November 5, 2011

Approaching Unfinished

I won't pretend to know much about ikebana beyond the basics. The Japanese art of flower arranging speaks to me in form and style, even though I have never practiced it, nor studied its history in any depth.


But from my first encounter with this artistic practice, it captured my attention. I instantly found it favorable to its Western counterpart. When I think of flower arranging in a culturally generalized way, the US style seems to historically favor overstuffing a vase with flowers of either uniform or perfectly staggered height, striving for a sort of perfection in terms of color coordination and matchiness, sometimes with a gaudy ribbon and extra fluff thrown in the mix to "fill it out."

This parallels a generalized Western attitude toward style and trends. Coordination, accessorizing, and neatness are the rule. "Finish the look!" Lack of jewelry, makeup, or other "finishing touches" and one risks an unfinished look, something we are constantly told is an actual, material risk in most aspects of social life.

Ikebana is about the value of the empty space, the place of the void. It is about a studied intimacy with and respect for the non-human world. It is about meditating on nature in its imperfections. It seems to me that the traditional Western style arrangement reflects a desire to master and perfect nature, and then to domesticate only its most beautiful elements in a voluptuous display.


Ikebana came to mind instantly when I read the following quotes, from The Talks interview with Yohji Yamamoto:

(Note how he immediately moves to correct the loadedness of this question about cultural determinations and differences.)
How are your designs connected to your Japanese heritage?
Think of the association with Japan as an exotic exchange. It is fun. Japanese people, or Asian people, like European aesthetics and European people love Asian sensibilities. So as an exchange of senses it is all right. In that way I agree 100 percent. But when a paper writes about me, they start with “the Japanese designer…” We have to find a new vocabulary. I understand why European people take my creations as very Japanese. It is probably because if you see a creation as a whole, as 100 percent, I will always try to finish before arriving at 100. This five, seven, or ten percent we call empty or in between or uncompleted in Japanese.
Can you give me an example?
It’s when you go to shut a window or door and leave a space. We need this space, so I design space. Space has always been very important in Japanese traditional art of every genre – like painting, sculpting, or theatrical expression. The space of expression is even more important than the visual or written.

The empty space and the unfinished are extremely attractive concepts to me. Never the perfectionist, I want to move toward my own idea of mastering a meditative, reflective, aware, and comfortably balanced "style" in my life.

To be unfinished, contrary to the "advice" of the beauty magazines I should really stop reading, does not necessarily mean to be sloppy, lazy, or unaware. I am consciously embracing my lack of polish. I do not complete my style 100 percent. And yet I take time in every step of the process, from choosing the garments, to arranging them on my body, to taking away when there is one element too many, to piling on misshapen volumes on days when I need the protection. I like to untuck, or roll up, layer or leave undone in ways someone, somewhere, once told me I shouldn't.

The empty spaces where there could be an earring, curled lashes, stacked bracelets, or the right bag are voids of my conscious determination. I am more interested in the line, the space between folds, and especially the intimate space of contact in between the inner lining of the garment and my own skin.

 I plan in all aspects of my life to always be approaching something, never fully arriving. This is more satisfying, more true, than brief moments of false perfection.

I see it like this: you can stuff all your flowers into the nicest crystal vase, choosing only the most perfect and expensive specimens, and you can marvel at the perfection that you created based on a mandate of beauty that excludes the humble and imperfect in nature. And you can celebrate this creation, taking credit for its loveliness. But it will still betray you. It will decay. Or, you can accept the humble and the strange, and cultivate a closeness with the real, knowing that it might not always be considered beautiful. Its value will come from the knowledge you gained in the process of its shaping.


Helmi said...

I loved this.
My father used to say that he prefers leaving gaps when painting to let the picture breathe.
I'm going to come back to your post many times.

Michael said...

This post has so inspired me.

What a fantastic piece of writing. I marvel at you, boo.

tea and cactus said...

what a beautiful read, thank you.

gerald said...

This is so beautiful. You continue to inspire with your insights.

Claudette said...

Oh man, Susie. This hits home. I've had this 'personal battle against fine taste' because I am increasingly disenchanted with what is usually associated with that. Voids are good. I've never had the right term for my conundrum. It makes sense now that what I really look for (or am drawn to) is a little space between things, negative space. Without it, we are without scale, just perfectly tended blobs without a beginning or an end. Negative space enchors us lightly in our own individual context. It leaves room for something other, but knowing that I don't really want that something is the essence of my pursuit.

Thank you for this. Truly fantastic!

Alice /// VESTIGIAL WINGS said...

love this, totally agree. not every outfit needs to be "finished" with jewelry or extra unnecessary elements.

BioBebop said...

This is great. I read this a few days ago, and I was a little skeptical of Yohji's statement that the void comes before the end of designing, sort of aphoristically finishing before finishing. Rather, I normally would think that the void is realized as an intuitive part at every stage of the process or consciously subtracting at the end à la Coco Chanel.
Coincidentally, I saw the movie "Dolls" by Takeshi Kitano this past week. The credits weren't translated, but I had a suspicion that the amazing costumes were designed by Yohji. It turns out they were, but what is really amazing is that Kitano gave Yohji full reign to design independent of the film production until actual filming started, something that would probably never happen in a Western feature. The disjunction of the bright clothing and the exasperated tone of the movie creates a novel gestalt.

Kitano on working with Yamamoto:

For DOLLS, I gave him creative freedom in terms of costumes, almost as if he were making his own fashion show in the film. Strange as it may sound, I basically let Yohji decide without any indications or discussions.
At the first costume fitting session, Yohji showed us the fall costumes for the bound beggars. Miho, the leading actress, was wearing a red dress, which looked as far as it could get for beggars to wear in real life! When I saw it, I almost fell down to the floor! Yohji asked me, "what do you think?" and I thought to myself, "what the hell am I supposed to think? What are we going do with this?" I literally panicked momentarily. But after a while, I calmed down and decided, "okay, their costumes do not have to be realistic, because it's a 'human puppets' story." With hindsight, that was a critical point in the course of the production of DOLLS, because it was the moment I consolidated the concept of the film.
So I just accepted them as they were and the rest depended on how we, the crew, would use them. we were faced with a reversal of the normal process. Normally, costumes are made in such ways that they match the film. At certain points, we had to make adjustments to locations and continuity to match the costumes.