Wabi-sabi

A few weeks ago I blogged about Yugen, a Japanese concept that is difficult to define. Its related to a number of things i’m very interested in; Japanese culture in general, and the idea of concepts and ideals that cannot be easily explained with words.

Yesterday I stumbled upon the grand-daddy of Japanese aesthetics that are hard to define; wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

according to Wikipedia:

Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it “occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West. If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi. [Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

It combines a number of ideas, including decay, rustic aesthetic, simplicity and impermanence. Just like Yugen it proves difficult to put into words and has its origins in Zen Buddhism.

The Green Lantern
Photo owned by Orin Zebest (cc)

As I was trying to find descriptions and definitions to help explain this concept, I came across “In Search of Wabi-Sabi”, a BBC documentary by Marcel Theroux, in which he attempted the very same thing.

Theroux had been interested in wabi-sabi for 10 years and went to Japan in search of its true meaning. On his journey he talks to all walks of Japanese life who all instantly recognise the phrase, but who have different ways of trying to explain it (all with great difficulty)

At one stage, after talking to a Buddhist monk, Theroux says:

“The monks reluctance to define wabi-sabi is an expression of a very Buddhist notion, that language is inadequate when it comes to trying to understand the world. What he is saying is that in a sense I need to stop looking for wabi-sabi definitions and let myself be open instead to wabi-sabi feelings”

The documentary, which is housed in its entirety here, is well worth watching.

Of course, the irony is not lost on me that I am filling up this post with words trying to describe something essentially indescribable (again!) so all i’ll say is, watch the documentary!

Maybe when I get to Japan I too will be able to find some flavour of wabi-sabi. For now, I think I may find it in the rain lightly falling on Smithfield this evening.

“The art of government is to fill that void beyond death with threats of a rather unspecified nature”

I saw Chris Morris’s “Four Lions” last night. Very, very funny film, but also clever, quite moving, and thought-provoking. Don’t want to say too much beyond that, other than “Go see it!”. Its a comedy about Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers, so Morris has to juggle the dual balls of laugh-a-minute comedy, and well, suicide bombing. Although the film is mainly just about the suicide bombers, and the act of suicide bombing with very little in the way of political commentary, it also features a subtle context relating to the states reaction to terrorism. As the sun sets on New Labour’s reign in the UK, the post-mortems are kicking in. One of their legacies, no doubt, will be one of promoting a paranoid, Big Brother-esque nanny state in response, they say, to the threat of terrorism. The death of Jean Charles De Menezes is referenced briefly in “Four Lions” as well as the looming spectre of state surveillance. As I digested all of it this morning, I thought of the following quote:

Alan Watts:

At anytime the world is full of threats, mostly from other people. And there are monsters. There are all sorts of things that scare you, but beyond every monster is death. Dissolution is the end of it all.

And by and large the art of government is to fill that void beyond death with threats of a rather unspecified nature, so that we can rule people by saying if you don’t do as I tell you, i’ll kill you. Or you’ll kill yourself. And so long as we can be scared of that, and so long as we can be made to think of death as a bad thing we can be ruled.

Not sure which lecture this was taken from, I’m getting two books of his transcribed lectures this weekend, I think its in there. I found it via this clip, which is the longer quote set to Godspeed You! Black Emperor…

Frank Chu and the 12 Galaxies

I was reading a post on Laughing Squid about someone who has altered a Banksy mural in San Francisco. This particular alteration pays tribute to a man called Frank Chu, one of San Francisco’s “best known eccentrics”.

Frank has been protesting everyday for the past 15 years in and around San Francisco against various US presidents and something known as “The 12 Galaxies”. These protests also feature his ever-changing placards of varying degrees of nonsense.


Picture credits

And just what is Frank protesting about? According to Wikipedia:

Frank Chu holds Bill Clinton responsible for directing the CIA to withhold payment to him for being the star of something called “The Richest Family” during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. His protests frequently called for the impeachment of Clinton even after Clinton was no longer in office. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama are frequently accused by Chu of cooperating with the 12 Galaxies to commit crimes and treasons.

I also found this great, short documentary about Frank which expands on his theory of Clinton, “The Richest Family” and the 12 Galaxies:

Lunch Inside the 12 Galaxies from Eighty Four Films on Vimeo.

There is something fascinating about this kind of particularly inventive and nonsensical eccentricity.

Frank on Wikipedia.
Frank’s MySpace (including his blog)
12 Things You Probably Don’t Know About Frank Chu
His business card