie theatre I used to frequent during high school, where I first saw Rashomon and Repulsion, but official reference shows a release date of 1986. Surely it was sponsored by Channel 4 during its golden age of experimental animation? But I was living in the last walk-up in Islington with outside toilets, and didn’t have a TV. Perhaps my friend Leslie recommended it to me, though by the time she became a film critic, I was living in Japan. I belabor the point, but the smeary glass and ill lit, dusty hallways make unreliable memory the central metaphor. Is this Sanacja Poland in the thirties, communist Czechoslovakia, or Thatcher’s England? Or a superimposition of the three?

The memory evokes the historical avant garde without the spark, an echo of inter-war Europe, Ernst without the color. So it comes as no surprise that the Brothers fan Walter Benjamin:

When we read his Reflections, his texts on postage stamp collections, on his library, it released a world to us. This is a man who knew about Kafka, Walser. In the same way Gaston Bachelard does, he opens these little cupboards. We love those works. (from a wonderful interview at Senses of Cinema)

But painting the futility of the Street of Crocodiles as cheap melancholy is a ruse. The miniature world of grimy dolls and dancing pins, though a kind of anti-sublime, also evokes pleasure, an acknowledgment of fallibility both material and human: the mono no aware of a Heian memoire colored the dirty yellow of noir nostalgia.

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Seeking the Techno-Sublime

December 13, 2007

In aesthetics, the 1990’s saw the 18th century wash over them with the resurrection of the concept of the Sublime. The traditional concept as explicated by Kant and Edmund Burke sees the sublime as something (physically or conceptually) vast and beyond understanding that inspires awe, amazement, or even terror, but is ultimately pleasurable. The philosophers set it in contrast to Beauty (which, unsurprisingly, also became a hot topic in the 90′s): something sublime would have grandeur but could also be ugly.

It’s odd to think that a few centuries back, mountains were not considered beautiful, but rather blights on the landscape, frightening places that people avoided. In early landscape painting they were left out or shown only as a boundary of what is fit to show. It took the relative peace of the late 17th and early 18th centuries to allow a few influential British writers to cross the Alps on their way to Italy, finding in those mountains an aesthetic appeal that transcended their sense of beauty. With Kant, on one side, and the picturesque movement on the other, the sublime became a central concept of Romanticism.

Mount Thor on Baffin Island

In the last century, modernism took Burke’s first conclusion about the Sublime — that the ugly could be aesthetic — and ran with it as only the avant garde can. The debt was not acknowledged, of course, as modernism gradually denied its own historical context, so the sublime largely dropped out of respectable critical conversation. Even with the toppling of modernism with the one two punch of Pop Art and post-structural theory in the 60′s and 70′s, a revival of the beauty/sublime discourse seemed too quaint. It took the second generation of postmodernists, those less preoccupied with anti-modernist reaction, to reconsider some of the components of romanticism and bring them into the mix.

What, then, is so grand as to promote awe and terror on the edge of rational understanding in the contemporary world? Two common answers are capitalism (clearly many aspects of international corporate finance are beyond the edge for even the companies that invest in them), and technology. Neither, for me, seems very convincing. While capital is vast, and can destroy and create on impressive scale, it functions too bureaucratically to promote a gasp of awe. Any grandeur is lost in the banality of trade quotas and Walmart.

Technology has certainly led to plenty of human created examples of the sublime: exploding H-bombs, the World Trade Center (both before, during, and after 9-11), the Holocaust. Yet, are these any different from the Battle of the Somme, or even the 30 Years war? Nuclear weapons and skyscrapers are really about unleashing forces of nature, not meaningfully different from, say, the destruction of Lisbon by earthquake in 1755. The horrors of the Holocaust or large scale warfare inspire awe through the scale of the inhumanity rather than the technical means.

Oddly, the most convincing argument I’ve found for the techno-sublime is talking about the sublime nature of the techno clubbing scene. A bit different than technology writ large, but it has a good intro to ideas of the sublime..

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A Matter of Life and Death

November 18, 2007

Ruined Cottage

As a reminder of death in life, decay can be seen from many angles. In traditional Japanese culture it serves as both a touchstone and a pivot point:

In the earliest period of Japanese history, the attitudes of the traditional “Way of the Gods” making up the Shinto religion put greatest emphasis on the vitality and purity of one’s own present life. Death represented pollution and decay. Six centuries or so later, these values were reversed….a widespread sense, which followed the spread of a more popular Buddhism in medieval Japan, that the world was basically a place of sorrow, a temporary illusion to be replaced by the ultimate reality of a Nirvana. (“Japanese Literature: Four Polarities” by J. Thomas Rimer)

While these perspectives on life are diametric, those on decay are not. The Shinto vision sees decay as a polluted precursor of death, a negative motion to the bad side of the cycle, while the Buddhist vision sees decay as a sorrow, but a sweet one that marks the passage of time, which will eventually take us somewhere better. So for Japanese aesthetics, which is mostly Buddhist, decay is not just a necessary part of life, but the essence of life. In the West, we talk about feeling most alive in the presence of death, but this is always directed to high drama events of violence – threats, accidents and the battlefield. In traditional Japan, it is about quiet events, the fallen cherry blossoms, the broken down hut, the rusty lock:

Rusty lock medium width

Unfortunately the lock would not work, and when he went back to look for help no other manservant could anywhere be found. “It’s very rusty,” said the old porter dolefully, fumbling all the while with the lock that grated with an unpleasant sound but would not turn. “There’s nothing else wrong with it, but it’s terribly rusty. No one uses that gate now.” The words, ordinary enough in themselves, filled Genji with an unaccountable depression. How swiftly the locks rust, the hinges grow stiff on the doors that close behind us! “I am more than thirty,” he thought; and it seemed to him impossible to go doing things just as though they would last, as though people would remember. (Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki, Waley translation)

Decay is the pivot of life, the moment of true reflection.

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Is Gloomy Bear Camp?

October 25, 2007

Following from the discussion in my earlier post about camp being a subcultural adoption of a waning aspect of mass culture, I found myself thinking about Gloomy Bear, a popular character and plush toy by Japanese designer Mori Chack. Gloomy is a cute pink bear who is covered in blood and eats people.

Obviously this is done in reaction to the cuteness of Hello Kitty and the rest, but it isn’t really a parody as we would understand it in the West. Chack sells these in toy stores by the thousands.

These are consumed with an awareness of irony and yet a genuine embrace at the same time. They’ve been popular in Japan for six years — the slow growth cycle must mean something — and are now showing up in the US. Is this camp? Is this a marker that real cute manga animals are outmoded? Or is it just a just a minor jab at the juggernaut of mainstream Japanese popular culture?

Maybe the clue is with Mori’s description of Gloomy. The orphaned bear cub is found by the blond Pitty Boy, who raises him, but when Gloomy grows up, his animal nature comes through and he attacks and eats Pitty Boy. Who is Pitty Boy in this metaphor?

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