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.