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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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..


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.


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?


Getting Muddy: Revisiting Rosalind Krauss’ “Nostalgie de la Boue”

September 20, 2007

I’d like to open with a story of sorts – about my first encounter with postmodernism (though it was more than fifteen years before I heard the word) when I was a child growing up in the London suburbs. My grandparents, active in the local Music and Drama Society, had taken me, twice, to see their friends and acquaintances perform Tom Stoppard’s one-act the Real Inspector Hound. My initial response of naive confusion when two of the audience members, talking with rude volume, revealed themselves to be theatre critics, was compounded as they berated the actors from their seats and later strode onto the stage itself and became inseparable from the drama, finally becoming victims in the Agatha Christie-like play they are supposed to be reviewing. But it was funny – if you haven’t seen any of his plays, Stoppard has Wilde’s talent with farce and wit, and often manages to fold in parody (though here it is at the expense of characterization) – and humor is a sure draw for children, so I opted for a second night of it to avoid an encounter with the dragon babysitter. This time I could anticipate and compensate for the vertigo of watching the superimposition of roles. I remember distinctly wondering if I was now allowed to go on stage, too?

One of the things that inspired me to start this project was rereading Rosalind Krauss’ essay “Nostalgie de la Boue” from the journal October’s Spring 1991 issue. As it brings up a number of threads (nostalgia, camp, obsolescence) that feed into thinking about my love of decay, I want to run through it here.

First, some fast background on the author (itself a loaded term) and October. Krauss was a rising star in art criticism, when, in 1976, she left that most prestigious and intellectual of magazines, Artforum, to found October. 1991 saw her at the height of her powers, about to accept a tenured position at Columbia, watching her revolution become the academy.October, a paper journal issued quarterly, was named for the Eisenstein film that celebrates the Russian Revolution while simultaneously practicing film theory past the point that the Bolshevik leaders could tolerate. With a non-doctrinaire focus on “small r” revolutionary art theory/practice, the journal reasserts the relevance of the historical avant garde (the cascade of early twentieth century movements, artists, critics, and manifestos) by building what we would now call a remix of poststructuralism, contemporary art, and a historicized take on the early modernists. Its success marked the rise of the academic mode of art theory and a separation from the rocket of the 1980’s art market that crashed a decade later.

The instigation for Krauss’ essay is the famous show “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” at New York MOMA, that brought graffiti and other expressions of popular culture into the Museum’s hallowed halls, causing a minor uproar in 1990.

In the show’s catalog, the agents of MOMA put down Surrealism and its focus on the unconscious as “meaningless”, dissing it with the phrase “nostalgie de la boue” which the catalog says involves “a yearning to wallow in what is seen as low and filthy”. The expression, which literally translates from French as “nostalgia of the mud”, is, oddly, not used in France, but has a life and meaning only among English speakers. The same dubious phrase shows up being used by Andrew Ross, a famous Cultural Studies critic to dismiss the historical avant garde as not being seriously engaged with popular culture — they weren’t really hip, they were just slumming. In both cases, nostalgia is invoked to disqualify their targets as worthy of serious consideration; however, as Krauss points out, nostalgia ends up as the main relationship to the past that their stories use. It becomes crucial. In all this we need to remember that Krauss is a big fan of historical context, partly a Marxist influence via earlier critics like Walter Benjamin and partly through the New Historicism that arose from the writings of Michel Foucault.

Then she invites us to consider a few of the tenets of Cultural Studies: 1) that consumption (and we’re talking ideas here, not hamburgers) is not a mirror of production – meaning that you can’t say that there is a monolithic culture machine out there cranking out images and programs which we all consume like sheep; rather, 2) that consumers are critical users who can rewrite and remake culture (though the MOMA curators prefer to see it more in terms of distinct subcultures rather than individual users). Oddly, though, with all this cross-pollination among equal subcultures, it always seems to be the High Art crowd, be they Pop artists, Surrealists, or Cubists, who are gaining inspiration from waning elements of popular culture, and not the other way round.

Now comes the first major conclusion. Krauss says that MOMA is implicitly claiming that “high art’s creative consumption of popular culture is…nostalgia” and gives lots of examples. Then she points out that Ross identifies the same instinct for popular culture on its way out as camp, and camp is really nothing more than an ironic posture within nostalgia. For Ross (and Krauss), “camp taste works, then, as a peculiar celebration of marks of disempowerment within a media or commodity culture” that arise because components are becoming obsolete. Acknowledging and celebrating this cycle in the end denies the whole premise of modernist culture here: that taste is universal and timeless. So creative nostalgia ends up being a crucial postmodern tactic.

Her second conclusion is to find something rotten in the underpinnings of the whole series of arguments. If this form of cultural recycling (taking the outmoded and remaking it into what is cool) can allow consumers to cut themselves free of the realm of production, then what kind of sense does it make to talk about production vs. consumption? Are they two separate spheres anymore?

This last point is really irritating to me because it makes one generalization – it’s too messy to make clear distinctions anymore – where a number of useful threads could be teased out: the separation is alive in what economists call consumer goods (a factory in China makes a toaster, I buy a toaster); the separation is strong in broadcast culture (CNN or Sony Pictures don’t take a lot of input from me); the separation is complicated within the networks of service industries (as a graphic designer, am I producing or consuming images?); and finally within remix culture, like Wikipedia or YouTube, or zero-sum shopping, like buying/selling used toys or vintage clothes on EBay, the distinction becomes nearly meaningless. Notice anything about that continuum? There’s that transition from big money to no money. And a shift from a one-way to a circular mode of consumption. This circularity and recycling isn’t the same as the 1960’s get-out-of-the-rat-race-and-become-self-sufficient ethic because the former still had that modernist obsession with purity and simplicity, while the latter embraces ambiguity and complexity, providing points for personal intervention in the cycle.

Which brings me back to The Real Inspector Hound: it was exactly the outmodedness of the Agatha Christie drama that allowed me to want to step on the stage myself: not to passively participate, but to help remake it.

For those of you with access to JSTOR, the online journal archive, Nostalgie de la Boue can be found here.


Corrosion and Decay in Digital Culture

September 6, 2007

The promise of digital art and culture is almost utopian: perfection and immortality of images and ideas, with infinite, pristine reproducibility.  But behind the veil, decay, loss, sweat, and corruption are everywhere in the infosphere.  Far more so than in the traditional material world, these are seen as mistakes and moral flaws that need to be expunged from the internet, removed from computers, and replaced with clean and perfect media. The virtual prostitution of Grand Theft Auto is more reviled than the actual hustling on city streets; a corroded computer screen seems far worse than a stained book cover.

While this problem of the new becoming old can be looked at as a technical issue, as, for example, in the growing field of digital art conservation, this misses the populace’s horror at seeing a medium so often equated with our future decaying before our eyes.

When this corrosion of technology is celebrated, such as in the science fiction genre of cyberpunk (and its offspring, steampunk and clockpunk), are we experiencing the frisson of slumming with the wrong side of the future, or are we seeing a window to humanizing digital culture by allowing a window for imperfection and frailty? Can there be a wabi sabi aesthetic of information?  Is there a techno-picturesque?

In the weeks and months ahead, I want to investigate these ideas and dig over some of the assumptions and presumptions of both popular and academic takes on decay, passion, and technology. I’ll try to do this with one foot planted in the field of culural studies and one foot dancing.  Join me!