Today I begin my first hand exploration of the concept of wabi-sabi. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post I will be photographing something every day through August that evokes the concept on some level. through the process I hope to gain a better understanding of wabi-sabi for my own edification.
I have read the definition, or translation of wabi-sabi many times in my recent research and it seems straight forward enough. However, I have also heard that if you were to ask a Japanese person to tell you what wabi-sabi is they would just look at you and basically be at a loss for words. I have come to think of wabi-sabi as something that is only understood when experienced. Like tasting something, you can describe the taste to someone else but they can only truly understand it by tasting it for their self.
So let me share with you a basic definition and why I think this photograph depicts wabi-sabi. The word is actually two words, wabi which connotes solitude, loneliness, quietness and simplicity and sabi which means the beauty or serenity that comes with age. The combined term has varied in meaning over time but generally is used to describe a scene or object that instills in one a profound sense of beauty derived from a realization of impermanence. For example cherry blossoms past their peak that are torn from the tree by a spring breeze. The scene instills a sense of splendor in a shower of petals, yet the viewer understands that the blossoms have run their course perhaps evoking a slight sorrow. The combination of emotions is powerful and profound and reminds us of both the joys and limitations (impermanence) of all existence.
I believe this photo of my faithful welcome mat evokes a sense of wabi-sabi. The literal message it conveys is warm and inviting. At one time the message and cheerful colors announced themselves vividly and clearly. Now we see that these features have faded and worn from use and time. A person viewing the mat might wonder how long it has been there? How many people have stood over it waiting for the door to be opened? How many have crossed to enter the open door? How much longer will the mat last? These thoughts and questions culminate and leave the viewer with “a feeling”. It might be happy, it might be sad, it might be something else. Whatever the feeling, the viewer was given pause by the image of the mat. This is wabi-sabi.