I RATIONALISE AWAY some of my packrat tendencies by pointing to my gene pool where you would find my mother sitting on a house jammed with treasures discovered at garage sales. I also claim rights to keep old things because of the rationale explained in Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Written by Leonard Koren, wabi-sabi is "the Zen of things." Koren writes how things can be beautiful even when "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete." In other words, wabi-sabi "is a beauty of things unconventional." Dale Dougherty stumbled upon these same words and says wabi originally referred to "the misery of living alone in nature" and sabi meant "lean" or "withered." Over time, Wabi-Sabi came to mean an appreciation of the simple things in life. In Ireland, wabi-sabi would equate to "organic" or maybe even "sustainable."
In Japanese culture, wabi-sabi is wrapped in the mystery and ritual of the tea ceremony. In Ireland, wabi-sabi happens during morning coffee chats. Japanese tea ceremonies traditionally happen in outbuildings--we call them sheds in the West. The ceramic bowls used to serve tea have been passed down as heirlooms. They have lost their polish. Dougherty explains, "the tea ceremony, like a lot of what you see in Japan, is about taking something that we do regularly and making it into an art form, a deeply considered experience. It's the difference between eating fast food on the run and enjoying a satisfying meal in the company of family and friends."
In the MAVIS programme (Studio Six, Temple Bar), wabi-sabi has been used as performance art. When I participated in tea and biscuits (the Irish version of wabi-sabi practised in Studio Six), I took value from the way the food was served, how the table was set and the atmosphere of the event. Those features elevated the fixture. What would have been a simple hand-out of food and fluid was actually part of an aesthetic experience.
People hand down things from generations and they treasure those hand-me-downs. I have hours of music that friends and family gave me. Dissecting the legal issue from those gifts, I consider the free exchange of music to be part of my free culture. The music now playing in my earbuds (Supertramp from an airlift contoller's collection in the 80s) helped me through stress and gave me an appreciation of the British music scene long before I heard Supertramp busking in the Tube under London. Bob Dylan, in his book Chronicles, Volume One, describes his music as "handed-down songs" that later became his kind of unique sound.
Hand-me down sounds, family heirlooms and boxes of things from our past contain the spirit of wabi-sabi. I can get better music but I prefer the stretched-out sounds of Supertramp and Pink Floyd in my personal collection. I can buy slicker products from the High Street--like a newer iPod--but I like the comfortable feel of my older model. In a world that promotes "newer is better," my philosophy might seem old-fashioned in the eyes of my twentysomething students.
Nothing is perfect in our world. But slick, corporate, and trendy styles of beauty often seem dehumanised to me. I prefer the wabi-sabi experience in which I identify things that are truly authentic, based on my valules and seasoned with my memories. Dougherty says, "when something becomes your favourite, you don't want to replace it with something new. The things we make are more authentic than the things we buy."
We are making the interior of a home in Ireland. Our limitations of experience are well and truly part of that tactile experience. As Finnish crafter Ulla-Maaria Mutanen writes in the "Manifesto" of Make:04, "If you make something yourself, you see part of yourself in that object. This is not possible in purchased products." Making our house our home has become as meaningful as the Japanese tea ceremony. It's our personal bit of wabi-sabi.
Dale Dougherty -- "Tea Leaves"
Flickr photostream of the house project.