There is a Romantic belief that we each settle naturally on a fitting idea of beauty. But it seems that our visual and emotional faculties in fact need constant external guidance to help them decide what they should take note of and appreciate. ‘Culture’ is the word we have assigned to the force that assists us in identifying which of our many sensations we should focus on and apportion value to.
In the West, since classical times, the concept of beauty has been dominated by the “art” of mathematics. The circle was the simplest, and therefore most perfect, shape. Perfect beauty is to be found in precision, geometric perfection, and harmony. Straight lines and symmetry dominated classical architecture, and today this aesthetic influences modern design around the world, where inorganic materials try to defy the natural ageing effects of time as part of our ceaseless battle against nature.
In the East, the Chinese dynasties saw perfect beauty in things that were “gorgeous”; ornate and refined grandeur, gold leaf and polished stone.
These cultural differences in aesthetics were not brought about by climate or genetics, but are the result of the actions of writers, musicians, painters, and theorists, who actively shaped the sense of beauty of their nation. Today, having been exposed to cultures from around the world, we get to choose what we see as beautiful.
My early work was at first based on simple, clean lines and forms, it was what one might call “minimalist”. But this never felt truly satisfying. I loved abstraction and elegant simplicity, but why did I love trees more than concrete, wood more than plastic, the ancient more than the modern? What was it about a rusty old gate that I found so beautiful?
During my travels and training in Asia, I finally found a name for the beauty that touches my heart most deeply: wabi-sabi.
The ancient Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi is a world view that embraces transience and imperfection, seeking beauty in things that are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. It is based on the seven Japanese aesthetic principles; Kanso (simplicity), Fukinsei (asymmetry), Shibui (understated), Shizen (naturalness), Yugen (profundity), Datsuzoku (freedom), and Seijaku (tranquillity):
Kanso (簡素) Simplicity or the elimination of clutter. The best things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner. Nothing extraneous, nothing frilly. I try to think not in terms of decoration, but in terms of clarity – a clarity that can be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.
Fukinsei (不均整) Asymmetry or irregularity. The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso (“Zen circle”) in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence. In my work I use asymmetrical balance as a dynamic, beautiful thing. Nature itself is full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are asymmetrical yet balanced. This is a dynamic beauty that attracts and engages.
Shibui/Shibumi (渋味) Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple without being flashy. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. Here, I try to follow the advice of Leonard Koren: “Pare down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry.”
Shizen (自然) Naturalness. Absence of pretence or artificiality, unforced creative intent. The spontaneous nature of the Japanese garden that the viewer perceives is not accidental. This is a reminder that design is not an accident, even when we are trying to create a natural-feeling environment. It is not raw nature, it has more purpose and intention than that, but it should never feel forced.
Yugen (幽玄) Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example, can be said to be a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. In my work, I am always thinking of ways to visually imply more by not showing the whole.
Datsuzoku (脱俗) Freedom from habit or formula. Escape from daily routine or the ordinary. Unworldly. Transcending the conventional. This principle describes the feeling of surprise when one realizes they can have freedom from the conventional.
Seijaku (静寂) Tranquillity or an energized calm, stillness, solitude. This is related to the feeling you may have when in a Japanese garden. The opposite feeling to one expressed by seijaku would be noise and disturbance. This is how I feel at the temples of Angkor, and I try to express a feeling of “active calm” and stillness in my work.
In large part I love the ancient temples of Angkor because they are imperfect. They are made more beautiful by tides of time which have imprinted the passing of the years on them. The physical decay and natural wear and tear of the stone does not in the least detract from their visual appeal, but rather adds to it.
This beauty is not limited to the process of decay, but can also be found at the moment of inception. Everywhere one looks in Angkor, new life is clinging to the stone, taking its first fragile steps toward becoming.
It is the changes of texture and colour that provide the space for the imagination to enter and become more involved with the place. I take joy from them and seek to use this transformation as an integral part of my work.
In reality there is nothing in the universe which is completely perfect or completely still; it is only in the minds of men that such concepts exist.