The Sixth of the ‘Fiue Workes’ of Roche Rock Hermitage Cell

A key aspect of my project is underpinned by the desire to 'return to nature/source/origin as an escape from the cacophony of technologised modern life'. Searching for metaphors to visualise this aspect, I've been researching hermitage cells in Cornwall primarily as weathered relics of human history embedded into the remote natural landscape. Cells, often found in mountainous and cavernous natural terrain, signify a spiritual sanctuary from the modern societies of the day. The other key aspect and impetus underpinning the project is the reflection on the philosophical principles of impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection in wabi-sabi aesthetics (which I have written about here). Wabi-sabi can be visually articulated by traces of what is 'timeworn' and in a state of decay (as something emerging from nothingness or heading to it - inception or subsiding).

Whilst the meaning of wabi-sabi has evolved into a positive meaning of aesthetic values, it is fascinating to think that the original meaning of the word Wabi related heavily to the idea of the hermitage: "Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered an appreciation of minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis of a new pure beauty" (Koren, 1994:22). So, the time-weathered ruins of the places in which people would be able to seek out enlightenment through nature have, over time, inadvertently become visual objects of the very thing they were built, or appropriated, to facilitate.

I came across the spectacular ruins of a local early 15th Century (1409) oratory built into a large granite outcrop in the village of Roche (Roche is the Norman-French word for Rock so it is essentially called Rock-Rock nowadays). The outcrop appears to be the centre of a site long-venerated with pre-historic religious importance - Neolithic pottery and remains have been uncovered in the vicinity and local settlements taking their name from the feature. The chapel, a masterpiece of mediæval engineering, is dedicated to St Michael and is said to have been the abode of a hermit monk named Ogrin or a leper whose daughter would bring him water from the local, and equally mythical, 'bottomless' Gonetta holy well. The Rock has many folktales attached to it, most famously being the hideout of Tristan and Iseult whilst on the run from King Mark (a later version of the story speaks of Tristan’s tragic leap from a chapel window onto some perilous rocks whilst trying to escape from Mark’s soldiers), it is also the refuge of the ghost of the Cornish Bluebeard Jan Tregeagle.

Whilst researching the rock, I found this oddly appropriate description of the rock written (in Olde English) in 1610 by topographer Jon Norden:'In this ragged pyle may be obserued five seueral workes: the firste of nature, whoe, as a mother, begate this stonye substance; nexte of force, whereby the water at the generall floude depryued it of her earth coueringe shelter, leauinge it naked; the therde of arte, which raysed a buylding vpon so cragged a foundation; a fourth, of industrye, in workinge concauitye (concavity) in so obdurate a subjecte; lastly, of deuotion, wherein men, in their then well-wenuinge (well-meaning) zeale, would abandon, as it were, the societye of humane creatures, and undergoe the tedious daylie asceut, and continuance of so cold and so abandoned a place. To this may be added a sixth worke, euen of Time, who, as she is the mother, and begetteth, so is she the destroyer of her begotten chyldren; and nothinge that she bringeth forth is permanent.' - (Norden's 'Description of Cornwall' (1610), quoted in Ancient Crosses, and Other Antiquities in the East of Cornwall, John Thomas Blight (1865:107-108).

The paragraph addresses the key themes of my project: Nature ('as a mother, begat this stone substance; next of force, whereby the water at the general flood deprived it of her earth covering shelter, leaving it naked'), art ('which raised a building upon so cragged a foundation'), the abandonment of society to submit and fuse with nature (of devotion, wherein men, in their then well-meaning zeale, would abandon, as it were, the society of humane creatures) and impermanence in connection to nature and time ('Time, who, as she is the mother, and begetteth, so is she the destroyer of her begotten children; and nothing that she bringeth forth is permanent'.).

I would like to think I will be able to incorporate this text into my work somehow. I am also really interested in the old illustrations of iconic historic landmarks that are found in old publications such as this and am thinking about how I can abstract these too. The books are so rare and expensive to buy but it is possible I could print the scans I have found and re-photograph sections. I will make a visit to the Royal Cornwall Museum and see what other relevant texts can be unearthed.

Blight, J.T. (1858) Ancient Crosses and Other Antiquities in the East of Cornwall. London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co. Dublin: Hodges & Smith. Penzance: F.T Vibert.

Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.


Proposal: The Interminable Chain of Being (working title)

Fig.1: Rosemary Lewsie, 1999. Tregarrick Tor Menhir.

I am proposing to make an ongoing work informed by derivatives of the Three Marks of Existence: impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness. In an ontological collision of nature, history and myth, I am proposing to approximate the intangible forging of a metaphysical kinship with the rugged elements of the ancient Cornish land and seascapes - a mysterious land that holds traces of animism from a lost time when nature was honoured, brutal and raw as opposed to aestheticised, tamed and exploited. The work is underpinned by a personal quest for a necessary fusion with nature, to escape the cacophony of technologised input and seek out qualities of the world that are found in lessons learned from nature. It is in traces of the subtle flow of time and acceptance of impermanence, imperfection and incompleteness that beauty emanates from the interminable chain of being.

Image Reference
Fig.1: Rosemary Lewsie, 1999. Tregarrick Tor Menhir. In Payne, R. (1999) The Romance of the Stones: Cornwall's Pagan Past. Fowey Rare Books.


Return to the Source, in Approximation and Essence

In his essay introducing Masao Yamamoto's Small Things in Silence monograph, Jacobo Sireula says that his photos express “That original, natural state of being that transports our deepest imagination to the lost world from which we were torn centuries ago, whose reality still awakens in us a strange and vague unconscious desire to go back to the origin - the return to ourselves.” (Siruela in Yamamoto, 2021). This 'transportation to a lost world' reminds me of Jon Cazenave's excellent Galerna project. Whilst wildly differing in aesthetic approach to Yamamoto's work, and approaching his work in direct in relation to a specific place (the Basque country) and ancestral connection, Cazenave's long-form work accumulates to elemental symbols in seeking out a lost world, origins and source.

A statement on Cazenave's site states: '...nature, history and legend come together with unusual force and create a land of myths and magic that I explore through photography. A land where nature is praised in old rites learned from our ancestors. These intangible concepts...create a visual imaginary which serves me to understand the society and the land I live in... Trees, waves, animals and black skies build a symbolic world that I turn into a channel to reach the soul of the Basques, an old soul, the soul of the one who pursues its lost paradise.' Galerna makes me think about my own search for identity and belonging through my landscape. Cazenave's dark, broody, rugged aesthetics resonate with me in eliciting the brutally raw and primordially rugged elements of the Cornish coastline.

We are dealing with the intangible and places, identities and emotions are simply indescribable and unmeasurable. Brad Fruerhelm makes this the central point of his review of Galerna for American Suburb X, stating the importance of distinguishing between 'description' and 'approximation' and that Cazenave recognises in photographic authorship we can only suggestively talk 'around things' rather than claiming to describe them: "its best course of action is to speak about these topics in metaphor as if an attempt at truth will not be tolerated by observers from a secondhand accounting...he has extended the possibility of approximation by decisively thinking through atmosphere and effect allowing the images to 'suggest' and not 'tell' or 'describe'. The images resonate with very little outside knowledge of the place and yet, you cannot read the images as 'what is', but rather 'what could be'." (Fruerhelm, 2021). Representational truths cannot be communicated as if a direct experience, rather we need to speak by way of loose associative proximity, not as an authority. I am most certainly not qualified to speak about and for the peoples and cultures of Cornwall, I can only talk suggestively 'around' my own atmospheric interpretive gestures.

Fruerhelm's assertions add another layer to the mediation of nature; that there is no pure unmediated nature in which to return to is something Nathan Jurgenson alludes to in his future classic The Social Photo (2019). Musing on dualities between the 'real' world and the online world, Jurgenson essentially states there is no distinguishment between the two, that our experiences are, and have always been, mediated through the insistence of documentation: “The reality of an experience and its documentation are not in conflict, and neither precedes the other. Writers like William Cronon long ago showed that the idea, or ideal, of an “untouched” natural nature, is only a myth. Our reality has always been already mediated, augmented, documented, and there’s no access to some state of unmediated purity. The mediation is inseparable from the thing itself.” (Jurgensen, 2019:69).

Reason is almost subordinate to perception, aesthetic obscurantism is important in many respects and some things are best left to the imagination. Outside the realms of 'concerned' and responsible journalistic photography, transparency and ideological clarity in some respects can diminish effectiveness. In respect of wabi-sabi, candour would diminish its elusive and mysterious qualities.

So, there we are, it's impossible to experience something without already being informed of it, we can't inform of something without experiencing it and we can only talk in loose analogous approximations 'around' things as opposed to 'of' them.

Cazenave, Jon (2020). Galerna. EXB/Dalpine 1st Edition. Available at: https://www.dalpine.com/products/galerna-jon-cazenave

Freurhelm, Brad (2021). Jon Cazenave Galerna. America Suburb X, 08.04.21 [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2021/04/jon-cazenave-galerna.html [accessed 29.05.21]

Jurgenson, Nathan (2019) The Social Photo: On Photography and other Social Media. Verso

Yamamoto, Masao. (2020) Introduction by Jacobo Seruila. Small Things in Silence. RM Verlag SL; 1st edition.


Beauty and the Art of Impermanence, Anti-Aesthetics

It has taken a long time for western thinking to get its head around the idea of beauty in decay; I am lucky, I grew up conscious of the post-war beat generation inspired creative youth subcultures such as punk and grunge which espoused and visualised 'anti-aesthetics' as a reaction to ever-increasing saccharine and sanitisation. But these cultures were 'sub' they were not mainstream, frowned upon and treated with disdain. However, the mainstream marketers tapped into these subcultures, sanitised them to the point where they have lost their political meaning and now we have TopShop selling Clash and Nirvana t-shirts.

In Buddhist thought, as opposed to traditional Hellenic western attitudes, there is no duality, and therefore is ambivalent to any distinction between what is beautiful (new, divine, symmetrical, regular) and non-beautiful (old, asymmetrical, irregular, ugly). Jacobo Siruela suggests this is what Rodin was talking about when he claimed ‘in nature, everything is beautiful’ (Gsell, 1910). In a materialistic structure of idealised and cherished eternal youth and wealth, decay is perpetually replaced in our artificial and technologised world, alternatively, the values found in wabi-sabi aesthetics dictate that beauty is coaxed out of ugliness. Natural formation conserves beauty and the closer things come to their state of non-existence, the more exquisite and exceptional they become.

Nature and animals, as existing things, are beautiful in their own right but they do not exist with the knowledge of their beauty and likewise, the same can be said of humans as a species being beautiful in themselves (‘souls do not inhabit nature; they are nature itself’ (Cazenave, 2012), but the consciousness of divided perception of what beauty is sets us apart. As the order of the universe doesn't require beauty, beauty is something other, something mysterious; a feeling, an essence, a perception. Beauty is a subjective idealism living in the human heart and gaze. It is these idealistic human constructs that have led us to operate in dualistic terms - dualisms that distinguish 'flaws' between permanence and impermanence, perfection and imperfection and completeness and incompleteness.

"The beauty of Wabi-Sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any given moment given the proper circumstances, context or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace" (Koren, 1994:51).

Jacobo Siruela's introduction to Masao Yamamoto’s Small Things in Silence (2020) articulates relationships between a return to nature/origin/source and how nature ultimately defines beauty through impermanence. Siruela asks 'But what is nature in its primordial state? Plainly and simply, it is beauty' - and as impermanence is the key defining aspect of nature, we can say that beauty is also defined by impermanence. Siruela refers to beauty being the eternal 'central enigma in art...a yearning, a goal never attained,' which has consequently been almost relegated from modern art. But this unattainability is not singularly to blame for a lack of spiritual value in modern art, it is the demise of spirituality itself in many respects - whilst spirituality is not defined by religion, it is worth noting that religion is in sharp decline (Inglehart, 2020). Nevertheless, beauty is not found in divinity, ‘Beauty can no longer be idealistic; our age is not even in a position to claim such transcendence. We are too prosaic; and not dreamers enough. The sense of beauty cannot return through transcendence but through impermanence.’ (Siruela in Yamamoto, 2020), it is the harmonious natural result and consequence of everything that exists, everything that is being. If the truths of life are found in that which is simply being, then beauty is defined by the interminable chain of being.

In reference to wabi-sabi aesthetics, kintsugi (金継ぎ, 'golden joinery', also known as kintsukuroi 金繕い, 'golden repair'), the ancient art of mending broken ceramics with gold lacquer, serves as a philosophical metaphor for embracing our own 'cracks' and by learning to accept and embrace our flaws we can become stronger and more beautiful because of it. Margaret Lansink has incorporated this practice in her Borders of Nothingness photography project to reflect on the flaws in her broken and now mended relationship with her previously estranged daughter (see fig.1).

Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.
Gsell, Paul. (1910). Rodin on realism. He Interprets the Beauty of Ugliness, (trans. from La Revenue) Boston Evening, 15.03.10.
Yamamoto, Masao. (2020) Small Things in Silence. RM Verlag SL; 1st edition.

Inglehart, Ronald F. (2020) Giving Up On God, The Global Decline of Religion. Foreign Affairs [online] Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/world/2020-08-11/religion-giving-god?utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=lo_flows&utm_campaign=registered_user_welcome&utm_term=email_1&utm_content=20210712 [Accessed: 25.06.21]

Lansink, Margaret (2019) Natsukashii, Borders of Nothingness - On the Mend. Available at: https://margaretlansink.com/Borders-of-Nothingness-On-the-Mend-1


Why Wabi-Sabi? A Necessary Return to Nature

Human survival dictates we are inevitably heading towards a time where nature will exist in the history books and in this respect to 'return to nature' is now more important than ever - surely embracing a return to our nature (our source, our origins) is vital to the modern psyche after being locked up in isolation for well over a year, not to mention that cacophony of modern technologized input and aestheticized materiality so engrained in our lives: "Diversity of the cultural ecology is a desirable state of affairs, especially in opposition to the accelerating trend toward the uniform digitalisation of all sensory experience, wherein an electronic 'reader' stands between and observation, and all manifestation is encoded identically" (Koren, 1994:8)

The unimaginable affluence attained in the West has left something of a spiritual void; a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose. Spirituality seems to equate to religion in the West, or certainly, as I was growing up and any mention of any 'enlightenment' was seen as 'hippy shit', I grew up when marketing was in full effect - it appears to have no intention of subsidence no matter how ethical agencies strive to be. Unattainable capitalist hopes and fantasies are perpetually sold to people by advertisers. Andrew Juniper points out: "It is now the media who have an omnipotent say in how we see ourselves. How scary and undesirable is that? Yet the fact remains we all need meaning in order for our lives to have a sense of purpose, and it is the media and advertisers who hold great sway of our meaning structure. However, without this sense of purpose, we could find ourselves adrift in the sea of indifference and apathy, and this is one of the great dilemmas facing mankind in this age" (Juniper, 2003:147). Juniper goes on to quote Albert Camus, stating that on one side of the coin 'life without a sense of meaning intolerable': "Man is a creature who spends his entire life trying to convince himself that his existence is not absurd" (ibid. p.147), but on the other side of the coin quotes Okakura Tenshin to claim that focussing on the meaning of existence makes us 'heavy and self-important': "How can one be so serious with oneself when the world itself is so ridiculous?" (ibid. p.147). It truly is a dilemma, we can't live in a way where we have no meaning and purpose, but at the same time, the artificial, sanitised, materialistic versions of existence offered up by the media are truly lacking in substance.

Leonard Koren stated that when wabi-sabi first came into his consciousness, he saw it as an appealing antidote to the materialistic advertising media versions of events: "Wabi-Sabi seemed to be a nature-based aesthetic paradigm that restored a measure of sanity and proportion to the art of living. Wabi-sabi resolved my artistic dilemma about how to create beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts. Wabi-sabi - deep, multi-dimensional, elusive - appeared the perfect antidote to the pervasively slick, saccharine corporate style of beauty that was desensitising American society" (Koren, 1994:9). Creativity can breathe, with real substance, by adopting a wabi-sabi attitude. It goes without saying how demand for material goods to meet rising populations seriously impacts our environment and puts pressure on the world's resources.

"...despite the emergence of pop culture, there still lies deep within us an innate longing for arts and environments that will help to put our perceptions back into some sort of perspective. It is through these varied mediums that people...gently remind themselves of their intrinsic fragility and use these sensory cues as a springboard for attaining a more profound sense of themselves., helping to see through the folly that pervades much of daily life. It is the uncompromising touch of death that can put a keener edge on our appreciation of life" (Juniper, 2003:145-146)

"Wabi-Sabi, as a tool for contemplation and a philosophy of life, may now have an unforeseen relevance as an antidote to the rampant unravelling of the very social fabric, which has held men together for so long. Its tenets of modesty and simplicity gently encourage a disciplined overindulgence in the physical world. It gently promotes a life of quiet contemplation and a gentle aesthetic principle that underscores a mediative approach. Wabi-Sabi demotes the role of the intellect and promotes an intuitive feel for life where relationships between people and their environments should be harmonious. By emboldening the spirit to remind itself of its own mortality it can elevate the quality of human life in a world that is fast losing its spirituality" (Juniper, 2003:148).

Artists can possibly resolve the truly dispiriting dilemma of modern society' fabric by returning to a time when art was concerned with when creatives innocently strived to bring an element of spiritual value to their work. Now is a time more than ever to return to nature, what is essential and important for us as a species, as opposed to perpetuating in this is vacuous chasing of what is unattainable. "The sanctuaries of this beauty are not in cities, or in metropolitan museums or galleries; they are concealed in the ever fewer natural spaces of our planet. They are distant, extemporaneous, autonomous, secret models; but of enormous value, because the aesthetic feeling they awaken helps artists and human beings to understand the essence of life. Its original transparency; its mysterious simplicity; its great power of renewal for the future" (Jacobo Siruela in Yamamoto, 2020)

Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.
Juniper, Andrew (2003) Wabi-Sabi: The Japanese Art of Japanese of Impermanence. Tuttle Publishing
Yamamoto, Masao. (2020) Introduction by Jacobo Seruila. Small Things in Silence. RM Verlag SL; 1st edition.


Articulating Fusion with Nature

‘souls do not inhabit nature; they are nature itself’ (Cazenave, 2012).

There is an old Japanese phrase: Kachou Fuugetsu which directly translates to 'Flower, Bird, Wind, Moon' meaning ‘to experience the beauty of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself’ . This ancient philosophical proverb stems from Fuushi Kaden in the 1400s. It is considered to be one of the major concepts in Japanese aesthetics and interrelates with other major aesthetic concepts such as Wabi-Sabi (the beauty of imperfection), 'Shizen' (nature and naturalness) and 'Mono-no-aware' (an empathy towards things).

Thinking about photography in relation to nature, Japanese pictorialism was articulated by the concepts of ‘shizen to no yūgō’ (fusion with nature) and ‘shizen ni jūjun nar’ (submission to nature), which are inherently linked to the themes and structural brevity of Haiku poetry. Fukuhara Shinzō said photography ‘articulated’ visually the emotions or moods triggered by experiencing nature. In 1923, Nakajima Kenkichi said the 'ideal' of photography was a “fusion with nature” (shizen to no yūgō) - this represented a core idea that belonged to this movement and alongside the goal of making visible the artist’s inner feelings lead to Fuchikami Hakuyo’s belief that  ‘the ultimate purpose of the viewing of nature is to discover the emotion of abstracted nature‘.

In essays attempting to articulate Japanese Pictorialism, Fukuhara Shinzō continually referenced shizen ni jūjun nar as an inherent quality of Japanese identity epitomised by the Haiku of Matsuo Bashö (considered Japan’s ‘greatest nature poet’). Fukuhara Shinzō claimed Haiku as the very essence of ‘Japanese-ness’ and enthused photographers ‘must live in Bashö’s heart. Basho’s heart has lived a long time in us, and photographic expression is giving structure in form to a nature poem [in the manner of Bashö]’ (Fraser, 2014:220). By making strong connections between pictorialism and ancient Haiku poetry, Fukuhara essentially defined Japanese Pictorialism as visual Haiku. Fukuhara’s essays also frequently cited a phrase (with unclear origins) – “A poem is a formless picture; a picture is a soundless poem,” to explain ‘(haiku)...had the ability to elicit a strong emotional resonance within the constraints of an abbreviated structure, it made an apt parallel to pictorial photography’ (ibid).

Haiku has a standard form of just seventeen syllables to elicit one simple and evocative verse with a larger appeal, Fukuhara believed Japanese photographers should be striving to achieve this in Pictorialism – “like the beauty cleverly captured in the form of a simple poem formed from three phrases, produced in a haiku state of mind, avoiding complex representation and recreating the impression of the moment, with a motive close to haiku.” (Fraser, 2014:220). The brevity of Haiku could be likened to the essence-based aspects of the modern-day ‘social photo’ - Nathan Jurgenson quoted Scott McCloud when likening the messages in social photos to cartoon speech bubbles by way of ‘amplification through simplification’, (McCloud in Jurgenson, 2019:19).

Whilst differing visually, my work is informed by, and shares, the philosophical articulation of Japanese Pictorialism and its connections to the themes and brevity of Haiku poetry. My photographs of nature share Japanese Pictorialism’s articulation, however, they are ambiguous to the genre because they do not subscribe to its traditional painterly, nebulous and nostalgic material aesthetics. Pictorialists have traditionally manipulated prints with brushes, inks or pigments. Due to the tactile nature of Pictorialism, the chemical processes (Bromoil, Carbon print, Gum bichromate, Oil print, Platinum and Palladium etc.), visible brush strokes, textured papers, monotonality and soft-focus more akin to drawings and paintings as opposed to sharp realism of photography. My approach is to make images that speak philosophically with minimal content and amplify the essence of impermanence.

Cazenave, Jon (2020). Galerna. EXB/Dalpine 1st Edition.

Fraser, Karen, M. 2014. Fukuhara Shinzō and the “Japanese” Pictorial Aesthetic. Review of Japanese Culture and Society, Dec.2014, Vol. 26, Commensurable Distinctions: Intercultural Negotiations of Modern and Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture (Dec. 2014), pp. 209-227.


Photographic Surfaces, Textures and Wabi-Sabi Material Qualities

I've been documenting my understanding of wabi-sabi aesthetics because as referenced in a previous post (here), it could be described as a 'comprehensive aesthetic system' (Koren, 1994:40-41), so it is about the visual and philosophical interrelating aspects; essentially one of the key underpinning themes of my work is impermanence and this can be visualised by the weathered timeworn surfaces of things and as such, at least some of my work will include surfaces and patinas of ancient historical sites in Cornwall.

On surface value, Wabi-Sabi could be associated with the word 'rustic'; the Cambridge dictionary defines rustic as 'simple and often rough in appearance; typical of the countryside'; Webster's defines it as 'artless, simple, unsophisticated with surfaces rough and irregular; other dictionaries use terms such as 'crude', 'uncouth' and 'awkward'. Koren states that wabi-sabi shares similar traits to 'primitive art' (earthy, simple, unpretentious and made of natural materials ) but differs in that wabi-sabi is never used as a representation or symbol (Koren, 1994:21) - wabi-sabi is only ever referential. Things wabi-sabi are made from materials that are subject to the corrosive forces of natural weathering and the pitting and water caused by human hands. "They record the sun, wind, rain, heat and cold in a language of discolouration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shrivelling and cracking. Their nicks, chips, bruises, scars, dents, peeling, and other forms of attrition are a testament to histories of use and misuse. Though things wabi-sabi may be on the point of dematerialisation (or materialisation) - extremely faint, fragile, or desecrated - they still possess an undiminished poise and strength of character" (Koren, 1994:62).

Characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics and principles include that which is asymmetrical, rough, economic, austere and modesty: Irregular: Wabi-Sabi could be seen as the opposite is conventional good taste. In design and mass-production irregularity is penalised and costly. Irregular = human touch and nature of touch as opposed to mechanization. Intimate: Small, compact, quiet, secluded, private, tranquil - 'womb-like'. Unpretentious: Wabi-Sabi is the opposite of 'Look at me and my splendour, I am important'. 'Earthy': rich and raw in texture, course and unrefined - not far from original condition. Craftsmanship may not seemingly be evident. Murky: vague, blurry, attenuated qualities (approaching and coming from nothingness). Simple: 'Nothingness' is core to wabi-sabi and simplicity is ultimate as anything before or after nothing is less simple. (ibid, 1994:62-72). The authenticity of wabi-sabi lays in the minute timeworn details which add depth, expression, appeal and randomness, they can be seen easier as opposed to the obvious flaws and imperfections in something intentional made to appear as balanced and flawless, as per post-industrial modernism.

So whilst the content of some of my photos will be of actual surfaces, the surface of the actual photograph is also important to think about in relation to the suggestive instruction it gives to the audience in how to read it. John Berger reminds us that photographs are made 'things' and brings attention to the ever-shifting contexts and meanings of photographs: “An image is a sight that has been recreated or reproduced. It is an appearance, or a set of appearances, which has been detached from the place and time in which it first made its appearance and preserved –for a few moments or a few centuries.” (Berger, 1972:9-10). Similar to paintings, photographs result in choices made by a photographer such as the subject matter; what is included and excluded by the frame; the aesthetic sensibilities and accompanying technical decisions being made, or as Stephen Shore put it: "The context in which a photograph is seen effects the meaníngs a viewer draws írom it. These chosen physical and chemical attributes form the boundaries that circumscribe the nature of the photograph. These attributes impress themselves upon the photographic image." (Shore, 1998:15-16).

Shore's The Nature of Photographs (1998) focuses on the photograph itself, as an object (as opposed to the actual nature of photographs or the ways in which they are used), to generate a list of characteristics which he calls ‘levels’, that is – The 'Mental', 'Physical' and 'Depictive'. In relation to the Physical level, the actual appearance of the photographic object, Shore wrote: "The composition of the film emulsion, the chemistry of the film and print developers, and the nature of the right source from which the print was made also determine the way shadows, mid-tones, and highlights are described by the print; they determine how many shades of grey the print contains and whether these tones are compressed or separated." (ibid, 1998:24). It is this physical level that I was referring to in a previous post (here) where I stated to Laura Hynd that I wanted to add something to the physicality of my printmaking by way of showing 'traces of nature' and the 'fleetingness of time', albeit two seemingly different things, by possibly burying the prints or leaving them submerged in the ocean, whatever might be appropriate, but I am starting to think more about the tonality of the images as opposed to adding extra layers outside of the darkroom - my thinking is that it might an overkill and maybe just doing this for the sake of it. The image will depict impermanence through timeworn patina's, do I really need to add anything to that?

Berger, John (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin
Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.
Shore, Stephen (1998) The Nature of Photographs. London: Phaidon.


Wabi-Sabi v’s Modernism & A Note on Blurring ‘East’ and ‘West’ Polarity

First off, I think it's important to state that any mention of 'eastern' and 'western' cultures is purely in reference to traditional polarization and simply serves as a generalised convenience rather than a modern demarcation - these terms should only be used in as such in contemporary thought. We live in a global society and distinctions between the two are more or less outmoded, particularly in reference to the post-war Americanisation of many Asian countries.

Wabi-Sabi is an expressive way of life, but it is by no means exclusive to Japan, its sentiments are shared by humans regardless of geography and cultural boundaries. In relation to aesthetics alone, Wabi-Sabi has influenced the way beauty (beauty being the central enigma in art) is perceived in the East as much as classical Grecian culture in the West. Beauty as serene without added grandeur and the resonance of melancholic expression, artistic or otherwise, are universal sensibility albeit to varying degrees in different cultures.

"'Greatness' exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-Sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of beauty as something monumental, spectacular and enduring. Wabi-Sabi is not found in nature at the moment of bloom or lushness, but at the moment of inception or subsiding. Wabi-Sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees or bold landscapes. Wabi-Sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to the vulgar eye" (Koren, 1994:50)

In relation to an international post-industrialist generalised Modernism, the dominant aesthetic standard since the mid-20th century, Leonard Koren points out there are a few similarities between the two: 'both apply to all manner of manmade objects, spaces and designs; both are strong reactions against the dominant established sensibilities of their time (modernism against 19th-century classicism and eclecticism, wabi-sabi against the Chinese perfection and gorgeousness of 16th century); both eschew any decoration that is not integral to structure, both are abstract, nonrepresentational ideals of beauty, and both have readily identifiable surface characteristics (modernism being seamless, smooth and polished, wabi-sabi being earthy, irregular and variegated)' (Koren, 1994:25-29). Koren goes on to make a list of comparative differences between Modernism and Wabi-Sabi:

Primarily Expressed in the public domainPrimarily Expressed in the private domain
Logical rational worldviewIntuitive worldview
Seeks universal prototypical solutionsSeeks personal idiosyncratic solution
Mass-produced / ModularOne-of-a-kind / Variable
Expresses faith in progressThere is no progress
Believes in control of natureBelieves in fundamental uncontrollability of nature
Romanticises technologyRomantisices nature
People adapting to machinesPeople adapting to nature
Geometric organisation of formOrganic organisation of form
The box as metaphorThe bowl as metaphor
Manmade materialsNatural materials
Ostensibly slickOstensibly crude
Needs to be maintainedAccommodates degradation and attrition
Purity makes expression richerCorrosion and contamination makes expression richer
Solicits reduction of sensory informationSolicits the expansion of sensory information
Intolerant of ambiguity and contradictionComfortable with ambiguity and contradiction
Generally light and brightGenerally dark and dim
Function and utility are primary valuesFunction and utility are not so important
Perfect materiality is an idealPerfect immateriality is an ideal
EverlastingTo everything there is a season
(Koren, 1994:26-29)

In the West, there is an undeniable tendency to avoid ... speculation about our inevitable passing, yet the sentiments impermanence and appreciation of things wabi-sabi have found voice in many of the world's artistic expressions. People are often drawn to the melancholy suggested by things wabi-sabi without really questioning why...

"Where the Japanese people may have differed in the past is in the completeness of their devotion to all arts that embody the essential reference point of impermanence. Through their earnest endeavours in matters of the spirit, they have managed their artforms so that they are worthy reflections of the mystery that we know as life. Their dedication to paring away all that is necessary, of reaching the real heart of the matter..." (Juniper, 2003:147)

Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.
Juniper, Andrew (2003) Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Japanese of Impermanence. Tuttle Publishing


Wabi-Sabi (侘寂) Principles and Precepts – by ‘Western’ Standard Definition

Trying to rationalise and articulate wabi-sabi appears largely been avoided because it is fundamentally dealing in terms of emotional experience and the essence of things. By trying to explain Wabi-Sabi in writing almost goes against the very idea of wabi-sabi; If all things are incomplete, how can they be fully documented and, likewise, if all things are imperfect?; if all things are impermanent, how will the documentation unfold over time? Obscurantism is a defining feature of wabi-sabi and it almost relies on mystery to uphold its elusive 'specialness'. Western authors of wabi-sabi often state that the concept seems intentionally avoided in Japanese discourse because of its obfuscation: 'the concept is so full of thorny issues for the Japanese intellectual' (Koren, 1994:10). As an emotive concept, of course, it is inarticulable. I do not speak Japanese but from everything I understand, the conventions of the language is better at conveying subtleties in emotion and less so at rationalising by comparison to the western dialect. There is a direct correlation to art and photography here in so far as essences are approximated as opposed to facts truthfully told.

There are however standard definitions that scratch the surface. We can say that wabi-sabi is a traditional Japanese cultural aesthetic born from a world view centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Wabi-Sabi is peripherally associated with Zen Buddhism as a derivative from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), most notably 'impermanence' (無常, mujō), 'suffering' (苦, ku) and 'emptiness' or 'absence of self-nature (空, ). It is an aesthetic that speaks of accepting and appreciating the "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" flows of existence found in nature. "Wabi-Sabi is an intuitive appreciation of transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things." (Juniper, 2003:51)

Impermanence (無常, mujō): All things are impermanent and are heading towards 'nothingness', be that tangible (rocks, planets and stars) or intangible (reputation, heritage, memory, cultures, theory, language), analogue or digital form, will eventually fade into nonexistence. Does a photograph make something permanent? Does a negative deteriorate or even a platinum print eventually fade? What of a digital file saved in a format that will inevitably become obsolete and unreadable? Does the image cease to exist in the making of a copy to a new format?

Imperfection: Nothing in existence is perfect, or rather, nothing exists without imperfection. Even the most seemingly perfect straight edge will have flaws when magnified. Over time, everything becomes more irregular and flawed. Is there a perfect photograph? In whose eyes is it perfect?

Incompleteness: All things in our universe, including the universe itself, are in an undeniable state of deterioration, nothing is ever finished not complete. At what point is a wave or a tree complete? Is a photograph finished when it is taken? or does it take on new meaning as soon as it is taken and distributed to myriad different subjective audiences?

In Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994), Leonard Koren attempts to lay out Wabi-Sabi as a referential 'comprehensive aesthetic system'. The table below is a breakdown of the key interrelating aspects:

Metaphysics:All things are either evolving from, or devolving towards, 'nothingness'. While the universe constructs, it also destruct. New things emerge out of 'nothingness', which, opposed to the traditional western thought that nothingness is an empty space, in Wabi-Sabi it is a place alive with possibility. The universe is in constant motion towards or away from potential.
Spiritually Values:Truth comes from the observation of nature, 'greatness' exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details, beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.
State of Mind:Acceptance of the inevitable. Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life. Appreciation of the cosmic order - Wabi-Sabi suggests the subtlest realms and all the mechanics and dynamics of existence, beyond what our ordinary sense can perceive. Primordial forces are evoked in a similar way that medieval cathedrals were constructed to emotionally convey their respective cosmic themes.
Moral Precepts:Do away with all that is unnecessary, stop preoccupation with success, wealth, power and luxury. focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy.
'Material Poverty' / 'Spiritual Richness'.
Material Qualities:The suggestion of the natural process, irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, murky, simple. The materials that things Wabi-Sabi are made elicit transcendent emotions to represent deep underlying physical forces and structure of everyday life.
The Wabi-Sabi Universe, Koren (1994:40-41).

There is no direct translation of "wabi" and "sabi"; and their original meanings have evolved over time like all cultures and languages. The original meaning of the word Wabi related to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society: "Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered an appreciation of minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis of a new pure beauty" (Koren, 1994:22). Over time, Wabi has come to refer more to the simple, understated and quiet (and the uniqueness of the minute flaws and anomalies that come in the process of production) found in both natural and man-made objects. 'Sabi' originally meant "chill", "lean" or "withered" and over time has come to refer to the serene beauty found in the 'timeworn' - the history of an object, or person, visible in its timeworn surfaces (faded, cracked, repaired patinas, the wrinkled skin warts and all). The two words together ‘wabi-sabi’ come to mean embracing and aesthetic appreciation of ageing, flaws, and the beauty of the undeniable effects of time and imperfections.

Wabi (refers to)Sabi (refers to)
A way of life, a spiritual pathMaterial objects
The inward, the subjectiveThe outward, the objective
A philosophical constructAn aesthetic ideal
Spatial EventsTemporal Events
The Wabi and Sabi Charateristics, Koren (1994:23).

Koren, Leonard (1994) Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. California: Imperfect Publishing.
Juniper, Andrew (2003) Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Japanese of Impermanence. Tuttle Publishing


1st Meeting with Laura Hynd

I had a video chat with Laura Hynd today about my project intentions and, vague as they are, I was encouraged that they appear to make sense to someone other than myself. The content of the work is about connection to my new home - the ancient Cornish landscape. Cornwall has a rich mystical history, it is a land of many myths, legends and folklore, and it is also home to countless Neolithic and stone age historical sites). I am thinking about the visualising of a metaphysical connection by focusing on metaphors that speak philosophically about the three principles in wabi-sabi (impermanence, incompleteness, imperfection) which derive from the Buddhist concepts of Three Marks of Existence. The work is underpinned by the idea of a 'fusion with nature'/'return to the source'.

Through Animism, there are parallels between eastern nature-based spiritualism (Buddhism, Shinto, Tao) and Paganism embedded in Cornish history, nature and myth. I explained to Laura that I would ideally like to find a Pagan reference, be that through rites or rituals or mythical tales, which essentially serve to fable the concept of impermanence. I am thinking about Laura Pannack's ‘Youth Without Age, Life Without Death’ (2016) project and Tito Mouraz's 'House of the Seven Women' (2016) in respect of fictional narratives. I will continue to research this but it is more likely the work will start by focusing on timeworn surfaces of ancient monuments and relics, through which the three principles in wabi-sabi can be visually articulated.

I have approximately 6 months before I will need to submit this work for assessment and whilst I will be making something of a roadmap in the next week or so, it was agreed I should spend the next month or so researching ideas but also thinking about the physicality of the output. I explained that I wanted to add something to the physicality of my printmaking by way of showing 'traces of nature' and the 'fleetingness of time', albeit two seemingly different things. I noticed Odette England recently posted a print (fig.1) she had buried and dug up and a few years later which essentially binds the two very well. Laura suggested a few other artists who use the natural elements in their printmaking; Susan Derges' water and moonlight camera-less prints being most relevant. I don't really envisage the main body of my work being made my 'alternative' methods but I do want to approach at least a few prints unconventionally.

Image Reference
Fig.1: Odette England, 2021. Print buried 2018, dug up 2021. (36x48") Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CPs0r0clE2v/ [accessed 04.06.21]


Small Things in Silence, the Interminable Chain of Being

The pandemic afforded me a few possibilities; aside from confirming that even the best-laid plans will mostly change without there being any say in it, I used the time to embark on an MA degree (in something of a last-ditch attempt to re-engage with photography) and it is has been a time to reflect on more fundamental aspects of life. Over the past half-decade, coinciding with (cliched?) mid-life-meltdown (that privileged, irresponsible desire to escape the constant modern cacophony of technologized life and disappear off into nature), I've become concerned with exploring my sense of disconnect and seek out a wider sense of purpose and belonging. For the most part of my adult life, the only constant has been photography. I love the short autobiographical text by Masao Yamamoto in Small Things in Silence (2020) - "I was unsure about my niche in this universe, my 'place' in this existence; and I needed to believe in art in order to keep living".

By 2015, I had fallen out with photography, fallen out with life in England, sold everything I owned and moved to Vietnam. During a brief visit back to the UK, the lockdown was imposed and I've not been able to return - at times I've really struggled with the uncertainty and frustration of being stuck between different mental and physical places. Millions of people have far wider challenges than me and it has really been drummed home that life is simply far too ephemeral and impermanent to not accept, embrace and flow with it - as Bruce Lee said: "be like water".

Through long term admiration and learning about the spiritual and nature-based philosophies behind Masao Yamamoto's work, I started to learn about wabi-sabi - the Japanese derivative of the ancient Buddhist concept of the Three Marks of Existence which is, essentially, about the acceptance, embracing snd ultimately seeing beauty in impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection. These three interrelating principles will underpin the work I want to create. The introductory text to Small Things in Silence (Yamamoto, 2020) by Jacobo Siruela resonates strongly in its articulation of how it is only through impermanence and the ambivalence between what is beautiful (or desirable) and non-beautiful (non-desirable), that beauty (that central enigma of art - 'the goal never attained') emanates from the interminable chain of being. Impermanence and fluidity in nature represent beauty as the opposite of our artificial technologized world.

A bitter-sweet turn of events finds myself lucky enough to live in Cornwall surrounded by ancient rugged land and oceans, with which I feel an affinity. I am just starting the FMP (final major project) of my MA and it's this backstory of the desire to immerse myself in nature, make connections with my 'new' home and the philosophical reflection on the principles of impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection that serves as the impetus for the new work I want to make. Surely now more than ever embracing a return to our sources and origins in nature is vital to the modern psyche after being locked up in isolation for well over a year, not to mention that cacophony of modern technologized input and aestheticized materiality so engrained in our lives.

Yamamoto, Masao. (2020) Small Things in Silence. RM Verlag SL; 1st edition.

2021 © Nic Shonfeld