Consider the Japanese concept of ‘wabi-sabi’.
“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of imperfect, impermanent and incomplete” (Koren, p. 7) is the usual definition of the Japanese aesthetic arising from the ancient tea ceremonies.
After reading Koren’s little book, my understanding of wabi-sabi is that it is as much about the viewer as the object being viewed. It is the appreciation of nature and objects hewn from simple, natural materials throughout their life-cycle. To recognise wabi-sabi, the viewer must quieten and look deeply, in a meditative manner; in this way it is a state of mind. Wabi-sabi is the perception of beauty, and the beauty itself.
For instance, a piece of dry earth, may ostensibly be considered ugly. However, if I take the time to look for its beauty, to focus in, I will see the intricate lines of cracked earth, the way the sun plays on the rough texture, hundreds of hues. Wabi-sabi is seeing and appreciating this ephemeral beauty. Philosophically, this appreciation leads us to contemplate our own transience.
My favourite quote from the book was “Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the circumstances, context or point of view. Beauty is thus a altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace (p. 51).
Drawing and handling the archive items allows the experience of wabi-sabi. It is in their delicate fragility, the stains and patina of age and history, in the details: holes left by stitches made a century ago, gentle fraying and sheen, the utilitarian hand stitches that attach a fastener. One of my favourite drawings of the archive items is a rendition of the voile weave and the holes left by silverfish:
This careful study was an experience of wabi-sabi.
Koren, L. (1994). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers,
Stonebridge Press: Berkeley, California