Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wabi Sabi – the Japanese art of impermanence

Wabi Sabi – the Japanese art of impermanence
Andrew Juniper

Japanese culture, art and aesthetics have had a major influence on my artwork. There is a term called Wabi Sabi that can not be directly translated into English but refers to a type of aesthetic influenced by a number of factors. It stemmed from Zen Buddhism, that in turn was influenced by Chinese Taoism. Zen Buddhist monks were interested in artistic practices because they saw artistry in every aspect of life. The term seishintouistu refers to a meditative state that your mind enters when it has a single mined focus on one activity and as a result a loss of ego occurs. 
The monks could only afford cheap, humble natural materials and grew to notice the qualities in natural materials like bamboo. Inconsistencies symbolised something called mujo or impermanence. Wabi-sabi was also a backlash against the highly ornate, expensive, perfect Chinese objects.

As Wikipedia states, Wabi-sabi () represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常 mujō), the other two being suffering ( ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature ( ).

Juniper states the term Wabi sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. Pg2
These were the aspects investigated in Zen Buddhism. The monks saw Wab-sabi as a way to communicate spiritual messages.

I see Wabi-sabi as a respect for natural materials, finding beauty in the inconsistencies and as a result seeing it as a metaphor for the impermanence of our existence. Within this book Juniper discusses how modern Japan may be losing the influence of the traditional Wabi-sabi aesthetic but the subliminal influence is still significant in contemporary society.

I have been meditating for about 15 years now, not totally consistently but have experienced the benefits, one of which is better access to my creative mind and ideas. I also feel similar benefits when I enter my studio and get absorbed in the art making process.

It was also interesting in this book the list of design principles that Wabi-sabi adhered to such as;

- organic, natural materials
- no shiny materials
- materials that show the passage of time
- materials whose devolution is expressive and attractive
- the form dictated by materials
- asymmetrical or irregular
- artlessness not artistry
- evolves naturally, not forced
- no symbolism
- texture is rough and uneven
- variegated and random
- natural sporadic texture
- disregard for conventional beauty
- beauty in the smallest imperceptible details
- no harsh or strong colours, natural colours favoured
- subdued lighting
- matte, murky, lacking uniformity colours
- no embellishment or ostentation
- unrefined and raw
- use freely available materials
- areas of unused space
- observe physical balances as found in nature
- no formula or regular shapes
- unforced balance
- be sensitive of impermanence
- be humble, sincere, personal


  1. You may have already come across it, but Leonard Koren has a lovely book on wabi sabi (on excellent paper stock)


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